He thrust his handful of money at the driver with all the confidence he could muster, and scrambled out of the cab. The uneven cobbles tripped him, and he bumped into a couple of tourists as he tried to right himself. Now he needed to scarper, and fast, before the cash was counted and the shortfall discovered. In his mind, he saw himself turn and run like the wind, like the Chariots of Fire opening sequence, though not in slow motion, of course, and without the benefit of proper sports clothing because he was in his audition gear, that is, trousers a little too tight since Christmas, and his favourite jacket that was always going to be too hot for this time of year—
A hand landed on his arm before he’d taken the first leap forward from the imaginary sound of the starting pistol.
“It’s not enough,” the cabbie said. He’d followed Eduardo out of the cab.
Eduardo looked into deep, dark brown eyes set under heavy brows. The man’s skin was dark, his jaw line and upper lip covered by similarly dark hair. Eduardo couldn’t get away from the dark theme, and he wasn’t thinking of his preferred type of boyfriend. The grip on his arm was tight and the cabbie obviously wasn’t letting him go.
“I’m late for an appointment,” Eduardo said. That wasn’t a tremble in his voice, was it? “You must let me go. At once.”
“No,” the cabbie said. His voice was strangely calm, but the deep tone made him sound so much more assertive than Eduardo. Eduardo felt a warm, roiling feeling in his gut. He was trapped! It was like one of the new breed of police thrillers, the hero chased to the end of a dank, pitch black alley, then turning to face his erstwhile attacker with nothing to defend himself except…
Eduardo tightened his grip on his messenger bag. As if that were going to protect him, as if his copy of The Complete Stanislavsky Toolkit could be used as a club, as if a selection of emery boards or his smartphone stylus could possibly morph into his own personal lightsaber. No, he was trapped, alone, defenceless, and hidden in the depths of gangland—
Except, actually, he was pressed back against the side of a London black cab in broad daylight in one of the most populated tourist areas. Even so, the trapped feeling persisted. The cabbie’s chest was broad and his biceps bulged out from under a tee shirt that had presumably shrunk in the wash. His throat was sinewy, and hair from his chest curled up and over his low neckline. With a further frisson of shock, Eduardo realised he was forced back against a flat surface by a positive bear of a man. Delicious. His libido was liable to wake up and lick its lips, although Eddy would have kicked himself at this inappropriate reaction if he thought his legs could work normally. Instead, his whole body was shaking and he felt more than a tad nauseous.
“Please,” he said. “I must go.” How long did he have until the audition closed its doors? Would they still see him if he were beaten and bruised, maybe even bleeding? He wasn’t sure that was acceptable for a revival of one of Noel Coward’s mannered social commentaries.
“What’s your name?” The cabbie’s voice was a soft growl in the back of his throat.
The cabbie frowned. “You’re Spanish?”
“Yet you have a Spanish name.”
Eduardo tried bluster. “I hardly see why it’s any business of yours what my name is.”
“I will need it for the police,” the cabbie said, quite coolly.
Eduardo gaped. “You’re calling the police?”
“You owe me my fare. I cannot allow passengers to cheat me.”
“I’m not cheating you! I mean, I know I’m a little short of funds right at this exact moment, but I assure you I can find you fair recompense if you give me a little time.” Eduardo wondered why, when he needed to blush to order for a particular role, he always found it so bloody difficult. Right now, he felt as hot as if he’d stepped into the Sahara. Lawrence of Arabia, anyone? He must salt this ghastly experience away for future reference on the stage.
There was a strange rumble underlying the cabbie’s reply. Eduardo took a moment to recognise what the noise was, drowning out the ticking of the cab’s engine and a screech of chatter from a passing group of teenagers. He was laughing. Laughing at Eduardo!
“You are an actor, yes?”
Eduardo blinked. “Yes. I mean, how—? But yes, I am.” For a brief, bemused moment, his courage returned. He wasn’t above using his public exposure for private gain, let alone defence. “Maybe you’ve seen me act? I was in the chorus of Blood Brothers for a few weeks.” Until the proper cast member returned from his drying-out spell, that was. “What about TV? I was in an episode of Casualty last year.” He felt his head go up, instinctively showing his better profile. “And that advert for toothpaste? I’m the man who crunches the apple at the end.”
“I have not seen you on TV.” The cabbie leaned in harder, his arm across Eduardo’s chest, effectively cutting off his words. All Eduardo could do was take shallow gasps, breathing in the aroma of warm skin mixed with the hint of spicy flavoured breath. “I don’t watch TV. I work.”
Eduardo suspected that criticism was aimed at him, but was damned if he was in any position to complain. He huffed and pushed ineffectually at the strong arms, and rather surprisingly, the cabbie let him go and stepped back. But only one step.
“You hurt me,” Eduardo croaked. “That’s assault!”
The cabbie started to laugh again. The sound was loud and uninhibited, his chest shaking with it. “But yes, of course you’re an actor! You are so melodramatic.”
Well, duh. But Eduardo didn’t explain that came with the territory. He didn’t say anything, in fact, just started to back into the busy street behind him. He could cut across into Charing Cross Road and then sprint up to Shaftesbury Circus, and just maybe he’d be in time to catch the tail end of the audition and no one would know he’d only just arrived. He turned and started walking briskly away.
Two streets later, he was starting to wheeze with the effort of rushing but trying to look as if he wasn’t, when a warm, cumin-flavoured smell wafted across his senses again. He whirled around and found himself nose to nose with the cabbie. “What the hell? Why are you following me?”
The cabbie raised his eyebrows. “What do you expect me to do? Not only do you not pay the fare, but now you try to run away.”
“Of course I’m not trying to run away!” A young couple on the pavement glanced quickly over at the two men arguing, and a rickshaw cyclist wobbled on his seat as he passed. Eduardo knew his voice was too loud. He sounded borderline hysterical, too, as if he were in the last act of a Tennessee Williams play. Well, any act, to be honest: he’d always played them at drama school rather close to the emotional edge.
He turned abruptly, deciding to cut through Chinatown, but the cabbie still followed. Eduardo imagined he could hear the steady footsteps on the pavement behind him, despite the babble of other street noises. He swerved around two more corners and suddenly lost his already precarious sense of direction. Bloody hell. He realised he was heading back towards the original place where he got out of the cab. Yes, there it was, parked neatly at the kerb, lights and engine off as if there’d never been any problem at all.
And his pursuer was still behind him.