Livvy and Hugh travelled by ferry from Nice to Calvi and rented a tiny bergerie in the northern mountains of La Balagne. It was high season, and the woman in the tourist office told them they were lucky to find anywhere. Their only neighbour was the owner of the bergerie, Jean-Luc, who lived in a farmhouse screened by olive trees at the far side of the lane, and who introduced himself with a gift of Corsican wine and a small basket of peaches. He appraised Livvy with his dark eyes and she smiled at him, met his gaze until he looked away. She was happy to be in Corsica, happy to escape the cosmopolitan chatter of the café life in Nice. Hugh had known several other couples staying at the hotel, and every day they’d eaten a late lunch together on the terrace, drinking wine long into the sleepy afternoons. In the evenings they would stroll along the Promenade des Anglais and drink brandy and coffee in Café Amandine. His friends were always there too – the women slightly drunk and very loud. She told Hugh she felt more at home here in the mountains, even though she was a city girl at heart. He smiled and stroked her hair, then went back to reading his newspaper. He found it hard to relax, as he loved the company of his friends and was not one for making his own entertainment. During the days he drove Livvy along the narrow mountain roads in his open-top car. She tied back her long hair with a red ribbon, and they went down to the coast for lunch, watched the Italian tourists stroll by in their designer clothes. And each evening they walked up to the village for an early dinner at Bartoli’s, then sat outside the bergerie with their brandy as lizards darted around the lights. Livvy often lay awake long after Hugh had gone to sleep. She thought about all the men she had ever known, and all the men she would never know if she stayed with Hugh. The men with rough hands and dark eyes, the men with smooth skin and sharp suits, the men who cared nothing for expensive things or vacuous small talk, and the men who cared for little else but money and the sound of their own voices. The men who took her body without offering their love, who placed cash on the bedside cabinet and left without saying goodbye. She had intended the escort work to be a temporary thing after she lost her job at the insurance office, but it had become easier to continue with it than look for something else. Livvy found it suited her. In fact, if she was honest with herself, she enjoyed it – more than enjoyed it. She loved sex without commitment, that brief connection with something elemental which never failed to make her feel truly alive. She relished the company of men – the way they flirted with her, flattered her, wined and dined her. And she liked the fact that she had the ultimate say in whether or not they came home with her afterwards. She built up relationships with her clients but wasn’t tied to one man. She had her freedom and her independence but she wasn’t lonely. All in all, life was good. She had enough money to live well, and a nice apartment in Marylebone. She was happy – not happy in the way the average girl was happy perhaps, but she was some kind of happy – and she told herself it was enough, that she had the best of both worlds. But when Livvy first met Carl, it made her unsure of her chosen life. In Carl she was sure she’d found her soulmate. He was charming and generous, passionate about life and the things he believed in. After they made love – which was how she thought of it with Carl – he often brewed them coffee in her kitchen, rustled up a sandwich or an omelette, read out funny stories from the newspaper. And she believed, for that brief hour or two, that this was real life. Some evenings he stayed longer, fell asleep for a while in her bed. She curled up at his side, rested her head on his chest, waited for him to wake up and tell her about his life, about how much he loved his daughter and why he’d never leave his wife for fear of losing his little girl. Yet Livvy dared to hope that one day he might. She watched him as he slept, his dark hair on the pillow, his arm thrown above his head, and she could almost touch that fantasy world, the world where she and Carl were a couple. Then, one evening, he took her to a networking event at the Azalea Club, introduced her to everyone as his PA. They both drank too much champagne at the reception, and he ordered a second bottle of wine with the meal. In a drunken moment he told Livvy he wished he was married to her rather than his wife. He said it would make his life so much easier to be with a woman who actually enjoyed sex. Then he threw back his head and laughed, said what was he thinking, that of course she had to appear to enjoy it, she was a sex worker after all. The couple at the next table looked round, smirking, as though they had heard every word, and Livvy stood up, walked calmly towards the cloakroom, collected her jacket and called a cab. A week later she met Hugh. He took her to a candlelit rooftop restaurant which resembled a Sicilian terrace, held her hand across the table and told her she was too beautiful to be an escort. He was a quiet man, unassuming, the kind of man whose face you would forget five minutes after he left a