Authors: Beth Ashworth
By Beth Ashworth
Copyright © 2014
Cover design © Arijana Karčić, Cover It! Designs
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and settings are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, names, locales, organisations, or persons living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law. With the exception of the original material written by the author, all songs, song titles, and lyrics contained in this book are the property of the respective songwriters and copyright holders.
Sophia crossed her arms firmly over her chest. “So let me get this straight,” she scoffed. “You aren’t ready for a ‘fully committed relationship’ and feel that this is going too far?”
Marco winced as he caught the slightest hint of aggression in her voice.
“Sophia,” he tried to reason. “I didn’t promise you the world when we started this thing,” he said, gesturing casually between them. “I told you from the outset that I’m not going to commit. I don’t
I’m calling bullshit,” she replied, narrowing her eyes. “What’s going on, Marco?”
,” he grimaced, hoping that his term of endearment would soften her anger. “Please watch your language. And I just told you that I feel this is moving too fast for the both of us. You are still so young, and I’m afraid you will want more from me than I can give. You deserve to have a man who will worship and cherish you for the gem you are.”
Sophia’s face flushed as a hint of moisture appeared at the corners of her eyes.
“So this is it then? We are really walking away from everything?”
,” Marco replied with a curt nod. “I think it will be best for both of us if we ended this now before feelings are hurt.”
He noticed a single tear escape from Sophia’s eye. It caught a small section of her mascara coated eyelash, leaving a small black path as it rolled down her cheek.
“Too late for feelings being hurt,” Sophia hissed as she wiped away the offending tear from her face. “What are we supposed to do at work now? Do we just continue as if this never happened?”
Marco lifted his hand to rub at the small smattering of stubble across his jaw. He knew he should have thought about the ramifications of such an encounter before he decided to get involved with an employee. Now he was faced with the decision of what to do next
, and it was his own damn fault. He didn’t want this awkward charade to continue at work around his other members of staff. It didn’t bode well if they assumed they could get one up on him by flashing some flesh.
He didn’t usually have arrangements that affected both his work and personal life, but he hadn’t been able to resist with Sophia.
“Let’s see how things go. I still want us to remain friends,” he said, resting his hand on his upper thigh. “Look, I know this is going to be hard, but it has only been what... seven or eight months? You’ll find somebody else.”
Regardless of what Sophia thought, Marco wanted to show her that he was being reasonable
, and that he wasn’t the monster she probably believed him to be at that moment.
He recalled all of the previous occasions where he had endured similar conversations over the length of his thirty two years. They had all pretty much gone in the same direction as tonight
’s had. He would give his explanations as to his ‘commitment issues’, and then he would sit back to watch the words fully sink in. He knew he hurt women by doing it, but he just wasn’t the type of man to settle down and truly find someone to call his love.
At the end of the day, h
e liked to have sex. Carefree and emotionless sex without any unnecessary attachment.
Whilst his attitude
appeared arrogant and heartless to some people, Marco always made sure that he was upfront with the woman from the start. He would always tell them that he didn’t have any plans on committing later down the line.
His open and honest approach
worked in his favour. Although,
being a loose word at this moment. Recently, he had been finding himself in a similar predicament when it came to ending things with whoever he was fucking at the time. He always felt like the bad guy when they just didn’t listen to him. They all believed they could change him. That they could be the one to finally capture the heart of the infamous Marco Conti. But they didn’t understand... nobody did. He didn’t
to fall in love.
Friends?” Sophia snapped, crossing her arms over her chest. “I don’t think being ‘friends’ is appropriate.”
I’m sorry, but I can’t offer you more than that,” he replied, leaning back in his chair. “We’ll have to try and make this work, Sophia, unless you want me to look into a transfer?”
He saw her defeated sigh before she n
odded with agreement. “I’m not happy, but I don’t have a choice, do I?”
No,” he replied, signalling the nearby waiter to bring him his bill. He figured that there was no need to continue discussing this now that he had her agreement. He just needed to cover the tab and leave before she had chance to go back on her word. Having had it happen to him in the past, Marco wasn’t up for creating more friction than necessary.
“It’s a beautiful night,” Sophia murmured as they stepped out of the small restaurant and into the welcoming warmth of the evening Milan air. “Would you like to take a walk around the park,” she suggested, her eyes flicking towards the large trees and wrought iron gates that concealed the entrance.
Marco hesitated as he took in the expectant and hopeful look
across her face. He knew that friends often took strolls through parks, so it wasn’t too much of an issue. It was his own restraint that was concerning him.
