CHAPTER 1 - Brief Encounter
“Don’t even think about it, Ash!” Brad Palmer told the man beside him. They were sitting in the lounge of the Rutland Hotel across from Princes Street, Edinburgh. It was a Thursday evening, but the bar was almost as busy as it normally was on Friday evenings. The two men often visited the Rutland when they happened to be in Edinburgh at the same time. From their seat next to one of the large windows they had a good view of passers-by outside in the street, most of them huddling into their coats against the cold winter air. They also had an excellent view of the diverse, young-ish crowd within the lounge bar, enjoying the music and a few drinks. Brad was sipping his beer slowly and thoughtfully. The soft lighting in the lounge wasn’t too subdued; he could see everyone in the room clearly, and Ash was gazing across at two rather attractive young women. Brad had seen that look in his eyes many times before.
“Chill out, Brad, I’m just looking,” Ashley replied absent-mindedly.
“Yeah, right,” Brad muttered sceptically. He wasn’t swallowing that for a second.
The two young women in question, Joanna and Stephanie, stood out from the crowd because of their looks. They were both in their twenties and slim, with long, straight hair. Steph had the fairer colouring of the two, but both had pretty faces and, as was obvious from the way they were chatting to each other, were close friends. They were having a lively discussion. They had arrived some time ago to have just one drink and were still sitting nursing the dregs. They didn’t want to leave but couldn’t really afford to have another drink, as payday was still a few days away.
“I don’t understand Geoff’s problem, Steph, said Jo, shaking her head in annoyance. “The two of you are very well suited and it’s not as if you’ve ever given him any cause to be jealous, so why is he worried? It doesn’t make much sense, does it?”
“I know, Jo, but it’s just the way he is,” answered Steph defensively, shrugging her shoulders and fiddling with the straw in her drink. “I don’t see any point in antagonising him when I know he feels like that. But sometimes I tell him a fib so that he doesn’t worry, and then I feel bad about lying and he picks up on that and thinks I’ve got a guilty conscience because I’m thinking about someone else! I can’t win, can I?”
“Well, I wouldn’t put up with it, that’s for sure,” stated Jo flatly. “He’ll just get worse the more you pander to him."
Steph sighed irritably.
“I’m not pandering to him, Jo. He’s my husband. I’m just trying to keep the peace. I hate arguments. And then there’s the girls – I have to think about them, too. I don’t want them living in a bad atmosphere and listening to rows all the time. You say you wouldn’t put up with it, but that’s easy to say. You don’t know what you would put up with in the same situation.”
Jo wasn’t really paying much attention to the conversation. She’d noticed the two men sitting over at the window, obviously eyeing them up. She guessed them to be in their late twenties or early thirties. The men were both attractive, but one of them was particularly good-looking and well dressed. He saw Jo looking at him and smiled encouragingly at her. She immediately smiled back, causing Steph to look across at them, too.
“Those two are well fit, Steph – what do you think?” asked Jo eagerly, a speculative gleam lighting her eyes.
Steph leaned in closer to her friend and spoke hurriedly, anxiety apparent in her tone.
“Don’t encourage them, Jo. You don’t know them from Adam. And anyway, what about David?”
Jo pouted moodily and sighed. She began to twist a long strand of hair between her fingers as she considered the attributes of her current boyfriend.
“David’s a nice guy, Steph, but he’s not very exciting. And he’s nearly as skint as I am, which isn’t a lot of fun!”
“Jo – ”
“Oh, forget it. I’m going to the loo,” Jo muttered impatiently and headed off towards the Ladies. When she came out of the cubicle she washed her hands and began to consider the situation while she was refreshing her make-up. She pouted slightly after she had applied some lip gloss. Steph was married, but that wasn’t going to stop Jo from hooking up with these two guys, she decided. If Steph wouldn’t play along, she’d chat up both of them and then decide which one of them she preferred. She hadn’t intended going ‘on the pull’ this evening, but these guys looked too good to miss.
On her way back to the table, the really good-looking one bumped into her while he was making his way over to the bar.
“Oh, sorry,” he said, not sounding sorry at all. “I’m Ash, by the way,” he added, shaking her hand. “Didn’t I see you two in here last Friday?”
“You might have,” answered Jo, fluttering her eyelashes a little. “It’s handy for us after work,” she added, nodding in the direction of a large department store across the road. “Sometimes we come here and sometimes we go to Ryan’s Bar.”
By this time, both Brad and Steph were sending dark looks in their companions’ direction.
“I’m just going to get more drinks, if you two ladies would like one?” Ash enquired politely, eyeing Jo keenly, and speaking loudly to make himself heard above the ever-increasing noise levels.
“Thanks,” answered Jo, smiling. “Mine’s a dry white wine and Steph’s a G&T,” she added, deciding he looked even better at close quarters, which made her more determined to make the most of this opportunity.
He went over to stand at the end of the queue at the bar and Jo sat down at the table again, looking pleased with herself.
“Jo, they’re going to try and pick us up now,” Steph complained.
“With a bit of luck!” replied Jo, winking wickedly. “Those two can pick me up any time they like.”
“Well, you speak for yourself,” Steph said, glaring at her friend and folding her arms tightly in front of her. “What am I going to tell Geoff?”
