Excerpt for Accidentally Together by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Accidentally Together


by



Jade Winters


Accidentally Together


by Jade Winters


Published by Wicked Winters Books



Copyright © 2016 Jade Winters


www.jade-winters.com


All rights reserved. This novel or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author.


All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.




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Chapter One


‘They laughed at me. Said I was a freak.’ The young woman sat opposite Emma, her long golden curls framing her oval-shaped face.

Emma swallowed hard. The hurtful things people said never failed to amaze her.

‘Who told you that, Louise?’ Emma prompted.

‘My …’ Louise hesitated, eyeing Emma cautiously.

‘It’s okay. You can tell me. Whatever you say goes no further than these four walls.’

‘My friends. They say I need fixing.’

‘Do you think you need fixing?’

Louise’s gaze fell to the floor, and her body curled into itself. In a harsh, low whisper, she said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know what I feel anymore.’

Bracing her elbows on her crossed knees, Emma leant forward. ‘Shall I let you in on something?’

Louise’s head shot up, her expression full of guileless optimism.

Emma couldn’t suppress the lopsided smile teasing her lips. On rare occasions, she would share snippets of her life with her clients to put them at ease, especially when their struggles mirrored hers so painfully.

‘Yes … please,’ Louise said and straightened, her posture open to the information.

‘I’m gay.’

Louise’s mouth dropped open and her eyes widened. Emma saw a million questions buzzing through her head.

‘As a teenager, I was like you. A war raged inside me. Half of me knew who I really was, but the other half fought viciously to stay in denial.’

Louise’s eyes filled with unbidden tears, but unlike so many of their previous sessions, self-hatred didn’t burn within them.

‘How—’ The rest of the sentence stuck in Louise’s throat, but Emma was sure of the question.

‘How did I figure it out?’

Louise gave her a quick, hard nod.

Progress, Emma thought and continued. ‘Something beautiful … something wonderful happened.’

An image of full lips and sparkling grey eyes flashed in her mind. Emma let the memories flood her, and familiar warmth spread through her body.

‘Something so profound that it irrevocably shaped the person I am today.’

Louise took a long inhalation. ‘What happened?’

Lost in thought, Emma twisted a thin silver band on her right hand. Louise waited patiently for her to fill the silence.

‘School was difficult, as you can imagine.’

Louise nodded.

‘My last year was especially tough. I was just beginning to come to terms with my sexuality. Even though I hadn’t fully come out, my classmates were more than happy to make me feel like I was different at every possible opportunity.

‘One day, as I was walking across the school grounds trying to get to my next class, the usual treatment ensued. People called me names and threw bits of paper at me. A few boys offered to “turn” me …’

Emma stalled. Even after years of distance and her own affirmations, the memories still left phantom cuts on her skin.

‘Go on,’ Louise urged.

A smile spread across Emma’s lips. ‘Then, out of nowhere, the most popular girl in school walked up to me.’

The memory of the sun caressing Lauren’s beautiful blonde hair, turning it into a halo around her gorgeous face, pervaded Emma’s mind.

She remembered Lauren striding towards her, her eyes determined and serious, the uniform, which appeared drab and lifeless on everyone else, showcasing her curves and femininity. Everyone hushed around them as she stopped in front of Emma.

Emma braced herself for another cutting remark. Lauren had always been a mystery to her—wildly popular, but separate from the pack, like a goddess among mortals. And while Lauren had never bullied her, with a million eyes on them, Emma was sure it would only take a second for Lauren to crack and copy everyone else.

Lauren’s hand rose, and Emma winced, expecting a slap or a pinch, but what Lauren did devastated her far more. She stroked Emma’s cheek and brushed the loose strands of hair behind her ear.

Everything around her faded—the noisy chatter, the twittering birds, the horns blown by angry commuters on the nearby road—leaving only Lauren and her mesmerizing grey eyes.

‘What did she do?’ Louise asked, her voice as hushed as Emma’s memories.

Emma cleared her throat, trying to stay present. Her heart fluttered as she said, ‘She kissed me.’

The sensation of that first kiss, those sweet lips pressed against hers, the delicious tingle permeating her body, and the absolute rightness of Lauren thrumming in her soul—it all confirmed what she’d always known.

Emma’s arms encircled Lauren, and Lauren leant into the kiss.

Nothing else mattered.

Not Emma’s fear.

Not her hatred or self-loathing.

This beautiful girl was kissing her, and Emma’s entire universe narrowed to the feel of Lauren’s lips.

‘She kissed you?’ Louise’s disbelief was clear.

Emma did not miss a beat. ‘Yes, in front of everyone. I expected them to say something, but Lauren had shocked them into silence. Then the most amazing thing happened.’

Louise’s gaze was intense. ‘What?’

‘I stopped fighting myself. I turned my shame into pride. Don’t misunderstand. I was still very much a misfit and a weirdo, but I was the weirdo with the hot lipstick lesbian girlfriend.’ Emma smirked, and Louise snorted a laugh.

‘Things were easier,’ Emma continued thoughtfully, ‘and clearer for me after that.’

Louise sniffled and asked, ‘What happened? I mean with that girl? Did you guys stay together?’

Hope bloomed in Louise’s eyes, hope for her future through Emma’s past.

The old sadness, an ache heavy with regret and loss, pulsed in her.

‘Sorry, no.’ The memory of Lauren’s eyes, her bright smile, the sigh on her lips as they kissed, cascaded like a waterfall in her mind. ‘She suddenly left school and moved away. I never saw her again.’

‘Was she your first love?’

‘Yes.’ My only love.

Chapter Two


Emma approached Chez Fred Café. She was late. Damn, she hated being late, especially when it wasn’t her fault. Instead of the hour she’d planned on spending with her mum catching up on family gossip, she’d be lucky to enjoy her company for forty minutes—if that. Forty minutes in six months. At one point in her life, that had been the exception. Nowadays, it was the norm.

