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Excerpt

Excerpt

Since You've Been Gone

Tt was supposed to be a day off. He'd promised me he wouldn't be gone long. He just needed to check that the lads were behaving themselves, staying safe; he didn't want to be writing up any more incidents of severed anythings for a while, and that meant keeping on top of them. I'd promised to make his favourite—lemon-and-basil linguine—and he'd promised to be home on time, before it had chance to spoil.

It didn't look appetizing now anyway. I looked down at the cool congealed mess of pasta I'd been pushing around the plate in front of me and tried not to feel abandoned. I automatically set my knife and fork neatly on top, handles parallel in the four o'clock position as was appropriate for a meal finished, and wondered again why the hell I bothered.

Table manners were one of those ironies, superfluous to those who for the most part ate with company who really didn't care whether elbows were on the table or not.

My mother, Pattie, had drilled them into us when we were kids, and would be less than impressed to see her little girl roughing it out over the breakfast bar instead of using any one of the twelve redundant dining chairs. Catching wind of how often I ate over the sink would be enough to trigger her mouth to twitch.

The tick of disapproval—I'd seen that a few times.

We all knew that my mother had endured a life of discomfiture, not quite able to keep up with her friends on my father's average income. She loved him, we knew that, too—how could she not?—but my mother hadn't resisted overcompensating by raising Martha and me as though we were enrolled in some sort of finishing school, prepping us for the best chances of bagging ourselves a lawyer or doctor—anyone, in fact, with means. She thought little girls should be ladylike, grow up to find husbands who could provide them with a good standard of living, therefore guaranteeing their happy ever after.

But I know all about those.

With my sister, Mum's strategy had largely stuck, although Martha had been deft enough to find a lawyer with a big heart. But when I'd first seen Charlie, loading logs onto his boss's truck, sun-kissed forearms flexing from underneath his forest-issue jacket, and absolutely no concept of how attractive he was, I knew right then who my table manners were for.

Mum had warned me that Charlie was rough around the edges; unrefined, she'd said, with too much charm for his own good. That twenty-five was too young to get married—to a forester at least—and that it would all end in tears.

She'd been right. Charlie had a lot to be sorry for these days.

I watched as flecks of basil cemented themselves to the plate in front of me.

I needed to call my parents.

I hadn't spoken to them for nearly three weeks and I was supposed to keep them updated on the size of Martha's ankles. Being twenty-seven didn't afford me much respite from my mother's rightness, but thankfully the three-hour flight between the UK and their retirement home on Minorca did.

The stool wobbled from under me as I slid from it and rounded the breakfast bar, plonking my things into the left of two adjacent Belfast sinks. We'd gone for his-and-hers, Mr Jefferson and I. Largely because I couldn't stand it when Charlie barged into the kitchen with an armful of muddy veg, and partly—quietly—because there was an element of charm having two sinks sat side by side in front of the best view in the house. Those are the kinds of uncharacteristic decisions you make when you're love-drunk. That blissful time before the tears arrived.

I looked for more washing up on the worktops while water thrashed into the sink over the handful of items I'd deposited there. It was six forty-five.

Where is he? I wondered, squirting a generous dose of washing liquid into the steaming bowl. I'd called dinner already.

There was still no sign of him outside as I plunged my hands into the hot suds. The skin between my fingers was starting to get a little sore. I could invest in a pair of Marigolds but my hands were washed so many times at the cake shop it seemed pointless to bother with gloves at home.

Martha said I'm the only person she knows who actively opts to use the sink over the dishwasher. Martha's the only person I know who actively opts to teeter precariously on heels at eight months pregnant, indifferent to the fact her ankles are now as wide as her knees. She's tried to convince me of the benefits of heels—elongation of the leg, posture, femininity in general—just as I've tried explaining to her that unless we're having guests for dinner it would take me a week to fill the dishwasher. Besides, this view across the valley is more than worthy of the occasional chapped hand.

When we'd first bought our half of the farmhouse from Mrs Hedley next door, we widened this window for just that reason. A stunning view through the side face of the cottage, out across the gentle fall of our lawns to the blue-black waters of the reservoir.

You can see every colour nature has to offer through that window, helped no end by Charlie's weakness for planting the foreground with every bulb, shrub and tree he could get away with. When we'd started renovating the cottage he'd concentrated on planting the grounds, so that while the two of us battled it out over room colours, the gardens would all the while be growing.

