Authors: Ellie Darkins
‘Mostly.’ They shared a long look, mutual happiness turning both their mouths up like a mirror. But they couldn’t leave it there. If they wanted this to work, they had to dig deeper than that. Learn to trust one another.
‘And the bad?’ she asked.
‘This.’ He motioned towards her colour-coded papers. ‘This is pretty much every bad thing I’ve imagined since Wednesday afternoon. I want you to know, Rachel, that I’m here for you and for the baby. But I will not do this entirely on your terms. We’re
going to have to compromise.’
‘And the first thing that’s got to go is any attempt at a plan?’ She couldn’t help her defensiveness—he was threatening the only thing that was keeping her in any way connected to sanity.
‘This plan? Yes. We didn’t discuss a single thing before you made it. Of course it has to go.’
She felt a wave of nausea as she realised what he was saying. Every plan she had made in the past few days. All the words and the numbers and the tidy tick-boxes that had soothed her mind—were going to be thrown out. Already panic was making the edges of her thoughts fuzzy, and that wave of nausea was starting to feel more like a tsunami. With a shock, she realised it was more than just nausea. She must have looked pretty green, because as her hand flew to her mouth Leo was already by her side, grabbing her free hand and pulling her to the stairs.
the landing wall, trying not to hear the noises emanating from the bathroom, and wondering whether he was relieved or annoyed that Rachel had so easily brushed away his offer of help and slammed the bathroom door shut with him on the outside. Not that it sounded a particularly appealing place to be right now, but the knowledge that she was perfectly happy doing this alone—was happier doing it alone—made his chest uncomfortable. Because at the moment, it felt as if any involvement in his child’s life depended entirely on this woman’s opinion of him, and was entirely on her terms. He’d been terrified, was still terrified, when she’d told him that she was pregnant; but the thought of his child out there in the world not even knowing him was more frightening still.
He’d have to apologise for snapping at her like that. Losing his cool definitely didn’t help him get what he needed—but he had to get her to see his point, and to agree with it. Of course there were parts of this situation that he couldn’t avoid planning in advance—he was perfectly prepared to understand that a doctor’s appointment had to be made for a particular time. And though the thought of those appointments stretching out for years in the future didn’t do brilliant things to him, it didn’t fill him with the same queasy dread he’d felt when he’d glimpsed the plan she’d drawn up. Just the headings told him he was in trouble. Timing. Finance. Schooling.
He didn’t even know when the baby was due, and they were talking schooling already? Did she even know yet when it was due? Had she been to the doctor? Probably things he would know already if he hadn’t walked out on her. The bathroom had gone quiet, and he leaned back against the door.
‘Rachel?’ he shouted through the wood. ‘All okay in there?’
‘Fine,’ she replied and he could hear tears in her voice. Was that the sickness or something else?
‘Can I get you anything?’
‘No, I’m fine. I just need to catch my breath.’
He heard her lean back against the door, and he followed her down, until the old oak was supporting them both.
‘Then can I ask you a question?’
He took the mumble he could hear as a yes.
‘Tell me about the plans. Why do you need them? Help me understand.’
He held his breath, hoping that she would trust him. See that he was reaching out to her, and wanting her to reach back. He needed to understand her. To try and find out how they were going to manage to get along, now that they were tied together.
‘I don’t need them. I just like to have an idea of what’s going on. What’s wrong with that?’
‘There’d be nothing wrong with that. But that’s not how you felt downstairs just now, was it?’
He listened through the door, wishing he could see her face, wishing he could at least see her expression. Just as he was giving up hope that she would ever speak...
‘It makes me feel safe.’
He was almost tempted to laugh at that, the quirk of fate that had brought him together with a woman who could only feel safe if he felt bone-chillingly terrified. Instead he heard the trepidation in her voice, the hint of tears. He wanted to break down the door, wrap his arms around her and tell her that they would be okay. Or, failing that, tease and kiss her until the tension left her shoulders, until her limbs were heavy and languid, wrapped around him. Instead, he asked another question, hoping that the pain now would be worth it eventually.
He pressed his head back against the solid wood of the door, wondering if she could feel how close he was. Whether she wanted him closer, the way he wanted her.