Narrowly avoiding a collision with a couple exiting the restaurant, Emma held the door open and stood at the threshold on her tiptoes, surveying her surroundings. Waiters and waitresses wove between tables in the bustling café. Despite it barely being midday, the majority of the tables were occupied, and a hum of conversation complemented the soft classical music playing in the background. Spotting her mother’s mop of frizzy blonde hair, Emma hurried to her, hoping the perspiration oozing from her pores wouldn’t leave two ugly wet patches under her armpits.

Without a word, Alex, her mother’s husband, glanced up at her from lowered brows, his fingers fiddling with a saltshaker. Emma avoided his gaze.

‘I know I’m late, but we were originally meeting at one.’ To hide her agitation, she glanced over at a child having a full-blown meltdown a few feet away on the floor.

If the kid thinks life’s bad at her age, wait until she reaches adulthood.

‘You do realise we’ve been waiting since eleven thirty.’

She snapped her head back around at Alex’s accusatory tone. ‘To be fair, you guys changed the time and didn’t exactly give me much notice. I was with a client when you texted. I couldn’t exactly reply while she was spilling her heart out.’

Alex sighed. ‘It’s irrelevant now.’

Ignoring him, Emma removed her jacket and dropped a kiss on her mother’s cheek. She then acknowledged her stepsister, Hope, with a hug.

‘It’s so good to catch up, Mum. I’ve been looking forward to seeing you for ages,’ Emma said as she sat down and reached for the menu. She’d only had a cup of tea and a biscuit for breakfast, and she had every intention of making up for it. ‘Shall we order lunch? I’m famished.’

‘We’re not stopping for lunch. Not here anyway,’ Alex said. ‘My mate, Dave, got us a table at the Shard.’

‘The Shard! No! Really?’ she said with no attempt to hide her delight. ‘I’ve—’

‘Your mum and me are going—by ourselves,’ Alex said, cutting her excitement short. ‘Do you know how expensive that place is?’

What the actual Talk about replacing the dangling carrot with a sledgehammer.

Emma scanned the menu. What was the point in getting upset? The Shard was only a sodding restaurant that served the yummiest food ever! Or so she’d gathered from reading the rave reviews on TripAdvisor. ‘Oh, for a minute I thought—’

‘Wait … we wanted to give you your birthday present first,’ Stella said, reaching down beside her. She set a bag onto her knees and withdrew a nondescript, medium-sized box. Flipping the lid off, she plonked it down in front of Emma. ‘There you go, sweetheart. Happy birthday.’

Emma gaped at the object inside the box while her mind scrambled for something to say. Her gaze flicked to her mum then to Alex then back to her mum.

Hoping she had achieved the correct facial expression, she said, ‘Wow. What can I say? They’re … great!’

‘Are you sure you like them?’ Stella asked, frowning.

‘Are you kidding? What sane person living bang in the middle of London wouldn’t be impressed with a pair of …’ She glanced inside the box again. ‘A pair of binoculars?’

‘That’s good, ’cause we weren’t sure what to get you,’ Stella said. ‘I told Al how much you loved looking up at the sky when you were little …’

Emma thought it best not to mention that the actual likelihood of seeing anything in the night sky was practically zero due to light pollution.

‘And since we couldn’t afford a telescope,’ Alex said, his deep voice drowning out Stella’s, ‘I suggested the next best thing. It was by chance I found them in the garage when I was having a clear out the other day.’

‘You found my birthday present in your garage?’ Can this day get any worse? Surely not!

‘Yep. Waste not, want not, as they say,’ Alex said. He looked extremely pleased with himself.

Smug bastard. Emma shot a look at Hope, who was struggling to keep a straight face.

‘Right, now that’s over with, let’s get a move on, Stell.’ Alex pushed his chair back. ‘I want to make the most of this afternoon.’

‘What do you mean, “get a move on”?’ Emma asked. ‘Aren’t you even going to have a coffee with me, Mum? They serve one killer cheesecake—your favourite. I can vouch for it being the most delicious one I’ve ever tasted. Do you wanna try some?’

‘Best not, Stell,’ Alex said and stood. ‘It’ll only spoil your lunch.’

Emma flicked back her long, dark hair. ‘I’m sure one bite won’t make much difference.’

‘No, Alex is right. I best not,’ Stella said and leant down to pick up her handbag from the floor.

‘Fine, go then,’ Emma said, throwing her hands in the air. ‘It’s not as if this is a special birthday or anything. Thirty’s no biggie.’

Stella dropped her bag and gave Alex an imploring look. ‘Do we have time for one coffee, Al? It is her birthday.’

‘All right, just the one. But make it quick.’ Alex’s face darkened with annoyance as he reclaimed his chair. He caught the attention of a waiter by clicking his fingers and beckoned him over.

‘Thirty. I can’t believe you’re that old already … and still single.’ Stella fussed with her hair as she said this, appearing nonchalant, but her words cut deep into Emma’s self-esteem. It might have been slightly amusing had it not been true.

Chapter Three


The hustle and bustle of London was in full swing outside Braithwaite House in Vauxhall. Behind the entrance door, Lauren pressed her forehead against the glass, her eyes narrowed to slits as she observed every stranger passing by. Not for the first time, she regretted returning to London, but the opportunity had been too good to turn down, despite the risk. Sensing there was nothing to be alarmed about, Lauren pulled open the heavy door and stepped out under the canopied entrance. Turning towards her destination, she paused.

Come on, come on. You can do this. Just put one foot in front of the other and go. It was silly to feel apprehensive after so many years had passed, but being back in London for the first time since it had all happened unnerved her.

She started down the pavement and had barely walked a hundred yards, when, without warning, a hand closed over her right shoulder from behind. Panic overrode her mind. Her temples thumped and a faint buzzing filled her ears. Instinctively, she grabbed the wrist, twisted it with all her strength, and she spun around to face its owner, ready for a showdown.

A slim man around the same height as her, sporting a wayward mass of hair and dressed in a scruffy t-shirt and black jeans, stared back at her. He looked more like an immature man-child than the imposing monster she’d been expecting.