Eventually, I had to start hiding his wallet during the garden centre's opening hours. It lives in my dresser now with other important, useless things.

I realised now, I'd nagged him too much.

I snatched my hand free as scalding water I hadn't anticipated stung at the back of it, then resumed my surveillance through the glass. The lawns needed cutting. Long grass growing tall against legs of rusting garden furniture.

Where is he? I asked myself again.

I had a straight view down onto half of the reservoir, the rest obscured by the small copse of trees and bushes Charlie had lobbed the tops from after our last big row. Chainsaws were an unusual way to relieve tension, but it had worked for him and the trees were already nearly back to the same height. If I had to bet on it, I'd say my wayward company was over there somewhere.

He couldn't be far but he'd obviously found something far more interesting than my chicken and pasta. Maybe he was sore at me; I'd shouted at him this morning. It was the second time he'd left me to eat alone this week, but I wasn't going to let my meal go cold while I stood on the doorstep hollering like a fishwife. If he wanted to eat his later, fine, but if he kept this up he'd be eating out of tins.

I'd been less than three minutes at the sink and the dishes were done. Martha would never be convinced, but we'd always been different. The picture sat on the sink windowsill testified to that.

My hair had been longer when the photo was taken, but the panic attacks had been easier to manage once I'd hacked off my loose straggly curls. Long hair was an avoidable hindrance when struggling for breath in bed at night.

Further down the kitchen the air was warmer where the earlier light had streamed into the room; Charlie had created a sun-trap here between the two cream bookcases he'd built perpendicular to the window seat. This was where he chose to eat breakfast every morning, with the sun on his back and the dog somewhere near his feet.

Charlie's mum had said that the one-hundred-and-eighty-degree views from the kitchen across all of the gardens would come in very handy when her grandchildren started to arrive. Particularly if they were anywhere near as naughty as their father. Naughty children weren't the problem here.

The side doors clicked open and I stepped out into the garden. "Dave? Dave? Last call, big guy." A handful of birds skittered from the tops of the trees Charlie had attacked. He was coming. I could see him now, galumphing his way up the hill.

He was one ugly creature. A blundering spectacle of pale brown fur as he ran up the embankment towards me, his whole face flying in every direction as the black of his dewlap momentarily defied gravity.

He reached my feet and lolloped back onto his haunches, tail thumping against the ground.

"Hi, Dave." Dave huffed a response. "You're late for dinner." I scowled.

He didn't seem repentant as I followed him into the house.

I kicked my boots off in the hall to the sounds of him inhaling the chicken I'd left for him, making it halfway up the stairs before the phone rang below me.

I knew it would be Martha, calling to check which roast she should make for us Sunday. I didn't want to stay for lunch, but so far I hadn't worked out what my excuse was going to be.

The phone rang on, pricking my conscience. It might not be lunch. It could be the baby. My hand made a play for the handset when the answerphone cut in.

"Hi, you've reached the Jeffersons' money pit. We can't get to the phone right now—I'll be hanging from a stepladder somewhere, and Holly will be out begging our friends to come help us. Leave a message."

"Hol? It's me. I was just wondering if you'd like lamb on Sunday? Or chicken? I think we have chicken, too. If you prefer? Why aren't you home yet? Call me when you get home. Okay, love you. 'Bye."

Dave joined me at the foot of the stairs. "Now you want to keep me company? Stand me up for dinner but happy to watch me take a shower?" Dave didn't answer.

The bare timber treads were hard underfoot as I made my way back upstairs, but there were benefits of having no carpets or wallpaper yet, like not having to worry when two hundred pounds of mastiff shadowed you around the house.

Dave made himself comfortable on the bathroom tiles while I hopped under the steaming jets of the shower. Clouds of icing-sugar dust had left their usual residue all over me. Sugar seemed to cling to skin as it did to teeth.

Bugger.

I'd forgotten to buy a new toothbrush today. Mine had become steadily more and more feathered next to its neighbour over at the sink, which I'd told my sister was a spare. I could buy one before work in the morning, or I could bring mine back from Martha's after the weekend. If I remembered. I'd been so tired lately. I'd be sleepwalking again by November.

Dave was snoozing peacefully when I stepped from the steam. The air was cool on my damp shoulders when I crossed the landing to my bedroom. I quickly dried off and wriggled into my favourite baseball tee and sweats. It was too early to go to bed yet—just looking at it reminded me of the trouble I was having in that department, if trouble was the right word for it. It came in waves, I'd realised, and while I could do without the tiredness I was desperate to enjoy another visit from him tonight. I didn't want to jinx anything so I'd stick with the formula that had seemed to work lately and slip into bed around ten.