The evening was warm and muggy.
He noticed that Sophia had already shed the thin shawl covering her arms, so that she now stood in just a clingy, red mini-dress and black heels. Marco lifted his hand to adjust the collar of his shirt. His body felt uncomfortably hot all of a sudden, and it wasn’t just from the surrounding temperature.
that this was dangerous territory.
Marco?” Sophia pressed him further.
He cast his eyes up from the killer shoes on her feet. He took in the pale skin of her slim legs
, the gentle curve of her hips, and the fullness of her moderately sized breasts. His cock twitched with appreciation from within the confines of his suit trousers.
A warning flashed across Marco
’s brain. He had to stop this… It had gone on for too long. He was getting far too involved here than he was supposed to be.
No.” Marco shook his head much to Sophia’s disappointment. “I shall see you to a taxi and then we will leave matters here.”
raised his hand into the air slightly as they approached the valet desk of a nearby hotel. He pulled out his wallet and pressed some Euros into the young man’s hand as a waiting taxi pulled up before them.
, Marco,” Sophia smiled sadly.
Without waiting, he turned on his heel
and headed back towards the restaurant where his car was parked in a nearby side street.
He felt guilty for not o
ffering Sophia a ride home, but knew that he wouldn’t have been able to keep his eyes off of her for very long, or off of the tantalising sight of her legs stretched out in his car. He had a weakness for women with long and shapely pins. It was the first thing that attracted him to any woman. He studied their length and then imagined the way they would look wrapped around his waist or neck...
The shrill sound of
his phone ringing brought Marco out of his happy daydream. Opening the inside of his suit jacket, he plucked the device from a hidden pocket and looked at the screen. Although he didn’t recognise the actual number, he recognised the area code and that the call was coming from the UK.
Marco Conti,” he answered, keeping his tone firm and slightly clipped.
The line crackled slightly before a female spoke.
“Mr Conti, my name is Rebecca and I am calling from St Thomas’ Hospital in London. I understand that you are the registered next of kin for Miss Gabriela Conti?”
...” he replied, suddenly anxious to hear where this was going.
“We strongly urge you to come to the hospital as soon as possible as
Miss Conti has been involved in a very serious accident.”
Marco felt the ground beneath his feet begin to quake and crumble.
A feeling of fear and dread slithered uncomfortably along the length of his body at the seriousness of her words. “Is she dead?” he whispered, his throat closing in around his words.
No, sir, but she is in a very critical condition. She has been rushed immediately into surgery.”
Please,” he begged, his steps quickening into a brisk run. “She is my little sister...the only family that I have left. Please, do anything that you can to save her. I will be on the next flight out of Milan.”
Twelve hours earlier...
Gabby laughed as she teased Ashley’s hair into a stylish poof.
“Don’t look so nervous. Anyone would think that you were going on a date with a psychopath and not somebody that you’ve been dating for the last few weeks.”
I know but—”
But nothing,” Gabby interrupted. She tugged gently on the piece of hair she held, attracting Ashley’s attention towards their reflection in the vanity mirror. “You look beautiful. If you just stopped to look at yourself properly, you would see what everyone else sees.”
what they see,” Ashley scoffed, rolling her eyes. “I’m the weird looking girl with the hideous birthmark. I’m the girl that everyone looks twice at in the street. Not because I’m pretty, but because I’m disgusting.” She met Gabby’s eyes in the mirror. “I know what I am. You don’t have to sugar-coat it for my benefit.” She cast her eyes down to her hands before she could catch sight of the sympathetic look reflected across her best friend’s face. “Just leave it, alright?”
She heard Gabby’s deep sigh.
“I just want you to look beyond it, Ash.”
Look I get it,” she snapped. “Ben must have looked past it, right?”
No,” Ashley replied, lifting her eyes back up to the mirror. “That doesn’t automatically mean that my self-doubt is going to vanish overnight. It just means, yeah, maybe someone is actually looking deeper than what can be seen on the outside.”
Gabby paused and slid her arms around Ashley’s neck from behind.
“I love you, girl. I don’t have any doubts that your man is out there looking for you. Now whether it’s Ben
someone else, the person that your heart chooses will not only love you for who you are on the inside, but also who you are on the outside.”
Ashley nodded and raised her arms into Gabby’s embrace.
“I love you,” she smiled. “You are the only person that puts up with my shit.”