His thin face creased in pain, and he yanked his hand back. ‘Jesus, Lauren, easy. You could’ve broken my wrist. It’s me, Mike. Remember? From school?’

Lauren gawked at him, frozen. Her hammering heart slammed against her ribcage. No one had called her that name in public for years. Not since …

‘You really don’t recognise me, do you?’ Honest confusion rose in his voice. ‘I haven’t changed that much, have I?’

Shit, and neither have I by the look of things. Lauren pulled her black hoodie over her head. She had deliberately dressed down in jeans and a leather jacket, naïvely believing she could blend in with the hundreds of other ash-blonde women in London. Obviously not.

‘You’re mistaken,’ she snapped. ‘My name isn’t Lauren.’

Mike’s eyes burnt a hole in her back as she scurried down the road.

Before she reached the edge of the pavement to hail a taxi, he called out,

‘Who you trying to kid? I never forget a face. Especially yours, babe. Never!’

Lauren jumped into the back of the cab and gave the driver the address. Slumping against the hard leather seat, she willed herself to calm down and stop blowing innocent incidents out of proportion. Okay, so he recognised me. Big deal. He didn’t see what building I came out of—or did he? Great, paranoia strikes again.

Gulping down the bile that had heaved up into her throat, she twisted around in her seat to look at Mike, who was still standing in the middle of the pavement. She remembered him all right. How could she forget? He was one of the creepiest people she had ever met.

By the time the taxi dropped her outside the Cotes House Art Gallery, Lauren’s apprehension had turned to excitement at the prospect of having her very first exhibition in London. Though she’d had several exhibitions throughout Europe, holding one on her home turf felt special.

She opened the door and caught sight of Frankie, her long-time agent, leaning against the wall, legs locked at the ankles. He was tall and powerfully built, with a thick, dark tangle of hair. A tight white t-shirt and red waistcoat covered his muscular torso and his thick thighs were encased in a pair of fitted jeans. In front of him, a thin woman, no older than twenty, hugged a folder to her chest as she rocked back and forth on her heels.

Before Lauren could announce her presence, the entrance door slipped from her grasp and closed with a bang. They turned in her direction.

‘Vikki, darling, you made it,’ he said, pushing off the wall and gliding towards her with open arms.

‘Am I too early?’ Lauren stepped into his embrace and gave him a tight squeeze.

‘You, my darling, could never be too early.’ Frankie drew back and, with one arm, gestured to several framed black-and-white photos adorning the walls. They were part of Lauren’s ‘Unseen Collection,’ due to be exhibited at the gallery in two weeks.

‘Well, what do you think? Impressive, huh?’

Lauren gave a slow nod. She gazed at the images as if seeing them for the first time. Still haunted by the despair in the eyes of some of her subjects, she moved away from Frankie to stand before the photographs of individuals going about their daily lives in Paris—strangers who had been caught in the lens of her camera, totally unaware of her presence. The omniscient one.

She knew that haunted look well. It was one she saw in her eyes often enough.

‘How’re you settling in the apartment?’ Frankie asked, breaking the spell.

Lauren turned to him. ‘Better than expected.’

‘That’s what I like to hear.’

‘Renting through Airbnb is much better than staying in a hotel. It’s exactly what I needed.’

‘Good! But if for any reason you want a change of scenery, you can stay at my place, okay?’

Lauren shook her head. ‘As soon as the show’s over, I’m going back to Paris. No two ways about it.’

‘Well the option’s there. Right, let’s grab some coffee and then we’ll get down to business. Molly, sweetheart,’ he called out to the woman he’d been speaking with. ‘Two coffees, please. One with milk and two sugars.’

Molly nodded and disappeared through a set of doors at the back of the gallery.

Frankie pointed to a stack of frames leaning against a wall. ‘If we can sort out which ones you want where, that’ll be half the battle. I have an art journalist lined up to interview you tomorrow, and—’

‘They’re aware of the rules, aren’t they?’

‘Of course, darling. They get the interview on the condition that they only print your work, no photos of you. It’s all sorted, don’t worry.’

‘I try not to, but I can’t be too careful.’

Frankie gave her a sympathetic look. ‘I know.’

‘I had a run-in with someone from school on the way here.’

‘Really? Who?’

‘This guy called Mike. He’s the kind of person you always feel uncomfortable around, his eyes scan you like an x-ray machine.’

‘Do you think he—’

Lauren wrapped her arms around herself. ‘Who knows? It could be anyone.’

‘You know you’re safe with me, right?’

Before she could reply, the clicking of high heels on the tiled floor announced Molly’s return. She came into view, heading towards them with a mug in each hand.

‘Great. Here’s the coffee,’ Frankie said, clasping his hands together. ‘Shall we begin?’

Lauren was grateful for the interruption. Frankie wouldn’t have been impressed with her answer. The truth was she didn’t trust anybody—not even him.

Chapter Four


Alex ordered three coffees without consulting anyone on their preferences. Emma stared at him blankly. She opened her mouth to ask where he got off treating them like children, but nothing came out. What was the point? The much awaited ‘lunch date’ had already been spoilt.

‘So what’ve you got planned for tonight, birthday girl?’ Hope asked.

Absolutely nothing! ‘Oh, you know, the usual,’ Emma murmured.

‘What’s that then?’ Hope pressed, humour dancing in her eyes.

Unfortunately, Hope wasn’t sitting close enough for Emma to kick her under the table for putting her on the spot, so she settled for throwing her a venomous glance.

‘Actually, Kelly and the girls are taking me out for drinks after work for an all-nighter.’

‘That’ll be nice. I don’t think I’ve met Kelly before,’ Stella said. ‘Is she one of your special friends?’

Hope hid her mouth behind her hand, but not before Emma glimpsed her row of white teeth.

‘No, Mum, she’s not my girlfriend. Just a work colleague.’

