Chapter 1

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Author's Note: I've been writing this just for my own amusement and decided to share it with all of you. This isn't what I normally do. I wanted to try my hand at a trope, an older MC and office romance. I hope this isn't a colossal mess.

1.

"So, tell me, Lucy, how do you know Martin?"

"He's my flatmate." I let the red wine swirl inside my glass. I made a show of sipping it before, but it's horrible. Why did the waitress recommended it?

I look at my watch. There's some trickery here, it can't be that only four minutes have passed since all this started.

"I've not met the arsehole who could stop time, Lucy," my dad used to say.

I look up at the man sitting across from me. Goodness gracious, I think that arsehole that my dad never met must be this bloke.

"You get on well?" he asks.

"I suppose."

He chuckles. "I have to admit..."

No, you don't.

"When Martin suggested that I meet you..."

Please, stop.

"I had no idea that he had friends like... you know..."

I know exactly what you're going to say, so don't go on.

He gestures at me with his hand, up and down and concludes, "Like you."

I lift up the napkin and bunch it in my fingers. I have a rule, I give a person ten minutes. If they don't manage to get past skin-deep in that time, then I don't have to try and tolerate them any longer.

I turn my wrist just enough so that I can quickly glance at the time.

Phew, what a relief. Time hasn't stopped. A minute has passed.

"This is unbelievable," he says, blinking and trying to contain his grin. Awfully skinny and a little bit shorter than I am, he's got thinning hair and big earlobes. But he also has nice teeth, a kind smile, green eyes and long eyelashes. Even if he's on the boring side, I would've thought he was cute.

If only he'd behave... differently.

"I never thought I'd be seen in public with someone like you."

Yuck.

"Honestly, I'm quite nervous."

I sip my wine to avoid answering. It tastes like how I imagine corroded metal tastes. He chuckles awkwardly, eyes darting in every direction as he tries to find something to say to start off the conversation which I keep killing.

"This is quite a trendy place, don't you think? I feel trendy coming here."

The lighting's dim, the ceiling's high, everyone's sitting along these tiny square tables that are organised into long rows. The menu sports words like 'braised', 'tartare' and 'spelt'. The waiters and waitresses speak in metaphors and similes. Everyone's in their best clothes and on their best behaviour.

It's all just so perfectly... obnoxious.

"You're not a big talker, are you?" he asks. Oh dear, he noticed. I wonder what expression I'm wearing right now. "Well," —he lets out a short laugh — "it's probably different for you than it is for us ordinary people. You probably never have to bother with small-talk."

I clutch the napkin, hard. It's a fancy cloth one, so smooth it feels like satin.

"Do you mind if I ask you how old you are?"

I tilt my head to the side. "Twenty-seven."

"It's baffling that you're single."

Since my dates are always like this, it would be baffling if I were actually in a relationship.

"Martin told me you're a project manager. What does your company do?"

"Healthcare software."

"How's that going? I can't imagine I'd get much work done with you working over me."

"What're you implying?" I'm losing my patience. Ten minute rule aside, this is humiliating.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I meant that you're so stunning I'd just be... constantly stunned."

"Well, it's a good thing you don't work on my team, then." He's wrong, but not because the men on my team don't share in his opinion about me. After they got over the fact that they have to actually complete the tasks they're given, they constantly want to impress me. They get a lot of work done.

He laughs. He thinks I'm playing along. His eyes soften, as does his smile. He looks at me and reaches over removing my hand from my wineglass and holding it, a little firmly. "You really are extraordinarily beautiful, Lucy."

That's it. I've had it. I throw down my napkin and snatch away my hand. "Word of advice...er... Martin's friend," I say. "Tell a girl she's beautiful only if she doesn't already know it."

I get up, thankful that I decided to hang my jacket over the back of my chair rather than at the entrance to the restaurant. I shrug into it and sling the strap of my handbag over my shoulder.

His face pales. "You're... you're leaving?"

"Obviously," I say.

He clutches the corners of the table. "But... but... was it something I said?"

"Yes, it was everything you said."

His gaze drops, defeated, he heaves a sigh. "Well I... I should've known it was too good to be true."

"Oh, believe me, it was never good or true." And I'm off, fighting down the tinge of pity and the tsunami of embarrassment. People are looking at us. They watch me as I storm down the narrow aisle between the rows of tables and let myself out.

There used to be a time when pity would force me to endure. I would let my dates put me on a pedestal just so they could reduce me to nothing but a sight and then proceed to feel physically inferior.

In a world where everyone is struggling to find an image of themselves which they could love, I'm no different. Except, my problem is the other way around. Sitting almost alone in the tube on my way home, I look at my warped reflection in the dark window across from me.

I can still remember what it felt like to be normal. When my face — the same face, more or less — was just human and people would treat me according to how I'd treat them and what I'd project.

I think I'm cursed. There's simply no other explanation. People should differ in taste — and yet, if they're attracted to women, they all behave the same. I don't see what they see. Yes, I've got good hair, smooth skin, a healthy complexion. I'm fit, my legs are long, my eyes are big, my lips are full.

But it's not in the details, it's not in my list of qualities. In their eyes, it's like I'm a unicorn or one of those Harry Potter veelas.

"You're beautiful,"  had been the first thing he said to me tonight.

I don't want to hear those meaningless, empty words ever again.

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