New Balls, Please
Don’t forget to read part 1 and 2 first, you can find them here:
Fern’s eyelashes flickered against the cold glass of her front door window. The coast was clear. It had been a week since the evening at Ollie’s that had quickly turned awkward when his ex-wife called. Fern had managed to avoid him since. It hadn’t always been easy, thank goodness the bush outside her house was peppered with pink blossom, it made a great hiding spot. Unfortunately, she’d had a couple of nettle stings too, but at least she’d avoided the awkward meeting. It was weird to be hiding from him after a year of trying to bump into him.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to see Ollie again; in fact, she’d thought about their near kiss every night before she fell asleep. Sally, at work, had dragged her from her romantic daydreams on more than one occasion. But she couldn’t dare to want a guy who was still closely linked to his ex-wife. She’d been there before. Although it turned out Kieran from Tinder was technically still married and living with his wife. But she’d got burned after catching them doing an alien and scientist sex role play one evening. They were trying to fix their marriage and Kieran had forgotten he’d invited Fern round. She hadn’t been able to drink a gin and tonic since watching the locations they’d stuck cucumbers; they made realistic alien probes apparently.
Fern darted out the house, but in her haste to lock her front door, she tripped on the step, and her handbag smacked to the floor. The contents spilt out over her driveway. She grappled with her diary, hand cream, purse and four lip balms that she’d thought were gone forever. Tampons fell out of the box and rolled to the dip between her house and Ollie’s as she heard his voice.
“Hey Fern, can I help you with anything?” He picked up a handful of tampons and stepped to where she was kneeling.
Slowly she looked up from his trainers. Her gaze slid up his body. Her stomach coiled as his tight running shorts came into view. His plain white t-shirt made his tanned skin glow. Why does he have to look so good?
He handed her the tampons, and she jumped up. He looked at her other hand with a furrowed brow, his lips pouting slightly.
“It’s a pair of knickers my colleagues gave me,” she replied as she held out the red lace garment for his closer inspection. ‘Eat me, not animals’ was emblazoned on the crotch. “It was a joke because of a date I went on with a vegan hipster. It was all he talked about, and he was spouting facts at me about my eating habits all night. I know lots of lovely vegans, but I think he was on a mission and I was his casualty.”
Her throat had got increasingly drier as she’d attempted to bluster through the explanation. The flush that crept up Ollie’s face resembled the colour of the knickers.
“They’re nice,” he stuttered, his gaze still locked on them.
Sweat beaded her neck. “Really? I own a lot better than these,” she replied, shoving them back in her bag.
“Oh, right.” His blue eyes were wide, and his pupils dilated. Did he imagine the rest of her underwear? She fought with the temptation to tease him. “My black ones are my favourites. I have a special set that fit me like a glove, but I save that for special occasions.”
His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed slowly. He was impossibly redder than before. “Right,” he paused blinking fast “And, out of curiosity, what constitutes a special occasion?”
Fern smiled. She’d never worn the set because nothing special enough had warranted an outing. A date with Ollie might. The words were on the tip of her tongue. He shoved a hand through his hair, roughly yanking at the strands. I could offer to show it to him for a touch of his hair. That sounds weird. What are you doing, Fern? He’s too hot and too involved with his ex. “I’m not sure. Are you on a jog?”
His shoulders dropped, and he shrugged. “Yep. Do you want to come?”
Fern pointed up and down at her slate grey suit and heels, an eyebrow raised. “I’m on my way to work,” she replied. The tweeting of the sparrows above them was like laughter at their awkwardness.
“Oh yeah, sorry. I sometimes find my runs boring, and liked the idea of the company,” Ollie replied no longer looking her in the eye. “Look, about last week.”
“Yeah?” she added a breezy tone to her voice. “It was a nice evening.”