‘If only you’d meet a nice young man, you could settle down and have children. I hate to think of you alone, especially at your age.’ Stella’s voice had turned arid.

‘At my age? I’m not exactly a sixty-year-old spinster or a “failure”. And there’s no way on earth I’m going to settle down with a man just because I’m despera—I mean single.’

Making a show of examining the binoculars, she mentally ticked off what she had achieved in her life: I own an apartment. I’m in a job I like—no, love. And? Her mind blanked. Come on, I must have more than two achievements. If she did, her stubborn brain refused to reveal them. Okay, I’ll have to come back to that, she told herself, convinced her memory just needed a jump start.

Right, now for the things I still want to do. I definitely want to travel more. Fiji, New Zealand. Maybe get a furry companion? She questioned this and decided she wanted to wait until she upgraded her living conditions by moving into a house with a garden. I want to feel more than like I’m playing a role in life. I want to feel important to someone and be truly loved. An involuntary tightness gripped the back of her throat. I want to feel that excitement in my stomach, like I did fourteen years ago.

Why did her mum always assume she was single by choice, as if it was her fault the women she met didn’t live up to the fantasy in her head? She cursed herself daily for this affliction, but her heart simply refused to settle for second best.

Emma rested the binoculars on the table.

‘Anyway, I’d be more worried about Hope,’ she said in an attempt to divert her mother’s attention away from her. ‘She’s thirty-one and still takes her dirty clothes to the laundry for a service wash.’

‘Only because I have better things to do with my time,’ Hope responded.

Emma’s face twisted into a sneer. ‘Like what, post selfies on Facebook?’

‘Now, now you two, stop bickering,’ Stella said.

Hope stuck her tongue out at Emma then said, ‘We’re not bickering. It’s called banter. It’s what adults do when they’re too old to fight.’

A waitress approached the table. Smoky grey eyes briefly met Emma’s, then without saying a word, she laid out three coffees on the table. Emma watched her swagger to the bar and whisper something to her colleague, who looked over at her. They’re probably taking the piss out of my binoculars.

Alex picked up the receipt and scanned it. ‘Bloody hell, have you seen this, Stell? Three quid for a measly cup of coffee.’

He took out his wallet and fished inside.

‘Don’t worry about it. I’ll cover it,’ Hope said.

‘It’s all right, I’ve got it,’ he said. ‘Thankfully birthdays are only once a year.’

Stella readily agreed. ‘I’m glad I only had the one child. How people afford more, I’ll never know.’

‘All those bloody benefits and what not the government doles out like sweets, that’s how,’ Alex said.

Hope gritted her teeth. ‘Please, Dad. Do we have to have this conversation again? We all know your views on immigration and single mothers.’

He cracked his knuckles, causing Emma to wince. ‘It’s the truth, isn’t it?’

The conversation soon reached a stalemate. Stella broke the tense silence with chatter about her bridge club, while Alex kept a watchful eye on their cups.

When Stella took her last sip of coffee, Alex said, ‘Let’s get out of here before they charge us for breathing the air.’

He threw the exact money on the table to cover the bill.

‘Good idea,’ Emma said. She put the lid on the box, scooted her chair back, and got ready to leave.

Outside, standing in the middle of the pavement, Alex patted the pockets of his jacket and trousers. ‘Where’ve I put my sodding keys?’

Emma drew in several long, deep breaths. Alex misplacing his car keys was such a regular occurrence that she had suggested he keep them on a chain around his neck. Preferably a tight chain!

‘Calm down, Alex. Check inside your jacket,’ Stella suggested.

Alex did as she had advised, and after a few seconds, his hand reappeared with his keys in it.

‘Honestly, Alex, I don’t know what you’d do without me.’

Alex pulled Stella into an embrace and kissed her on the mouth. ‘Wither away and die, my lovely.’

Stella gave him a rueful laugh. ‘Oh, you’re such a charmer.’

‘That’s why you married me, isn’t it?’

Emma glanced at her wristwatch. As much as she’d love to stand around and bear witness to their gushy display of affection, she’d prefer to be at work.

‘Right, Mum, Alex, am I seeing you at Easter?’

Stella stepped forward, put her arm around Emma’s shoulders, and pulled her close. ‘We’ll let you know if we haven’t made plans.’

Emma stiffened and eased out of Stella’s embrace. ‘Yeah, well, let me know in advance, ’cause I might have plans myself. Have a great afternoon you two.’

‘We will. I’ll get Stell to email you some pictures,’ Alex said as he opened the car door.

‘Thanks,’ Emma replied, only half listening. ‘I look forward to it.’

Emma and Hope watched from the pavement as their parents’ blue 4x4 Mercedes disappeared down the street.

‘Thank God that’s over,’ Hope said.

‘No comment.’

‘I can’t believe how insensitive your mum can be sometimes.’

It was nothing new. Why it still pissed Hope off, she didn’t know. Emma had been relegated to the backseat when her mum and Alex married fifteen years earlier. Their once close mother-daughter relationship was no longer.

‘It really doesn’t matter.’

‘Doesn’t matter?’ Hope planted her hands on her hips. ‘It’s your thirtieth birthday and she couldn’t spare you an hour. Then to add insult to injury, they gave you some old toot my dad found in his garage, and you’re saying it doesn’t matter?’

Emma’s brows drew together. ‘It’s the thought that counts, I suppose.’

‘The thought?’ Hope nudged her with her shoulder. ‘Be honest. You’re fuming inside, aren’t you?’

Emma opened her hands in a gesture of defeat. ‘Okay, okay, just a little—’

‘A little?’

‘All right, a lot then. It’s not so much the gift. I can’t believe my mum didn’t want to spend time with me.’

‘If you gave me a pound every time you said that—’

‘Yeah, I know, you’d be a millionaire,’ she finished for her.

‘Exactly. So where’re you going for drinks later?’

‘Nowhere.’ Emma could admit the truth now that her mum was gone. ‘But thanks for needling me about it. Some great stepsister you are.’

