Chapter Thirty-Five

She left thirty minutes later, freshly showered and looking like perfection. I felt the pang of loneliness hit my gut as soon as I shut the front door behind her.

In my head I had so many things I needed to sort and reflect upon. Mainly about what was going to happen next … and what I was going to do about Jo and the phone call. Events of the past seemed too much to even contemplate at the moment. I had to concentrate on the here and now.

Decision made, I called Jo’s number and fiddled with a pen as I waited for her to pick up. Her voice echoed through the phone as I distinctly heard her shouting at her youngest son to ‘Leave the bloody gerbil alone.’

‘I need to meet with you and have a chat.’

‘Lou? What’s wrong?’

‘I’ve been talking to an old friend of ours … or should I say an old friend of mine.’

It went quiet for a few seconds, and then her voice came back distinctly softer. ‘Who?’

‘Ashley Richards.’ I let the two words hang in the air, and waited for a response. And I waited. I knew she was trying to think of something to say, but what could she actually say to me that would stop the fireworks she knew were going to happen?

‘When do you want to meet?’ She didn’t ask why or how I’d met Ash again. Didn’t question the fact I’d asked to see her … or the way I’d asked her. She must have known I knew what she’d done – what they had both done. So I told her, simply, that Ash was down on business and I had met her at the police station. I didn’t mention why … just that we had met again.

It was a strange call, distant. Usually our calls to each other were full of fun and ribbing, but at the moment that was the last thing this could ever be.

We made arrangements to meet later that day in town after she had got rid of the kids. It was a sure fire way of telling her I was angry, as I didn’t invite her around to meet at my place. The only thing I thought was strange was that my parents hadn’t called her and warned her of my visit to them yesterday, which made me wonder if she knew about our stepbrother.

I showered, dressed and ate some lunch, knowing I wouldn’t feel like it after my confrontation later. The thought of Jo doing anything to hurt me stuck in my throat. How could she? She loved me, didn’t she? She always said she wanted me to be happy, and look how that turned out.

I was thirty-seven years of age and I hadn’t been in a serious relationship in my life … not since Sarah that is. And thinking about that, was Sarah really serious or just an aside until I could get what I craved for? Ash. Had I been holding out for Ash all of these years, not allowing myself to move on with my life?

But was that Jo’s fault? Or mine? Training told me that I was in charge of my own happiness, no one could dictate to me how I should feel, only I could make the decision how others affected me – well – to a degree. After all was said and done, it had been me who had pulled back from any commitment, preferring to keep relationships light, and if the other person wanted something more, I just made my excuses and left.

Time moved so quickly, I found myself rushing to get myself in order before I had to meet Jo. I was rummaging through my bag looking for my mobile, when the doorbell sounded. Fuck. I decided the best thing to do was to answer it on my way out and call Jo to tell her I was going to be late.

A bloody double-glazing bloke stood there, grinning inanely and tried to sell me windows. They are so insistent … and smarmy. He tried to use his charm on me but I gave him the look that he had a cat in hell’s chance of getting me to buy anything from him. I grimaced a smile and tried to tell him I was running late, and like all salesmen, he didn’t listen to a word I said.

Keys. Bag. Phone. The only thing I could do was push past him, throw an excuse over my shoulder and make a run for it. But before I could I heard a smashing sound coming from the back of the house.

‘What the fuck?’ I turned in the doorway, trying to listen to the noises of the house.

‘It seems like one of your windows needs replacing.’ I looked over my shoulder at the salesman, whose face was full of concern now. ‘Do you need a hand, love?’

I frowned at him, but before I could say anything else I heard movement coming from near the kitchen area. Whatever made me step inside the house I will never know. Whatever made me so open and vulnerable like that will never be repeated. I was inside, the salesman behind me, and then someone came out through my kitchen door.

Sam Read. Shit.

I turned to tell the bloke behind me, but he was smiling. Not at me, but past me.

‘I’m in, Danny.’

‘I know son. Well done.’

Danny? Danny Spencer and Sam Read?

I heard the door slam, and felt my stomach hit my knees. There I was, in my house with two people I would never want to be found alone with.

It’s amazing. The smarmy bugger I had spoken to minutes before was completely gone, and in front of me stood a man who looked like trouble. With a capital T. The smiling charmer was laid to rest, and someone sinister had taken root. In short … I was shitting myself.