Don’t I know it,” Gabby laughed. “But what are best friends for, hey? Now, if you are quite finished, I need to fix your hair before Ben arrives to whisk you away on whatever amazing date he has planned for the two of you.” She picked up a hairbrush and continued teasing the long and soft waves of Ashley’s dark, chestnut coloured hair.
“I’m nervous, but excited.”
“Good. You’ll have to text me wherever you end up going.”
That’s fine. Just keep your phone handy, because I like to have a back-up plan,” Ashley laughed.
Well, we’re approaching date number five, so you must be doing something right,” Gabby said, placing the hairbrush back onto the vanity unit. “You may be onto a winner here. He must like you or else he wouldn’t keep asking you out!”
We’ll see,” Ashley shrugged, watching as Gabby finished styling her hair with her fingertips. “It’s too new at the moment to say whether he does or doesn’t. Besides, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that we are going to ruin the relationship we have as friends. What if everything went horribly wrong and we stopped speaking to each other? I don’t need that sort of drama at the moment.”
Don’t give me that shit. You’ve dated friends in the past?”
Yeah, I know. This just seems a little different though... a bit confusing. I mean, for a start, we have surpassed the infamous one date jinx that I seem to have, so that’s a positive, right?” Ashley looked hopefully at Gabby’s face in the mirror. “I think I just feel slightly overwhelmed in case this goes further. It doesn’t happen very often, you know?”
“The first date is always the hardest,” Gabby replied with a shrug.
“I’ve had plenty of experience.”
It was true. She had been on
many first dates over the past few years. So many in fact, that even
had lost count. After the first dozen of the ‘let’s just be friends’, Ashley had stopped getting her hopes up. Despite what her best friend continued to drum into her head, she knew that it was a miracle to get past the first date stage with
t wasn’t as if she didn’t know why. It was blatantly obvious the reason why most of her dates never progressed past the initial meet. It was because most men didn’t want to date a girl that had such a prominent flaw. Regardless of its shape or size, or how she covered it with the style of her hair or make-up, she knew that it was difficult for people to overlook. It was large and prominent when not covered. Her birthmark, or port-wine stain as her doctor had called it, was pink and red in colour, and it covered the left side of her face and upper part of her neck, making it difficult to hide it effectively.
You are such a beaut,” Gabby said, placing her hands firmly on Ashley’s shoulders. “Yet again, you’re gonna have Ben eating out the palm of your hand.”
Ashley blushed as she
studied her reflection in the mirror. Gabby had done a fantastic job with tastefully draping her hair in soft, loose curls over her shoulders and the side of her face. The cover-up had been applied perfectly. Although the birthmark was still visible, it wasn't as startlingly obvious anymore.
Look at that for timing.” Gabby squeezed her shoulders lightly as the intercom buzzed. “Let me go and get him.”
Ashley took a deep breath as
she heard Gabby answering the front door a few moments later, her voice laced with her usual sickly sweet tone that she reserved for her two business partners, Ben and Patrick.
Benjamin! I hope you are looking forward to your date today. My girl looks a freaking stunner as always.”
Ashley rolled her eyes and stood from her seat at the vanity.
After casting one final look in the mirror, she grabbed her handbag and headed for the living room. She knew how intrusive Gabby could get with her questioning, so she decided it was better to head her off now.
Slinging her brown leather
hobo bag over her shoulder, Ashley took a deep breath. She was looking forward to today’s date, but still felt slightly nervous about the progression of her feelings. At the moment, she wasn’t sure where they were lying.
She had listened to Gabby drumming into her over the last few weeks about Ben’s suspected feelings that appeared to be forming, but she just couldn’t fathom it out for herself. It was confusing. Part of her was worried about their past friendship and the impact a relationship would have on their friends, while the other part of her was clinging to the possibility of something more.
Hope bloomed deep within her lower belly.
As much as she wanted to deny it, a small part of her was already starting to wander along the dangerous path of hope and a potential future.
Benjamin Goode was a fantastic catch for any woman. With his career driven, focused, kind and honest mind, he was the picture perfect man for most. Coming from a good home with a well-established background, he had extraordinary academic achievements that rivalled and rattled those superior, setting him above the rest in his field.
ot surprisingly, he was also a fairly handsome man.