‘You shouldn’t be pissed off with me. You should be calling out your mum on her behaviour. She treats you like a distant relative she’s obliged to make time for.’

‘Come on, she’s not that bad. You’re making her sound like—’

‘The bitch she is?’ Hope suggested.

‘She’s not a bitch. She’s just wrapped up in your dad, that’s all. I’m glad she has someone and isn’t alone.’ Unlike me!

A strand of dark hair fell onto Hope’s forehead, and she brushed it away with the back of her hand. ‘I must have been born inside the wrong body or something, ’cause I’ll never understand women for as long as I live.’

‘There’s nothing to understand. It is what it is.’

‘If you say so,’ Hope said, looking wholly unconvinced.

Dark, heavy clouds amassed, blackening the sky. A droplet of rain fell on the tip of Emma’s nose. Why did her birthday have to fall right in the middle of January, when the weather was absolute pants? It was either raining or … well, raining.

‘On that note, I’d better get going.’ Emma swung her bag over her shoulder and started down the road.

‘So what’re you really doing tonight?’ Hope called after her.

‘Flaking out in front of the telly with a bottle of wine.’

‘Fancy some company?’

Emma turned around but continued walking backwards. ‘Sure.’

‘We can stargaze with your new binoculars.’

‘Don’t you mean cloud gaze?’ she said, feigning an enthusiasm she was far from feeling. ‘Can’t wait.’




Chapter Five


The rain hammered the pavement as Lauren arrived at her apartment building. The day had been productive, and she was happy with the way the exhibition was shaping up. After a gruelling few hours of indecision, she had finally worked out the placement and order of the images.

Shaking out the umbrella Frankie had lent her, she bypassed the lift in the lobby and headed straight for the stairs.

Before ascending, she peeked between the gap in the stairwell, looking and listening for anyone coming down. Satisfied she was alone, she bounded up the carpeted stairs two at a time, slowing her pace at each landing to listen for anyone descending.

Upon reaching the twentieth floor, she used the wall to steady herself as she walked down the hallway, panting. The building was thirty stories tall, and she was relieved she hadn’t rented the penthouse like she had initially intended.

As soon as she entered the apartment, she walked straight into the kitchen. Though it wasn’t very large, it had all the mod cons a kitchen needed: microwave, double oven, and most importantly, a dishwasher. She grabbed a bottle of water from the integrated fridge and took several gulps between breaths, her lungs burning with the need for air.

Lauren discarded her jacket and strode into the homely L-shaped living room. Prints of Banksy artwork hung on the walls and fluffy pink cushions were piled on a large fabric sofa. Passing by a glass dining table with four leather high-back chairs, she slid open one of the huge double-glazed windows, parted her lips, and drew in a mouthful of cool air. She inhaled for three seconds and exhaled for five until her breathing levelled out, but she remained at the window, drinking in what she could of the London skyline. To the left, the MI6 building—a post-modern concrete and glass Aztec temple—stood tall and imposing. Its presence was strangely comforting. The thought of all those spies close by added a sense of safety. My very own James Bond on call—if only.

Straight ahead stood an apartment building identical to hers.

Movement in one of the rooms directly opposite caught her attention. Squinting, she could just make out a woman with long plaited hair. She was folding laundry and piling it in a stack with her back to the room. Lauren watched as a dark-haired man snuck up behind her, and the woman spun around, knocking the washing to the floor. The man brought forth a spray of flowers from behind his back, and the woman fell into his arms. Seconds later, they left the room, holding hands.

Lauren next saw them in the bedroom. The man walked over to the window, loosening his tie, and closed the blinds. The loving scene reminded Lauren of Fiona. Had they looked that happy and in love to onlookers? She spat out the strands of blonde hair a clammy wind had blown across her face. However we looked together doesn’t matter now. As of seven months ago, Lauren and her ex were through. Done, dusted, finito!

How did it happen? How could a woman declare her love for you, whilst seeing someone else behind your back? Fiona’s excuse for cheating was that she needed to find herself. She needed time.

Time. That’s exactly what Lauren had given her when she packed her bags and ended the relationship. Now all Lauren wanted was time for herself and lots of it. She should have known better than to think a relationship with someone as selfish as Fiona could have worked. But she’d been smitten with the tall, dark-haired, athletic woman, and she had ignored the red flags telling her things wouldn’t work out. Was I ever being realistic to think they would?

Her phone buzzed, and Lauren groaned when the caller ID lit up. Knowing Fiona wouldn’t give up if she didn’t answer, she connected the call. Swishing her hair aside, she put the phone to her ear.

‘Yes?’ she answered, letting her irritation ring loud and clear.

‘C’est moi.’

‘I know.’ Unfortunately.

Silence.

‘’Ave you been avoiding my calls?’

Lauren rubbed her temples with the tips of her fingers. She was certain Fiona had lost the plot. ‘Avoid your calls? Why on earth would I do a thing like that?’

‘So you’re okay?’

‘Yes, I’m fine. I’ve never been better.’ Especially since I threw your cheating arse out of my life.

‘Look, we need to talk.’

‘No, I’m busy.’

‘Unpacking?’

‘Yeah, unpacking.’ She glanced at the unopened suitcase by the sofa. Ready to go, just in case.

‘Dibs is pining for you. ’e misses you.’

Lauren pictured Fiona’s scruffy, wire-haired Jack Russell and the corners of her mouth turned up despite herself.

‘I miss him too,’ she mumbled.

‘What about me?’

‘What about you?’

‘Do you miss me?’

‘Fi, it’s been seven months. You need to stop this. I wish you would accept it’s over and move on with your life like I have,’ she said in a monotonous, but firm voice. Fiona had hurt her in the worst possible way, and Lauren hated being hurt, by anyone.

‘N’importe quoi!’

Lauren disconnected the call. Immediately, the phone rang again. Pressing the power button, she turned it off and threw it on the sofa.