Killing time had become a compulsion. Minutes, weeks…now years. I could find something to do for a couple of hours, the meagre pile of ironing that had been sat on my dresser would do. I fished out a few hangers from the wardrobe and began squeezing more clothes in there. A second wardrobe was one of the things we'd never got around to. I straightened up the garments I'd disrupted and scanned the perfect uniformity of Charlie's side of the hanging rail. How did dust even get into wardrobes? Was it some sort of domestic phenomenon? I pulled a few items out for closer inspection. Charlie's summer jacket, Charlie's winter coat, Charlie's shirt, Charlie's shirt, Charlie's shirt. I blew the unloved items in my arms free of their dustings, trying not to let the resentment bubble up in me so close to bedtime. But it was always there, lurking just under the surface, waiting for its chance of escape.

Yes, Charlie Jefferson. You have a lot to be sorry for. chapter 2

Tdidn't want it to stop. It was perfect. The perfect choreography of his need pulsing with my own, grinding in against my hungering body. I'd missed this. I'd missed this so much. Somewhere in the distance, I knew we were against the clock, but it was a warning I pushed away. We were here now and that's all that mattered. He'd come.

Everything I had, every thirsty nerve ending desperate for his touch, I could feel him with, taste him with, but it wasn't enough. I needed more, more of this delicious euphoria. Goose bumps raged over me every time his breath chilled the thin film of sweat on my skin, the sweet earthy scent of him swelling around me with every delectable thrust, the saltiness of his neck inviting me to taste him again—I wanted to drink it all down, to gorge myself with everything of him I was being allowed.

Charlie found his rhythm and locked in on me. I let him. The slick covering of sweat we had each bestowed upon the other the only relief in what would otherwise be a crushing frenzy of need. I didn't care. I wanted it to reign over me like an insatiable creature, to devour me, to gorge itself on us both and force us harder into one another until the lines between our writhing bodies were no more.

I used the hard press of the wall behind me to defy him, to remain unyielding to all that strength as he forced himself into me, again and again. I managed to pull my head away from him, away from all that reward my senses so wanted, so that I could better see the face that had changed my world.

I couldn't hold myself away for long. My hands were already reaching up to slide desperate fingers through the short ruffle of his hair, to grab what I could and take hold of all that dark splendor before pulling his head far enough away to reveal those arresting blue eyes.

He was so beautiful, a perfect combination of light and dark, in all things. From his character to his features, he was the best of both extremes. His pale eyes were staggering against the near-black chestnut of his hair and depending on his mood could hold all the warmth of a Bahamian lagoon or the foreboding of a frozen lake.

He looked back to me now, those eyes the colour of ice water as they burned voraciously at me. He made my breath catch in my throat as though it wasn't supposed to be there—not looking at me but into me, to the promise of the gratification I would give him. I knew from those eyes that only dark thoughts were governing Charlie now, and it excited me.

The first wave of warmth began to build in me, deep and low. It chased all threads of cohesiveness away and I broke eye contact, searching the air around him for any sign of the next moment my pleasure would find me out again. He responded to the shift in my breathlessness as though he could smell the change creeping its way through me.

Another roll, building and building below…warm between my legs, spreading outwards through that part of me and up through my core, towards my breasts, to my neck, where Charlie's hands chased it. It was coming to claim me. The thought of it overpowering me, sweeping me away on a torrent of pleasure, was enough to send me spiralling into its grasp. I struggled to keep rhythm with him now. The choreography was gone as we neared the final act that would see us both explode into our sweet trembling crescendo. I wanted to share it with him, for him to see in my eyes what he did to me, but Charlie was in his own fight, his broad shoulders tense around me as he thundered fiercely through me harder and faster and—

I lost my hold on his hair and felt my body being yanked away from him, away into my ocean of pleasure. I wanted to drown in all that sensation, again and again and again, but not without him. He has to come, too! Desperately I raked my fingers along the centre of his back, down the tanned musculature he'd unintentionally honed through years of working in the forest, and finally, I succumbed to all that he'd offered me.

The last thing, the only thing, I heard besides the frantic labouring of our lungs, was my name on his lips.

Holly…

Since You've Been Gone
by by Anouska Knight