The memories of the night they had spent together had often played on his mind in the weeks after. Flashbacks, scents, snatches of songs all reminded him of the hours they’d spent wrapped around each other. And he couldn’t deny that these memories had something to do with why he’d been so keen to meet with Will and discuss the idea he’d had—to create a sculpture for the Julia House charity. They could keep it in the grounds, or auction it for money. Whatever they thought would benefit their patients most. He’d floated a couple of ideas to Will the night of the fundraiser—always with half an eye for whether Will’s assistant would take an interest in the conversation.
Then after he’d left Rachel at the station, the momentary relief he’d felt as his train had pulled away had faded quickly, leaving him dissatisfied, feeling as if he’d missed an opportunity. Maybe he’d been too hasty running from her then, he’d thought as he’d made the phone call to Will. Maybe they could have had a few more nights like the previous one before they inevitably went their separate ways. As he’d taken the train up to London, he’d let himself imagine how she’d react to seeing him again. And then a little longer thinking of everything they could get up to if she was of the same mind.
The shock of a baby in the works had seemingly done nothing to quell his fierce imagination.
He jumped up at the turning of the lock and was brushing off his jeans when the door opened and Rachel appeared, looking a little pale. ‘Morning sickness, I guess,’ she said as she walked out. He nodded as if he understood, but beyond the fact that he knew pregnant women were sick sometimes he was pretty much clueless. For a start, shouldn’t it happen in the morning? He didn’t know the exact time—he hadn’t worn a watch since he was a kid. It was probably past eleven when he left his workshop. And he’d laid floorboards and half carried a pregnant woman up a flight of stairs since then. It was definitely well past morning.
‘Sorry, it took me by surprise. It’s not happened before,’ she continued, as clipped and professional as if he’d called by her office. He stopped her with a hand on her shoulder and gently turned her face up to him.
‘I borrowed your toothbrush,’ she blurted, and he guessed from the rosy blush of her cheeks she’d not meant to confess. He laughed, the re-emergence of her human side relaxing him.
‘No worries.’ He smiled at her. ‘I think we’re a little past worrying about a shared toothbrush.’ He was gratified by her small smile, but a little uneasy at how his own insides relaxed at the sight of it.
‘So what now?’ she asked as they hovered on the landing. She looked lost, smaller somehow, as if she was losing a grip on what it was that allowed her to present her usual polished, professional, vibrant face to the world. He knew what she was missing—her plan—but he couldn’t bring himself to look at it yet. Not even for her. But he could offer her a distraction, a plan for the next hour or so. He hoped it would be enough.
‘What about a walk on the beach? An ice cream and fish and chips—if you’re hungry.’
She nodded and he remembered the night they met, when he’d heard the clear chime of her laugh and seen it as a challenge to get her to make that sound as many times as he could. The prospect seemed a distant one right now. But he’d made a connection with her before. Felt her relax in his arms. If they could do that again, find the connection that had strung between them that night and held strong until the next morning.
‘A walk and an ice cream,’ she repeated. ‘I think I can manage that. I just need to change. Where...?’ She glanced around the landing and he felt a stirring heat inside him. He wanted to curse the gentlemanly instinct that had made him tell her that he had a spare room, and had him working through the night for the past couple of days to get it ready for her. Even if it meant that he was sleeping on a mattress on bare floorboards.
He shook away the tempting image of sharing a room with her, and concentrated on their maintaining civility for the time being. That they couldn’t even make it through a cup of coffee without fighting had shown him all too clearly how fragile this relationship was—how easily it could fall apart around them. He’d had no ulterior motive in inviting Rachel to come and stay. He really did want to get to know her better. Now he was starting to realise that he’d been hoping to get her to do things his way. To show her his way of life and hope that she would want it. This had shown him how precarious their situation was.
He pushed open the door to the guest room and stood back to let her past him. ‘This is yours,’ he said, even as he was turning away. He tried to brush past her—suddenly unable to think of being alone in a bedroom with her, and cursed the narrow doorway as he found himself pressed against her. He dropped his hands to her hips as he attempted to get by, but kept his eyes on their feet—determined not to be drawn in, not yet.