Lauren wound a strand of hair around her finger. Fiona’s call had put her on edge. Despite her efforts to convince herself everything was okay, she feared something was bound to blow up in her face and send her scuttling back into hiding. She’d told herself that things were different. She was back in the city, older, and under a pseudonym. Nobody knew who she was or where she was. Nothing could happen to her, could it?

Then why did she wake up in the middle of the night unable to breathe, with her heart pounding? Why did her eyes have dark shadows in them?

Because you can walk away from the past, but it still whispers your name in the dark, taunting you.


Chapter Six


During times like these, when darkness blanketed the city, Emma regretted living in a two-bedroom apartment. The spacious accommodation somehow reinforced her loneliness. As much as she’d tried to fill her home with multi-coloured tables and chairs from Ikea and oversized fabric sofas from DFS, the pressing silence was a constant reminder that she was alone. It was crazy when she thought about it. Over eight million people lived in London. How could she not find her soulmate? No one serious had been in her life since forever.

That’s what happens when you fall in love with a fantasy. But what a fantasy. Long, lustrous hair. Dark, brooding grey eyes. A luscious mouth so full and soft, ripe for kissing. And—Oh God, don’t let me even think about her fit body. A sensual, hot rush flooded downwards. After all of these years, she still has an effect on me.

Before Emma could dwell on the memory of Lauren any further, the doorbell chimed. Overwhelmed by the memory, she stood too quickly and banged her knee against the coffee table. Rubbing the sore spot, she limped to the door. Emma lifted the intercom phone then buzzed Hope in before leaving the front door ajar and returning to the living room.

‘For you.’ Hope handed her a gift bag in one hand and a bouquet of flowers in the other as she walked in a few minutes later.

‘Sweet,’ Emma said, forgetting about the dull ache in her knee. She peeked inside the bag. ‘Ooh pink champagne and raspberry truffles. You know how to treat a girl, don’t ya?’

Emma gave Hope a hug then led the way to the kitchen. She gestured for Hope to take a seat at the table while she filled a vase with water.

‘How was work?’ Hope asked.

‘Let’s just say I was glad to escape today. Tell me something?’ she said, untwisting the wire from the champagne bottle. ‘Why are women so bloody bitchy? I mean seriously, we’re all at work trying to make a living, but there always has to be one queen bee making it shit for everyone else.’

‘I take it Wendy’s pissing you off?’

Emma snorted. ‘When isn’t she? Honestly, that woman’s snooty attitude makes my blood boil. She’s always looking down on people. She was actually complaining about the way the kids who come for counselling dress. Can you believe that? Like it really matters.’

‘I must admit, after meeting her for the first time, I wondered why such a hard-nosed cow would be in a job that requires compassion and understanding.’

‘That’s neither here nor there when you’re good at getting sponsors to part with their cash. In that sense, she’s a star.’

‘That’s why I prefer working from home. The less contact I have with people, the more I can convince myself that humanity on a whole isn’t devolving. You know the saying, “The more people I meet, the more I like my dog”. Well, that’s me, and I don’t even have a dog!’ Hope laughed sardonically.

Emma eased the cork from the bottle with only the slightest pop, poured the fizzy liquid into two tall glasses, and handed one to Hope. ‘Some of us aren’t lucky enough to work for ourselves.’

‘Believe me, I count my blessings every day.’ Hope lifted her glass in a toast. ‘Happy birthday.’

‘Thanks.’ Emma raised her glass and took a sip of her champagne. The bubbles danced in her mouth, and she licked her lips. ‘Hmm, now this is nice.’

‘Do you wanna hit a bar and get hammered?’

Emma looked down at her jogging bottoms and slippers. ‘I haven’t got the energy to change again. I was gonna order pizza and watch a film on Sky Movies.’

‘Or better still,’ Hope said, scrambling to her feet. ‘We can check out the sky with your birthday present. You never know, we might get lucky and spot a UFO.’

‘Yeah right.’

‘Come on, don’t be a spoilsport. You might as well try them out.’

‘Oh, all right. Let’s finish this bottle first, then I’ll go and grab them,’ Emma said and took a swig of her drink.

An hour later, they were standing on Emma’s small balcony, which she referred to as her garden in the sky. Wilted plants and flowers lined the railing, which she had every intention of reviving once spring arrived.

‘Just as I thought,’ Hope said. ‘I can’t see anything. Not even a plane’s visible in that miserable, dull sky.’

Emma looked up. ‘Maybe it’ll be better in the summer?’

‘Like I’m waiting for the summer. You know what we can do?’

‘What?’ Emma was feeling tipsy and desperately wanted to go inside; a double cheese meat feast pizza beckoned.

‘Some serious spying.’

‘What, looking at people in their homes? No thanks. I’m no pervert.’

‘Go on. It’s only a bit of fun.’

‘What if someone sees us?’

‘We’re twenty-two floors up. Who’s gonna see us?’

Emma shrugged, mortified at the thought of spying on people. ‘I dunno. I feel a bit uneasy about it, that’s all.’

‘Okay, goody two-shoes, you don’t have to look if you don’t want to.’

‘Oh, all right then,’ Emma said. ‘But promise me that if anyone’s naked or doing the deed we’ll stop looking.’

‘Boring, but if you insist. Now let’s see what your neighbours get up to behind closed doors.’ Hope lifted the lenses to her eyes and swivelled her head from left to right.

‘Can you see anything?’

Hope’s nose twitched. ‘Some bird on her phone, having an argument by the looks of it.’ She tilted her head back. ‘A couple having drinks. Ooh look, look, he’s making a move on her.’

‘Let me see, let me see. Are they having sex?’ Emma said, grabbing at the binoculars.

Hope brushed her hand away, lowered the binoculars, frowned, then lifted them for another look. ‘Wait a minute.’

‘What are they doing? Tell me.’

‘Nothing. These lenses are shit. Everything’s blurry. I don’t know what your mum thought you’d see through them.’ She spat out the words as if they made her physically ill.

‘Well they wouldn’t be state of the art on their budget, even if they’d bought them especially,’ Emma said, retrieving the binoculars from Hope to look for herself.