‘What do you want?’ Fear was precedent in my voice. I heard Read laugh behind me, and it was closer than before. I turned my head and looked into those cold grey eyes, turned back and was greeted by green, familiar green. Green like mine … like Jo’s.

‘You, sis. I want you.’ His lip curled upwards showing the left side of his teeth, almost doglike, and I felt like a small animal that had been cornered.

I gripped my keys more tightly, the metal sticking into my hand … the other one held my mobile, which I slipped into my jacket pocket. My brain was fucked … I was fucked if I couldn’t get my brain to stop being fucked. Ah shit … I know … I’m swearing too much. But I had also lost the capability of stringing a sentence together without the aid of the anti euphemism.

All I knew was I needed to be on the other side of that door. Images of a bloke slumped over a steering wheel in Manchester came skipping into my head. I didn’t want a repeat performance. I didn’t want to be the star of the show. I didn’t want to have my identity found out through dental records.

There was only one thing I could think of doing, and that was to make a run for it. Problem was Spencer was in front and Read was behind … therefore the front and the back exits were blocked.

Read was snug up behind me now, as I could feel his rancid breath burning my neck. Spencer was grinning a wolfish grin … a grin of a bloke who was about to get what he wanted.

Not on my shift he wasn’t.

‘Ok … What do you want with me?’ He was just about to open his mouth to speak when I kicked him in the shin. Hard. Then with the keys half hanging from my hand I thumped him squarely on the bridge of his nose, hearing the satisfying crack as his nose broke underneath it. Read grabbed my hair and I elbowed him, an ‘oof’ splattering out before I followed through with a backwards punch in the face.

I knew I had seconds; Spencer was smearing the blood and tears around his face, so I punched him again, before stamping on his foot. ‘Fucking bitch!’ spewed from his mouth, as he half bent over. I pushed and ran.

The door loomed ahead and my legs felt like they belonged to someone else. Frantic hands grappled with the lock and panic was another enemy. The cool afternoon air brushed against my face and I was so close to escaping. A strong hand grabbed the back of my jacket and yanked, ultimately pulling the door open with it, exposing the scene to the outside world, my keys flying outside.

‘Help me!’ Two words. That’s all I had chance to scream before the door slammed shut again, and I was face to face with a very angry and bloody Danny Spencer.

He came right up to my face and yelled words I couldn’t decipher, and I felt my body cringe backwards as the spit splattered over my face and neck. An arm raised. A hand loomed …

And then it was goodnight Vienna.

                        **************************************************************

I felt like crap. My head felt like crap. My lip and cheek felt like shit. Unfocused images played tiggy it with reality and my stomach was playing right alongside.

It was my front room. I was stuffed into the corner of my front room, on the floor … out of sight. I didn’t even know how long I had been out for … didn’t remember getting here.

Bollocks.

Spencer was on the sofa staring at me, a bag of ice pressed to the side of his nose, waiting for me to fully focus on him before he moved. Read was rooting through the drawers of my cabinet and systematically pocketing whatever took his fancy.

‘Sit down, Sam.’ Spencer’s voice was low, and this made matters worse. It had the tone of the controlled, yet uncontrolled, if you know what I mean. He leaned forward placing the ice pack to the side of him, and stared intently into my face, waiting for me to be fully alert.

‘So … there’s a family trait lurking there after all.’ He gently touched his nose and looked at his fingers to check for blood. Read slouched against the wall and tried out his most sinister leer for size. ‘Seems to me we’re more alike than I realised.’

‘I’m nothing like you.’ I spat out. Cheeky fucker. As if.

‘I wouldn’t say that. You have a mean left hook.’ And he smiled … or tried to smile, but the swelling made him seem deformed. ‘Bet you’re wondering why I thought I pay you a special visit didn’t you?’

The glare I gave him told him I didn’t give two fucks why he was here. I had nothing to do with him … we may be related by the wankstain of a father, but that was where the connection ended.

‘You’re right. It all stems down to dear old dad.’

‘I haven’t heard a word from him in thirty years. Why do you think I want to know about him now?’

Spencer sat back on the sofa and eyed me warily, whilst Read looked at his grubby fingernails, methodically cleaning them with his teeth. The room was quiet … too quiet actually. If I concentrated hard enough I had the distinct impression I could hear the air move.