But the press of her body was electric against his, and her hair beneath his face smelt fresh and fruity. On impulse he lifted a lock of it, twisting it around his fingers. Rachel’s eyes snapped up to his, and for a long moment their gazes held. All sensible considerations threatened to fall away in the onslaught of her body on his senses. But he couldn’t give in to it. Couldn’t lose sight of all the reasons getting any more involved with her was an impossibility. Dropping her hair, and pulling his eyes away, he jogged down the stairs and leaned back against the wall as he reached the kitchen. It was starting to look as if his bright idea had been a huge mistake.
He returned upstairs with her suitcase and a glass of water. Reaching out to knock on the open door, he caught sight of Rachel, silhouetted by the window, looking out over the water. The light was catching her hair, highlighting every shade of chocolate and chestnut, and a subtle smile turned the corners of her lips. She looked almost dreamy, and at that moment he would have given just about anything to know what she was thinking. But his foot hit a creaky floorboard, and she turned around, her relaxed expression replaced by something more guarded.
‘This is beautiful,’ she said, glancing round the room as she took in the furniture he’d found, sanded, painted and waxed. The light he’d sculpted from a block of driftwood, and the seascapes painted by a local artist friend, mounted in frames he’d made in his workshop. But her eyes hovered on the evidence of his labour only briefly. Because they were drawn inexorably to the window, and out over the water. The window itself was an exercise in love and commitment. The product of arguments with planning authorities, and then wrestling with metres-long expanses of timber and glass, all to create this huge, unbroken picture of the sea. It was calm today, just a few white-crested waves breaking up the expanse of ever-shifting blue-green.
If he’d known beforehand, though, what it would have taken to get the thing finished—the hearings and the plans, and the revised plans and rescheduled hearings—he wasn’t sure that he could have started.
He handed Rachel the glass of water, and his gaze rested on her face rather than being drawn out to sea. Her eyelashes were long and soft, and brushed the skin beneath her eyes when she blinked. There were faint shadows there, he realised. He wondered whether they were new, or whether he’d just not seen them before. But he was struck by a protective instinct, the desire to look after her, ensure she was sleeping. Her hair had been pulled back into a loose tail—a style that owed more to her morning sickness than anything else, he guessed. The navy dress she wore wouldn’t have been out of place among the stiff suits at her office. His eyes finally dropped to her belly—still as flat as he remembered it, but where her child,
child, was growing. It seemed almost impossible that a whole life could be growing with no outward sign.
She turned, and must have caught the direction of his gaze, because her hands dropped to her tummy. She spread her fingers and palms, stretching the fabric flat against her, and then looked up and caught his eye.
‘Nothing to see yet,’ she said with a small, cautious smile. ‘It’ll be a couple more months before I start to show.’ He nodded again, as if he had the faintest clue about any of this. As if at the sight of her hands on her belly he wasn’t remembering the last time he’d seen her fingers spread across her skin like that. He held her gaze, wondering if she remembered, too. But she gave a little start, pulling back her shoulders and straightening her posture—leaving him in no way uncertain that if she was remembering, she wasn’t too happy about it.
‘I’ll see you downstairs,’ he said, giving her the space her expression told him she needed.
along the beach, Rachel felt the tension of the past few hours draining from her limbs, being replaced by the gentle warm glow of summer sunshine. They’d walked down the coastal path from the cottage, barely exchanging a word, but somehow the silence felt companionable, rather than awkward. She was taken aback, as she had been at the window upstairs, by the beauty of Leo’s home. It perched on a cliff above the beach, and even with the tarpaulin for a roof, and the building materials dumped in the yard, the way it nestled into the rock and sand, shutters on the outside of the window, even the way the front door reflected the colour of the sea all helped it look as if it were a natural part of the landscape, as if it had emerged from the Jurassic rocks fully formed and—almost—habitable.
With the sun warming her hair, and the gentle exercise distracting her from the slight queasiness still troubling her stomach, she reached a decision. They were never going to be able to be friends if they didn’t understand each other. Leo had asked her a question, one she’d avoided answering up till now, but he wanted to know why she needed a plan so badly, and if she was to stand any chance of him cooperating with it, then she at least had to expect to tell him why.
‘You asked me why I need a plan,’ she said, as they stopped momentarily to step over a pool of spray that had gathered on the rocks.
‘To feel safe, you said.’
She nodded, wondering how she could explain, where to start.
‘When I was fourteen, my parents left me home alone while they went out. It wasn’t anything special, just cinema and dinner, I think. I’d gone to bed, but woke up when I heard a noise from my dad’s study. I went downstairs and disturbed a burglar.’