Straight ahead, she caught a pair of dark curtains closing. Too late! She moved across to the next window and saw a mother sitting in an armchair, breastfeeding a child. Boring! Moving on, she settled on a window showcasing a large, sleekly furnished living room. Two women were sitting on a sofa. Emma gasped when one of them stood and began swaying her hips from side to side to unheard music. Now this is what I’m talking about.

Suddenly, she was very happy with her ‘unusual’ birthday present. As much as she wanted to lower her gaze, she remained transfixed by the window show. Lithe arms pulled the shirt over a dark head, bringing a slim torso and lace-covered breasts into view.

When Hope called from the living room, Emma reluctantly returned inside.

‘They shouldn’t have bothered giving you those.’

‘I don’t know. They might come in handy,’ she said cryptically, her mind fixed on the dancing woman in the apartment across the road. She wondered if she was naked yet and giving her lover a lap dance. Emma was tempted to go and have another peek, but thought better of it. Wasn’t this exactly what she had told Hope she didn’t want to do? Hope would never let her live it down if she found out.

‘Come in handy for what? Giving you an eye ache? If you want, I can flog them on eBay for you,’ she said, switching on the TV with the remote control.

Emma laid the binoculars on the window ledge and went in search of the pizza menu. ‘That seems a bit mean.’

By midnight, Hope had fallen asleep in the armchair. Emma rubbed her eyes, gathered the empty pizza boxes by her feet, and stood. She looked down at Hope and decided to let her sleep. Hope would go to bed when she woke up with a numb arm like she normally did when she leant on it for too long.

Emma did a quick tidy and was on her way back to her bedroom when she remembered she’d left the binoculars in the living room. Retrieving them, she headed back up the hallway. Despite her best intentions, she found herself at her window, looking out with her spyglasses at the apartments opposite hers.

‘Oh well,’ she said when she saw that the lesbian couple’s curtains were drawn.

There’s always tomorrow night.

Chapter Seven


What I need is a hot sea-salt bath and yes, Lauren admitted to herself, sex. One drawback of single life was the lack of a warm body next to you. And that’s why the rampant rabbit was invented: for frisky, single women like me.

Lauren padded down the hallway to the bathroom, stripping at the open doorway. She spied her nakedness as she passed the large mirror. Weekly kick boxing lessons had kept her in shape and the muscles in her slim arms were well defined. Bending over the bathtub, she turned the tap, releasing a gush of hot water, and sank the plug in the hole. As she poured in the sea salts, she heard the faint ring of her phone. She considered leaving it, but then remembered Frankie had said earlier he’d call to see if she wanted to go out for a drink. She hurried from the bathroom to the living room.

Snatching the phone from the sofa without looking at the caller ID, she said, ‘Hello?’

‘Ma belle, please don’t hang up,’ Fiona said quickly.

Lauren groaned. ‘What is it, Fi? I’ve just got home. I had an interview today and I’m really tired.’

‘I’m sorry, but we need—’

‘Need? I thought you didn’t need anything?’

‘You know what I mean.’

‘No, actually, I don’t. As far as I’m concerned, you needed the freedom to fuck whoever you wanted. I’m sure you’re making the most of it.’

‘You know that’s not true. I really am sorry. I overstepped the mark once and I’ve regretted it ever since. Je le jure,’ she protested.

‘Oh get real, will you? Regret isn’t even in your vocabulary.’ Lauren shivered. She glanced down, saw her pink nipples were fully erect, and locked her free arm over her chest.

That was the problem with exes. They were comfortable, like slipping your feet into a pair of worn slippers. No matter how much you knew they needed binning, ‘what ifs’ always played at the back of your mind. What if I never find anyone else? What if I’m just chasing a dream and the perfect relationship doesn’t exist after all?

Right then, when she was feeling a sense of loneliness, it would have been all too easy to give in. To tell Fiona to fly over and welcome her into her bed as if nothing had happened. To carry on as if Fiona hadn’t broken the bond of trust between them. It would have been easy, but not logical or even possible. Not now. An untraversable distance existed between them, preventing them from being together again.

‘I want you to stop calling me. I don’t want to have to change my number again.’

‘So that’s it?’

‘That’s it.’

‘Over one meaningless shag?’

‘Yeah.’ Lauren hoped Fiona could hear the finality in her voice. This constant rehashing of apologies that changed nothing had grown tiresome.

‘If you could put yourself in my shoes, you’d understand.’

Lauren unconsciously moved her hand to her throat. ‘Are you seriously putting the blame for this at my feet?’

‘I’m not saying it’s all your fault. I’m saying it’s not all my fault either.’

‘Piss off with your psychobabble. Go and tell it to someone who gives a flying fuck.’

‘I’ll never let you go, Lauren.’ Her voice was low and threatening.

‘In this instance, you don’t have a choice.’

For the second time in two days, Lauren hung up on Fiona. She quickly dialled Frankie’s number and arranged to meet up with him. Her date with the rampant rabbit would have to wait. The comfort and security she desperately needed could only come from a bottle.

Chapter Eight


Although there weren’t any lingering signs of the emotional stress evident in their last session, Emma studied Louise from across her desk, not totally convinced she was ‘fine and doing great,’ as she’d said when she arrived forty-five minutes earlier. Something other than family life was clearly bothering her, but Emma didn’t know what the source of her concern was. Not yet anyway.

Louise’s gaze darted around the room as she gnawed on her nails. Emma noted that Louise had shifted in her seat at least ten times to find a comfortable position. Now and again, she glanced at Emma then averted her gaze. Several minutes had passed since Louise last spoke, then suddenly, without looking up, she said, ‘Do you think I’m gay because of what my uncle did to me?’

Emma rested her hands in her lap. The question didn’t surprise her. Survivors of sexual abuse commonly asked this question, and it was difficult to answer, so she took a few seconds to respond.