room. But he was wealthy, lonely, available, and spent most of the year travelling around Europe and staying in beautiful hotels – in the south of France, in Venice, Lake Como, Seville. More importantly, he was kind. And eight weeks later in their hotel room in Nice, Hugh asked her to marry him, told her she could think about it for as long as she needed to, that he would still want to be with her whatever answer she gave him. And, thought Livvy, he still wanted to be with her despite the fact that she was – as Carl so accurately described her – a sex worker. Livvy knew he would be a good choice. A wise choice. He was the man who would surely save her from herself; the man who would protect her from what she wanted. A man who knew her past yet hadn’t judged her for it. With Hugh there was no need for pretence, no reason to lie, and there would be no prying questions to avoid. But the decision kept Livvy awake, night after night. It should have been so easy to say yes to him, but part of her was holding back: the part of her that understood how important freedom was; the part of her that knew she wasn’t in love with Hugh; the part of her that said she shouldn’t marry him simply because she was grateful. Sometimes she would go out into the garden after he had fallen asleep. She walked barefoot between the trees so she could feel the dry grass brush her skin, and when she reached the edge of the olive grove she waited for the shooting stars to arc across the darkness and wished upon every one. One afternoon they strolled up to the village earlier than usual. The sun threw long shadows across the deserted main street and they sat alone on the restaurant terrace with their cold beers. As the afternoon turned to dusk, Bartoli lit the pizza oven and four villagers playing petanque asked if Hugh and Livvy would join the final game while they waited for their food. They took their places on opposite teams, and Livvy realised that one of her team was their neighbour, Jean-Luc. He bowed to her, then kissed her hand, and she found herself staring at him again, transfixed by his dark eyes. The village men pulled another table across and sat with them afterwards, and Bartoli brought out marinara pizzas and jugs of local white wine, lit candles when dusk fell. He translated the conversation from Corsican into basic French, which Hugh translated into English for Livvy. She drank too much wine and flirted openly, untying her hair and letting it hang loose in a waterfall of ripened wheat. Jean-Luc rested his arm along the back of her chair, and she leaned against it to feel the warmth of his skin. She looked at the other men – each of them reminding her of someone else: Stefanu, tall and blond, with the smile just like the stockbroker who had taken her out for lunch every Friday; the wiry man in the dark shirt who made her think of the artist from Camden with the disabled wife; Bartoli, whose eyes were the same piercing blue as the accountant who took her out for a Japanese meal once a month, yet never came back to her apartment. All men were the same and all men were different. She watched each of them in turn, imagined taking them to her bed, then reached underneath the table and rested her hand on Jean-Luc’s thigh. When Hugh said it was time to leave, Livvy told him to go back to the bergerie alone. But the track was steep and uneven, hard to negotiate in the dark, and he said he wouldn’t go without her, that it wasn’t safe for her to walk back on her own. She protested that Jean-Luc would walk down with her later, but Hugh took her by the hand and pulled her to her feet. The village men all cheered and laughed as she staggered down the cobbled street, and she blew kisses at them. And when she couldn’t sleep, Livvy slipped out into the moonlight as she did every night and walked naked to the other side of the garden. She threw her head back, watched the bright blaze of shooting stars high above. And she didn’t cry out when two strong arms encircled her from behind, because she knew who it was without turning round. For some reason she had been expecting him, even though he had never followed her out here before. She lay down at the edge of the swimming pool, and though the stone flags were still warm beneath her, she shivered as she looked into his eyes. Moonlight danced on the pool, and the reflections that ran over their skin made it appear as though they were underwater. As their pale limbs tangled and arced, they rose and fell as one; shooting stars stitching the sky above them with silver thread. At that moment she was part of the earth, the air, the water and the sky, and Hugh was every man she had ever known. Livvy knew for certain that it would be Hugh who would save her, Hugh who would always protect her from the reckless things she wanted.
Amanda Huggins is the author of two novellas: Crossing the Lines and the 2021 Saboteur Award-winner, All Our Squandered Beauty, as well as four collections of short stories and poetry. She has received numerous awards for her travel writing and short fiction, and her debut poetry collection, The Collective Nouns for Birds, won a Saboteur Award in 2020. Amanda grew up on the North Yorkshire coast, moved to London in the 1990s and now lives near Leeds.