Leo had stopped on the sand, and turned to face her. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he said, his face lined with genuine concern. ‘That must have been awful for you.’
‘I got a nasty bump to the head—he lashed out as he tried to get away—but I recovered pretty quickly. Not that you would have believed that if you’d listened to my parents.’
She dropped to her bottom in the sand, shielding her eyes from the sun and looking out over the water.
‘They blamed themselves,’ she explained. ‘Thought that they never should have left me, that I’d been in huge amounts of danger and that I’d been lucky to survive.’
‘They must have been so relieved that you hadn’t been more seriously hurt.’
She shook her head, trying not to get drawn back into the suffocating anxiety her parents had forced on her.
‘It never felt that way. They spent so much time concentrating on all the terrible things that could have happened, it got harder and harder to remember.’ She fell quiet as she watched the waves, and glanced up a couple of times, following the path of the seagulls above the water. The sand was warm beneath her thighs, and she turned her face to the sun, letting the rays soak into her skin. Because she’d still not got to the difficult bit.
It had never occurred to her before that her planning might be a problem. That her need to know when and how the events in her life would unfold had become something that held her back, rather than helped her. It wasn’t until she’d seen the revulsion in Leo’s face when he’d glimpsed her plan that she’d realised how others might see her, how far from ‘normal’ her life had become. But it didn’t really matter what anyone else thought about it. Even when that person was the father of her child, because she didn’t know how to live any differently.
‘I understand it must have been a difficult time...’ Leo had dropped to the sand beside her, looking out over the water, as she was, so she didn’t have to worry about his intensely blue eyes following every emotion that fluttered across her face. She wanted him to understand, because she wanted, needed, them to be friends. So she fought away the instinct to hide what had happened next, to protect herself and her family, by skirting around the behaviour that had locked them all into their fears.
‘It was, but what happened next was harder.’ It was the first time she’d admitted that. That the love and care that her parents had shown her in the weeks after the burglary had been more difficult to cope with than the initial trauma.
‘My parents wouldn’t let me out of the house.’ She really hadn’t meant for that to sound so dramatic. And she knew from the way that Leo had turned sharply to look at her that he’d misunderstood. ‘They didn’t lock me in or anything,’ she clarified quickly, imagining a bevy of policemen or social workers or other officials turning up on her parents’ doorstep and accusing them of crimes they’d never committed. ‘They were just worried about me, and they liked to know where I was. They became anxious if I was out of the house too long, so I was never allowed to friends’ houses or after-school clubs—I didn’t really have any hobbies outside of home.’
‘I still don’t see what this has to do with the plan you presented this morning,’ Leo said. His voice was soft, and his hand twitched in the sand, as if he wanted to reach for her. For a moment, she wished that he would. That he would thread his fingers with hers. Somehow she thought that it might be easier, to draw on his strength, to face her past together. Ridiculous, she told herself. They had only known each other a few weeks. Had really spent only a few waking hours together. There was no reason she should feel stronger just for having him there. But she couldn’t deny how that twitch of his hand had affected her, how much she wished for the contact.
‘I’ll get to it, I will. It’s just all tied up with everything else. I don’t know how to tell you
that, if you see what I mean.’ She turned to look at him and he nodded. ‘I was still in school, they at least thought that I could be safe there, but I could see how much I was missing. I was losing touch with my friends, having to go straight home every night while they were meeting in parks and shopping centres and fast-food places. I was lonely, and I knew that things couldn’t carry on as they were, with me speaking to no one outside school but my parents. So I negotiated a system. I would be allowed out with my classmates and friends if I provided my parents with a schedule of where I would be and when. They would have the landline numbers of anywhere I would be so that they could call and check I was really there. I had a mobile as well, of course, so that they could always get hold of me.
‘If I was going out at the weekend, I’d plot out exactly what I’d be doing and when, give the itinerary to my parents, and then stick to it like my life depended on it. If they called and I wasn’t where I was supposed to be, I knew that all hell could break loose. It wasn’t just that they’d ground me—I knew that they would be terrified. And much as I didn’t agree with the way they were wrapping me in cotton wool, I knew that they were only doing it because they loved me. Everything they did was because they were terrified of me getting hurt and they only wanted the best for me. I would never do anything that would upset them. They’d been through enough. Or felt that they had, at least. I didn’t want to add to it.’