‘I don’t know,’ she said honestly. ‘But let’s look at it like this: if it were true, there wouldn’t be any heterosexual female survivors of abuse.’

Louise grunted an agreement.

‘And anyway, does it really matter whether you’re gay or not?’

Louise grimaced and rubbed the back of her neck. ‘Not really. It’s not so much about being gay. It’s about knowing where I belong. Where I fit in. Isn’t that what everybody wants?’

Emma empathised with feeling like a square peg in a round hole. She had felt displaced her entire life. ‘There’s nothing wrong with being unique. There’s no rulebook that says you have to be like everyone else. Imagine how boring life would be if we were all the same?’

‘Suppose so. But what if I go with a woman and it feels wrong? Then what?’

‘Louise, you’re in control of your life and your body. Nobody can force you to do anything you don’t want—’

‘Unless they’re bigger and stronger than me.’

‘In which case that would be an assault. It’s not the same as consent. If we can’t fight back, that’s not our shame to carry. It’s the abuser’s.’

‘Do you think I should at least try and, you know, date men? To make sure it’s the right choice?’

They were treading in muddy waters. Emma’s interpretation of ‘dating’—going to the cinema and grabbing something to eat after—was very different from Louise’s, who was implying she wanted to have sex with men in order to find herself.

Emma crossed her arms over her chest. ‘You’re eighteen years old. You have the world at your feet. Trust yourself to know what you want without doing anything too drastic. And when you find yourself, accept who you are with open arms. Gay, straight, or even bisexual.’

‘You forgot asexual.’

‘Even that,’ Emma said with a reassuring smile.

Outside, dark skies had replaced the daylight. As usual, she’d gone well past their allotted time, not that it bothered her. It wasn’t as if she had anything—or anyone—to rush home for.

‘Am I allowed to ask you a personal question?’

Emma nodded slowly, hoping it wasn’t too personal. ‘Sure.’

‘The incident you told me about, the one at school with that girl. What do you remember most about her?’

‘Her ears.’

Louise looked at her quizzically. ‘Her ears? Why?’

In her mind’s eye, Emma pictured Lauren’s small, rounded ears that stuck out ever so slightly. ‘Because I loved looking at them from behind when she wore her hair in a bundle on top of her head. They were the cutest ears I’d ever seen.’

A gentle tap on the door preceded Gina, her bespectacled manager, poking her head inside the office. ‘We’re getting ready to lock up, Emma.’

‘Okay, won’t be long.’ She gave her a brief, apologetic glance.

Emma remained with Louise long enough to arrange their next appointment, and then she packed up for the day and made her way home. She stopped at the corner shop and bought a bottle of white wine, a large bag of toffee-coated popcorn, ready salted crisps, and a salsa dip. I hope those women will be on view again.

Emma wondered what Hope would say if she knew she had bought snacks for her dabble in voyeurism. She would probably be delighted that Emma had done something out of the norm.

Letting herself into her apartment, she kicked off her shoes and stooped to retrieve her mail. She sucked air through her teeth as she sorted through the letters. Junk, junk, and more junk. She tossed the mail onto the hallway table and hung her jacket on the knob.

Emma headed to the living room and turned on the TV for background noise. After spending the day listening to people’s problems, she should have been happy with the silence living alone afforded her, but it only reaffirmed her single status. Maybe her dislike of solitude came from growing up as an only child—well, until Hope came along, but by then she was a teenager. Growing up, she had longed for a home full of fun and visitors, but it was never meant to be. After her father had died of a heart attack, the little energy present in Emma’s life was sucked away. That was until her mum met Alex, but even then, her mother just wanted to make him happy.

Emma brushed her hair away from her face and stretched her arms above her head, loosening the tension in them. It was good to be home.

She walked into the kitchen, retrieved a glass, and filled it with a generous amount of wine. She deserved it after the long day she’d had. Opening the cupboard door, she took out a large wooden bowl and tipped the popcorn into it.

‘Let the action begin,’ she said aloud.

A hybrid of guilt and excitement built within as she entered her bedroom. Grabbing her binoculars from the side of her bed, she slid the balcony door open and stepped outside. A cool breeze gently caressed her face as she covered her eyes with the lenses. Hope had been right; the focus wasn’t great, but who was she to complain?

She trained the binoculars in the direction of the couple she had seen last night but was met with darkness. Yes, Emma, some people do have a life and actually go out in the evening.

Unperturbed, she moved along the building until she came to the first window with any sign of life. She focused the lens on a dimly lit apartment a couple of floors below and frowned. Why is the owner wearing a balaclava in his own home?

Unless … Emma turned quickly, knocking over the wine glass balanced on the rail. ‘Oh my God. Oh my God. No, you bastard! Stop! Stop!’

She ran from the room and grabbed her phone from her jacket in the hallway, then backtracked to the living room. Yanking open the door to the balcony, she stepped outside. Her fingers trembled as she dialled 999. Raising the binoculars while she waited for the call to connect, she traced the person’s movements as they walked from the living room to the bedroom.

‘I’m witnessing a burglary taking place right this second,’ she said breathlessly to the emergency operator. ‘Please hurry. They’re in the bedroom. I don’t know if anyone is home.’

‘What’s the address?’

‘It’s, um, oh crap.’ She told the operator her own address. ‘The apartment is in the block opposite me. I’m on the twenty-second floor and it’s two floors below mine.’ Even to her own ears she sounded panicked. She struggled to get her thoughts in order. ‘The apartment is on the left-hand side of the building, on the very end. I remember now, it’s called Braithwaite House. That’s it. Please hurry.’

‘An officer has been dispatched. Please stay on the line.’

‘I will.’ All she could hear was her ragged breathing. She felt sick to her stomach. What if someone is home and the police don’t get there in time?

Time dragged on in slow motion. Police sirens blasted through the night air, drawing closer by the second. Emma kept her gaze on the intruder until the figure disappeared from view.

‘Oh no. I think they’ve escaped,’ she said into the phone. ‘I can’t see the person anymore.’


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