“Don’t tell him anything,” advised Jo, watching Ash coming back from the bar, balancing the tray of drinks like a waiter. Jo was very impressed that he had somehow managed to get served so quickly.
“He’ll know I’m hiding something,” Steph complained.
“Well, just blame me,” Jo suggested. “I’m not missing out on these two hunks because of Geoff!”
Ash put the tray down on the table and Jo took the plunge and asked, “Why don’t you and your friend come over and join us?” She was aware of actually holding her breath as she waited for his response.
“Sure,” he answered, smiling, and waved over to the other man, who reluctantly lifted their jackets from the window seat and walked slowly over to the girls’ table, looking none too pleased about it. His dark head was bent and, although he wasn’t actually glowering, a frown was drawing his black eyebrows together.
Steph leaned across to Jo and whispered, “They’re probably married anyway.”
“I can assure you we’re not,” Ash answered swiftly, making Steph blush uncomfortably.
Jo smiled sweetly, noticing as she did so that the frowning man, who had now joined them, was good-looking in a more rugged, masculine way than his friend. As far as physical types were concerned, she would normally have been more drawn to him than to Ash, but it bothered her a little that he obviously wasn’t quite so keen to make their acquaintance as his mate was. He’d taken a seat beside Steph, presumably because he could tell she wasn’t interested in picking up anyone either.
“Meet Bradley,” Ash announced to the girls.
“I’m Jo and this is my friend Steph,” Jo said warmly, and everyone shook hands.
“Bradley – that doesn’t really suit you!” Jo commented, rather rudely, and was rewarded by a hard stare from the man in question.
“I prefer Brad, don’t I, Ash-ley?” he said pointedly to the other man, who threw back his head and laughed.
“Touché, Brad!” he answered, shrugging his shoulders to indicate that he really wasn‘t bothered one way or the other.
Turning towards Jo, Brad decided to turn the tables on her by asking, “And Jo’s a funny name for a girl. Isn’t that a guy’s name?”
“It’s short for Joanna actually,” she answered tartly, tilting her chin with characteristic stubbornness. She was very proud of her name and didn’t take kindly to anyone making detrimental comments about it.
There was a short, uncomfortable silence as the tension threatened to wreck the atmosphere completely.
“So, you two girls work in the same place then, do you?” asked Ash, trying to steer them onto safer ground.
“Yes,” Jo answered, “but we’ve been friends since school.” She spoke directly to Ash, having decided that Brad was a bit of a pain and she would do her best to ignore him. She had only known him for two minutes and he had put her back up already.
Whilst she and Ash were talking, she was aware of Steph and Brad speaking quietly to each other in a pleasant, friendly way. Steph was telling him that she was married and he was nodding understandingly. She could hear him saying, “That’s OK, don’t worry. We’re just being friendly, that’s all.”
Steph was smiling and looking much more relaxed now. Jo was puzzled by the fact that this annoyed her. She was beginning to think that it might have been a mistake hooking up with them when Ash happened to mention having been in Monte Carlo a couple of months previously, and how he could never stand to be in Britain for any length of time. This statement and the expensive clothes he was wearing made it obvious that he didn’t suffer from a shortage of cash, and both Steph and Brad were aware of a noticeable heightening in Jo’s interest in him from that point onwards.
The four of them passed an hour or so in pleasant conversation, with Jo and Ash obviously keen to get to know each other better, and Steph and Brad relieved at being able to have an uncomplicated chat.
A little while later, Steph stood up and said she had to go. She slipped on her jacket, helped by Brad, and waved goodbye to Jo and Ash.
“I’ll call you!” she shouted to Jo over her shoulder as she headed towards the door.
Shortly afterwards, Brad left, too, saying that he would go and wait in the queue for a taxi. He drew Ash a look that spoke volumes as he turned away.
When they were alone together, Ash told Jo that he would like to see her again and she happily gave him her mobile phone number. She felt a little stab of guilt because she was still supposed to be going with David, but she reminded herself she’d been about to finish things with him anyway.
They left the Rutland together, arm in arm, and he asked her how she would get home. She said she intended to walk back to her flat in the Gorgie area, which was several streets away. He shook his head and put his arm around her shoulders.
“No way. Come in the taxi with me and Brad and we’ll drop you off at your street,” he insisted.
“Cheers!” she said gratefully, smiling up at him as they approached the black cab.
Brad glared at them as they joined him on the back seat and said nothing during the short journey, preferring to look out of the window while Jo and Ash whispered together conspiratorially.
“Ash, how come you’re in Edinburgh if you’re not keen on Scotland?” Jo asked.
“Well, I went to University here, because my parents wanted me to; and I made quite a few mates at the time, so I sometimes pop over to hook up with them,” he explained.
’I'll call you tomorrow, babe!” he assured her as she jumped out of the taxi.
“OK. Bye!” she answered, blowing him a kiss.
She glanced at Brad before she closed the door. He obviously wasn’t pleased, but she shrugged off her discomfort and headed towards the outside door of the building which contained her flat.
It’s got nothing to do with him, anyway, she reassured herself later as she prepared a little supper and then started getting ready for bed. She really hoped Ash would keep his word and call her the next day. She fully intended to see him again, whether Steph and Brad approved or not.