Ashley had great appreciation
for his thick, truffle coloured hair that shimmered beautifully under direct sunlight. The colour was striking, which popped vividly against the forest green tints of his eyes. She had studied every last detail of his appearance over the last few weeks as she tried to collate all of the pieces that made up the overall package that Ben delivered. Overall, she was extremely satisfied with what she had seen. Appearance, build and height... All of them were a tick in her box.
is broad and impressive frame stood easily above six foot, which was more than enough for Ashley’s petite yet agile five foot two body. But, to put it simply, Ben towered over her by some margin. So much so, that she had even made a conscious effort to wear a pair of boots with a heel today, because she was adamant that it would give her some more confidence when around him.
Ashley? Why are you standing in the doorway?” Gabby sniggered as she took in her vacant expression and dreamlike state. “Earth to Ashley... Your date is going to think you’ve lost the plot.”
“Bugger, I’m sorry,” Ashley apologised, offering him a nervous smile as she stepped forward into the living room.
Right, I’ll get goin,” Gabby announced, waving her hand dismissively between the two of them. “Be nice to my girl, Benjamin.”
Don't worry, I promise to take good care of her.” He shot Gabby a cheeky wink and turned to Ashley with a daring glance.
eat flooded her cheeks as she rushed to avert her eyes.
Stop teasing her!” Gabby laughed and placed a comforting arm around Ashley's shoulders. “I'm sure you’ll have fun. And if you don't, then I will have your arse on Monday morning, Benjamin.”
I'm sure the patients would love that,” he replied, cocking his head at her with a grin.
It’ll certainly give them some entertainment prior to their impending dental nightmare.” Gabby slapped Ashley's arse and headed towards her bedroom. “Now get going, because I want to hear all about it later!”
uncomfortably on the spot. She willed the nerves in her body to die down just a little before she made a complete fool out of herself. It was the stupid mark on her face once again, the thing that was always the root cause of her insecurities.
Regardless of the
years that continued to pass, Ashley still allowed the mark to rule her day-to-day life. Its hideousness had been drummed into her from an early age, making it impossible for her to be anything but self-conscious.
Would you like to go?” She heard the uncertainty in Ben's voice once they were alone, which brought a smile to her lips. They were both still nervous about the unknown territory between them. After all, they had jumped up a big step from just being friends to actually dating. Although Ashley was still unsure about how she felt about the change, she tried her best not to let it show. It was still early days and she needed to give it time.
Sure,” she replied with a shy nod.
Ashley's stomach flipped with excitement as she took in her surroundings. Instinctively, she felt her palms beginning to tingle as a rush of emotions played out in her mind. She couldn’t believe that he had brought her here. He had taken the initiative to bring her to one of the places in the world that gave her so much happiness.
I heard you in the staff room the other day when I went to get a coffee. You were talking to Gabby about wanting to go back to the zoo this weekend, so I figured I’d take you.” He grinned at her excitement and nodded towards the large entrance sign in front. “I take it this was a good idea?”
I love the zoo!” Ashley squealed causing all traces of her earlier nervousness to vanish from her body. “Thank you, Ben,” she smiled, her eyes softening slightly. “I’m so excited!”
Ever since she had been a small child, there had always been something special about the zoo for Ashley. It was the sounds of screaming laughter, the excitement of seeing the animals up close, and the chance to eat as many ice creams as she wanted. Even at the age of twenty five, she still found the confines of London Zoo her sanctuary.
It was the one location she could just be content and carefree. She knew that nobody judged her on appearances here, and that everyone cared about one thing...having fun. And that was all that mattered to Ashley at the end of the day. She wanted to just enjoy herself and not have to worry about the remarks and glares she received for her looks.
Do you wanna link up?” Ben offered her his arm as they walked up to the entrance.
tated slightly from his gesture as a cool gust of wind blew across her cheeks. The November weather was bitingly cold, despite the jeans and thick winter coat she was wearing.
“I-It's okay if you don't. I just didn’t want you to
heard the briefest hint of pain in his voice at her silent rejection to his offer. The sound cut and filled her with immediate guilt. “No, that’d be nice,” she replied, threading her arm with his. “Thanks,” she smiled, feeling him pull her close, his arm tucking her comfortably into his side.
That's better,” he murmured, giving her a gentle squeeze. “Where would you like to go first?” He opened up the map with his free hand.
Ashley didn't need to
think twice. “Gorilla Kingdom,” she cheered, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. “There is a gorilla here called Zaire, and she’s been here ever since I was a child. I love to see her every time I come.”
Ben chuckled at her excitement and folded the map
with his free hand. After slotting it into the back pocket of his jeans, he placed his arm into the air and yelled, “To the gorilla enclosure!”