‘So how long did it take?’
She looked at Leo in confusion.
‘How long did what take?’
‘Until it rubbed off. Until you started to believe that the schedule kept you safe, the same way your parents did.’
She started a little, surprised that he’d understood so clearly.
‘Well, my friends all thought it was a little odd, that I had to be where I had to be and exactly on time. But when I was living at home, it wasn’t easy to see where my parents’ need ended and mine started. It wasn’t until I went to university full of ideas of living on the edge, of being spontaneous and pleasing no one but myself, that I realised that I needed the schedule as much as they had.’
‘Leaving home. I guess that was hard on you all.’
‘It was. Painfully so. I had no idea before I left just how hard it would be. I’d known all along that it would be for them. But I could also see how strong the apron strings were, how they would get harder to break as I got older. So I managed to convince them that I had to have a normal life. And I was eighteen—there was nothing much they could do about it anyway. I think perhaps they worried that if they didn’t let me go, I’d take myself off and they might lose contact with me. If I went with their blessing, I was more likely to keep in touch.’
‘So how was it?’ Leo’s voice was still low, gentle, but probing. Encouraging her to share, leaving her nowhere to hide her secrets.
She let out a long, slow breath as she remembered those first few weeks, when she’d clung to her class schedule and the fresher’s week itinerary as if they were a lifeline.
‘Hard. Really hard. I didn’t know anyone, and my teen years had been pretty sheltered. The only way I knew how to cope with the confusion, the novelty of it all, was to make a plan and stick to it. So I mapped out the weeks and the months. Looked ahead to the career that I wanted and the life that I wanted, and started filling in the days in my calendar. Fast forward a decade or so, and here I am, right on track. Or was, until...’
‘Until you met me.’
She nodded, but something about the familiar intimacy in his voice, the hint of remembered laughter, made her smile.
‘So your first instinct was to make a new plan. You need it.’
‘I...I do,’ she admitted. ‘It seemed the only way to make sense of this whole situation. But seeing it through your eyes, it’s clear I need it a little too much, that there are times when going with the flow or being more flexible can have their place. But it’s not something I can just turn off. And trust me, I’ve never felt more like I need a plan than I have this week.’
‘So we’ll work something out together. Enough of a plan for you to feel comfortable and enough flexibility that it doesn’t feel like a prison to me.’ His voice sounded rough, low, and she looked up to catch the concern on his face, mixed with a distance she hadn’t felt from him before. He shook his head, and when he looked back at her his expression was lighter, sunnier.
‘When do we start?’
He laughed, and leant back on his arms, one of them nudging slightly behind her back. ‘How about not right this minute? If we say we’ll make a start today, is that enough of a plan for now?’
‘It’ll do.’ She grinned.
‘Good, because I’m starving, and I’m guessing after your spell in the bathroom you could use a big portion of fish and chips. What do you say?’
‘I say you’re a mind-reader. Where’s good?’
Leo pushed to his feet and reached down to help her up. As she felt her hand disappear between his huge, roughened palms, her body shuddered. Pulled to her feet, she realised that—without her heels—Leo towered over her. He’d pulled her up to him, and now she was probably standing a little too close. She should take a step back, she thought. But seeing Leo here, there was something hypnotising about it. Until now, she’d only ever seen him in her world: her party, her flat, her work. Here, by his home, surrounded by the beach and the sea that he loved so much, it added an extra dimension of sexy. It brought out the gold shining in his hair, made his slightly wind-chapped cheeks more attractive, like a good wine bringing out the flavours in food.
The wind had caught her hair, and was playing it around her temples, tickling at her face. She was reaching up to tame it when Leo caught it and tucked it behind her ear. His hand rested there, and for a moment Rachel was more than tempted to turn her face into his palm, to press her skin against his, to re-find the pleasure of that night. But she held her breath and stepped away. There was too much at risk; she could get too hurt. They needed to be friends and there was no surer way to ruin a friendship than a disastrous romance.
His eyes lingered on hers for a moment as she moved back, and his expression told her he knew exactly what she had felt between them just now, told her exactly what had been on offer, had she wanted it. And that he knew she’d deliberately stepped back from it.