“I enjoyed it. I would have asked you to stay for dinner, but I had a feeling I’d be in a weird mood after chatting with my ex-wife, that’s the way it was for us in the last year of our relationship anyway. It wasn’t fair to put you through the inevitable funk I’d be left in,” he confessed with a wince.
The honesty surprised her. It was rare that the guys on the apps admitted their struggles. The last one had revealed his biggest weakness was “loving women too much” and had explained that he should be entirely giving to all the women in his life. Basically, he wanted to shag around.
Sun peeked through the clouds and shone directly on Ollie’s skin. It hit his tanned forearms and displayed the definition of his muscles. How could a guy as gorgeous as him be anxious around her?
“What’s the deal with your relationship?” Fern asked. Would he answer?
He cupped the back of his head and sighed heavily. “Where do I start? Our struggles weren’t just about her. I know my friends didn’t like her, but they didn’t see how intelligent she was or her ambition. She hypnotised me and me her. We were young, stupid and rushed everything.”
A couple of horns beeped from the nearby main road. I should be joining them, or I’ll be late. But Fern didn’t budge. This conversation seemed significant, and Ollie appeared vulnerable. Don’t say the wrong thing to him.
“Jana, my ex-wife, tells me she got bored of me, that I was an idiot and too into my work,” Ollie admitted. He cleared his throat a couple of times. “I couldn’t do right. I tried. I was willing to do whatever it took to make her happy. We weren’t compatible. We should have been a fling rather than a marriage. Then one morning I came home early to surprise her with a trip away, and I found her packing up my stuff. She told me to leave. Jana explained she no longer loved me and that she’d been sleeping with her tennis coach, who was moving in. How cliché is that? A beautiful middle-class woman and her tennis coach.”
“New balls, please.” Fern dug her nails into her hands, wishing for an earthquake or any other ground opening event. That was how to offend a guy, make light of his adulterous ex-wife.
Much to her surprise, he laughed. “You’re funny, I like that,” he paused, fumbling his words. “I haven’t dated since Jana. We finished over a year ago, although we hadn’t been a loving couple for a while. I’m not sure I’m cut out for the dating world. You seem to go on a lot of dates, what’s it like?”
“Are you calling me easy?” Why did she feel the need to defend herself like that? Too many dates had left her jaded.
“No, I mean you go on a lot of bad dates. I don’t think you’re easy.” He mumbled something under his breath like ‘say the wrong thing’, but she couldn’t catch the rest. Fern fought to keep eye contact but was distracted by the smattering of dark chest hair that peaked above his running shirt. “You usually seem unhappy when you get home or not long after. I can tell by the way you bang your door in the mornings.”
It was her turn to sigh. “I guess I’ve met some idiots in my time. I think guys get bored easily and seek out someone better.”
“They must be imbeciles,” he replied. As if suddenly realising the situation, he blurted, “Shouldn’t you be getting to work?”
Fern checked her phone before rushing for her car. The sudden movement forced some of her chocolate brown curls to slip from her ponytail. “Yeah, I’d better go.”
She caught his words just before she yanked her door closed. “Come for dinner tonight?”
She flicked the switch to put her window down. A gentle breeze carrying a scent of blossom filled her car.
He rambled on before she had the opportunity to reply. “I want to make up for all of Ripper’s bad behaviour, and it’s Friday. Maybe you can teach me some dating tactics. Unless you already have a date?”
His inflated chest froze as if he was holding his breath.
Would it be a mistake? You shouldn’t get into this. But you like him too. Stop thinking and answer. “I have no dates tonight. That sounds like a lovely idea, I look forward to it. I’ll bring wine.”
He breathed out and shared as beaming smile. I want to kiss him. Was this going to be friends meeting or would it be like last week? Maybe they’d be better as friends. His wife seemed to have done a number on his mental health. How can I fix that? Is it my job? How beautiful was she?
“I can’t wait,” he replied, his eyes crinkling.
Any reluctance on her part disappeared when he started doing his stretches before his jog. He pushed his arms into the air, which forced his t-shirt to lift. The innocent act revealed his tight stomach beneath it. She allowed herself a peek out of her rear-view mirror as she drove down the road. Why did he have to be lovely and hot?
“Next time I go jogging do you want me to invite you?” he asked as he put his knife and fork on the plate, the cutlery clinking together. The evening had gone well so far. The conversation had been so engaging that they’d barely touched their wine. He wore a pair of jeans and a long sleeve baseball t-shirt. Whenever he wasn’t looking, she admired the way it fitted his body, tight at his pecs. When he pushed up the sleeves and revealed his forearms, she let out an audible “oh” and dropped her fork. He’d inadvertently rewarded her by bending down to pick it up before a bouncing Ripper licked it and then rushed to get her another one. She’d never felt like such a pervert. If only he knew how much she lusted after him.
“I’m not a big jogging fan. I prefer a bit of dancing,” she replied, swinging her arms in the air before instantly regretting it. Everything about him left her flustered from his eyes, staring deeply into hers to the cedar scent that teased her every time he leant closer.
“Oh, right. It’s just I noticed a couple of weeks ago the way you stared at me while I was doing my stretches and you sighed quite loud. Do you remember? I thought maybe you wanted to come running but didn’t know how to ask.”
If only he’d known her stare had been because of his pert bottom, it was like they held a powerful magnet and in her eyes were iron fillings, it was impossible to look away. But he was still her neighbour, and a failed relationship on her doorstep would only end in one way. She liked her house; it was her sanctuary from all the world threw at her.
What if she crushed him with her insecurities? His ex-wife had done a number on him, bringing him from a confident guy who travelled the world to someone who questioned themselves at every crossroads.
Fern took a breath, pretending she was trying to remember the time he was talking about. “No, I wasn’t thinking of jogging at the time. I probably had something in my eye,” she replied, sliding the last of her roast chicken on to her fork.
Even as a friend, Ollie had been a better date than she’d had in a long time. He was funny, kind and attentive. Not only had he made her one of the tastiest roast dinners she’d had in a long time, but he also shared the conversation. His travels were inspiring, but he was down to earth too, and he’d seen genuinely interested in her friends and even her mum’s dating exploits.
Ripper’s little bark before she settled on the floor allowed Fern to scan his dining room. It also spoke of his travels. Brightly painted espresso cups and Murano glass vases hinted at a time spent in Italy. Ollie had shared stories during dinner of a summer spent in Venice, working as a waiter and dreaming of a life as a gondolier, before returning the next February for the Venice Carnival. He pointed to an ornate white mask with full gold lips and an electric blue peacock flowing across the nose before displaying at the cheek. It had been a gift from a friend who he’d had a short but intense relationship with.
Everything about him inspired Fern. Ollie had the presence to be the perfect romantic hero if he could believe in himself. Either way, he would be filling her fantasies for weeks. But he’s still your neighbour and has a difficult ex-wife. Change the subject before you fall harder for him. “How do you intend to go about dating then?”
He held his wine glass at his lip. “I was thinking of the apps. Everyone mentions Tinder is for-”
“Hook-ups,” Fern cut in. Let the man speak. She ran her fingers across the daisies printed on her dress. The cotton material hit just above her knee. Even while fighting her attraction to him, she’d still dressed with his appraisal in mind. If only he’d seen her in her red bikini in the summer. It was probably too revealing on her curves, but last August she’d toyed with the idea of knocking on his door to find out if he had any ice. What are you like? “Which are fine if that’s what you’re looking for. Casual sex can be just what people need after break-ups, well, that’s what guys I’ve been on dates told me.”
He dropped his head, and two pink spots appeared on his cheeks as he spoke. “Oh, no. I mean, I like sex. But I want something different. My favourite thing to do is to see a woman smile, not because she thinks you want her to, but because you’ve brought her genuine happiness. I want to share my life with someone; hear what they love and offer what I love and then spend time doing those things. I want a future rather than a moment. That sounds cheesy when I say it out loud.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Fern whispered. A shiver started at the tips of her toes before going all the way to her scalp. His sentiment was beautiful and what she’d been searching for on those awkward online chats and dates that ended with soulless sex or a cold goodbye.
“Are you okay?” Ollie’s hand rested in the air just above her arm. It was if he couldn’t decide whether physical contact was a good idea or not. The musky scent of his aftershave was subtle, and she leant in and breathed it deep into her lungs. There was something in the way he spoke that made her believe he was bearing his soul. He could be another fuckboy, but what if he wasn’t? What if this was the guy she should be dating? At the battle between her head and her heart, she held her breath, scared of the next step.
“Yeah, fine,” she replied. “I just haven’t heard someone say that sort of thing about dating for a long time.”
“I guess I’m out of practice.” Ollie chuckled. His fingers trembled as he placed them on the table. Was he avoiding physical contact because he didn’t fancy her? She used to understand the signs and believe what people said to her, but years of dating had made her question everything. “Maybe I should be playing it cool. But to be honest, there’s one woman in particular that I like, I just haven’t built up the courage to tell her.”
He blushed as his eyes met hers.
“Someone I know? Someone at work?” Even on dates flirting made her unsure of herself, it was as if after all this time meeting new guys she didn’t have confidence in herself anymore, as if she was always waiting to make a mistake and be replaced by a more beautiful woman.
“No, Fern, someone a lot closer to home.” The innocent way he said her name drew her eyes to the bow of his lips. It was her turn to blush. The flush covered her body before the nervous excitement surged through her.
He was staring at her. Big blue eyes looked at her in what she could only describe as awe.
Air seemed stuck in her lungs as he reached for one of her brown curls, stroking it between his fingers. She forced back down her throat a joke about Ripper being the only female for him.
“I’ve had a question for you for a while. But I don’t know how to ask it,” Ollie cleared his throat. “You seem confident, and I don’t think you tolerate fools easily.”
“You’re not a fool,” she whispered.
“I’m not sure. If you get told it enough times it’s hard not to believe,” he replied with a sigh. “But I see you go on dates and come home sad. I wish you could go on a date with someone who thinks you’re amazing, who wants to give you the best first date you’ve ever been on. And then wants to give you the best second, third, fourth date too. You deserve it all.”
He leaned in a little. His lips were nearing hers.
“It’s just I’m a bit nervous when I’m around you, and I’ve wanted to tell you something for a while-”
A cough came from the direction of Ripper, who was watching them intently.
“Maybe she’s picking up on my nervousness,” Ollie said, probably trying to make light of the situation. “What I’m trying to say is-“
Ripper’s coughing continued, at a more frantic pace.
“Is everything okay, girl? It sounds like she’s trying to be sick. I’m sorry about this, but Ripper doesn’t normally get like this,” he explained, letting go of Fern’s hair and leaning towards the dog.
“Do you think that the chicken you asked me to give her had a bone in it?”
He dived to the ground and started to investigate the inside of Ripper’s mouth. Fern joined him on the floor as Ripper continued to hack.
“What should we do?” Although she’d have denied it if asked, she cared about the little dog.
“There’s something in her throat, but I can’t get it out without making things worse. I lost the tip of my finger to her once.” He picked her up with one swift motion and wrapped her tightly in a blanket. “We need to get her checked out.”
“I’m so sorry, Ollie. I can’t believe I didn’t check the chicken properly,” Fern said. Tears were running down her cheeks. Ripper continued to cough, her eyes were wide, and her paws trembled.
“It’s not your fault. Please don’t cry. I’m going to get it sorted. Are you okay to come with us and hold her while I drive?” He headed to his door.
“Of course, but where are we going, surely the vets aren’t open now?” she asked as he passed the dog to her and scrabbled for his keys.
“I know someone who should be available to help, unfortunately.”