After a few minutes Spencer leaned forward again, cleared his throat and spoke clearly and slowly. ‘Funny you should say that … I haven’t seen the old man for well over twenty years myself.’

‘And?’

The look he gave me told me to shut up … he was speaking, and however much I wanted to tell him what I thought of his little escapade I knew now was not the right time.

‘As I was saying…’ Read snorted behind him, and Spencer threw him a look over his shoulder that made the young boy’s face pale. ‘ Dear old absent dad.’ He stood up and came closer to me, and I felt all the hairs on my neck stand to attention. ‘I could say that I missed him, but it’d be a lie. All he ever talked about was his little girls … his little angels who were taken away from him.’

Now that was a surprise. I had never thought he’d given us a minute … thought he treated us all as dead or non-existent.

‘Imagine. All your life being compared to someone else. How clever they were, how they were a credit to him … how he missed them.’ Claustrophobia clambered around me. Spencer was close, not overly so, but his presence was oppressive. I didn’t feel safe. He didn’t seem quite with it.

He began to walk away, and I physically felt the fear lift from me. A tingling sensation vibrated at my side and I initially thought it was nerves until the realisation dawned on me.

It was my phone. Vibrating. In my pocket. Thank fuck.

After making sure Spencer and Read were looking away, I slipped my hand inside and pressed a key. Whoever had called would now be expecting me to answer, but instead they would be greeted by either the sound of nothing or the muffled conversation I could make happen in the room.

‘For ten years I was told how I wasn’t good enough, or bright enough or anything enough. He blamed me for him losing his family.’ The way he said this was a mixture of pain and anger … and I could hear the anger winning out. He was slowly losing it, and I didn’t want to be here when he did.

‘But if you wanted to introduce yourself as my brother, why didn’t you just knock on my door instead of imprisoning me in my own home?’ I just hoped the person on the other end hadn’t hung up the phone, but stuck around and heard the last part.

‘Did I say you could speak?’ Once again, I prayed whoever had called could hear. This was not the joyous family reunion you saw on daytime TV, unless of course it was Jerry Springer. This could get ugly.

No. There was no ‘could’ here. This would get ugly if someone didn’t stop it …stop him.

He started muttering under his breath, and I couldn’t grasp what he was saying, probably because I didn’t want to hear it. I wasn’t sure he was speaking to anybody apart from himself, and that’s what unnerved me. I looked at Read, and he even had the sense to look concerned.

‘You know … I’ve not been a good boy.’ His attention was back to me. ‘Even killed someone once.’ A smile flitted over his face, and it mingled with his fucked up sense of pride in what he had said. ‘Now he was a bad ‘un. Poor old Mike.’

A confession. In front of me … in front of Read … in front of the person who I hoped was listening in.

‘Then I thought I would pay my other family a visit. See if they were all he cracked up them up to be.’ Spencer was on the other side of the room by now, standing next to Read. ‘It’s nice in Norfolk isn’t it?’ I didn’t answer him, just glared. ‘I said … it’s nice here isn’t it?’ Still I didn’t answer.

And that was a big mistake.

‘Come on now … you’re not giving your little brother the silent treatment are you?’ I looked at him.

‘What do you expect? You force entry into my house, hit me and throw me in the corner. What did you want? The red carpet?’

The words were no sooner out from my mouth before I felt the sting of a backhander slamming into my face. Now it would have hurt anyway, but my cheek and lip were already swollen from the last time. My hands were up and trying to protect the already sensitive area, but he wasn’t having any of it.

He grabbed my wrist and yanked me to my feet, giving me a violent shake on the way. ‘A little fucking respect would be a start!’ Another hand on the top of my arm, fingers digging in helping him grip me tighter. ‘You think you’re so fucking perfect in your flashy job and flashy life. You’re no fucking better than I am!

The punch to the gut completely winded me. The one to the side of my head made everything black once again.

                        **************************************************************

Chapter Thirty-Six

Spencer was sat on the sofa again when I came round, flicking through a magazine and looking bored. The room looked darker, so I gathered the afternoon was ending, as I couldn’t see the clock from where I was sitting.

‘Ah … and Sleeping Beauty awakens. Enjoy your nap, sis?’ The tone was light-hearted on the verge of jovial. To tell you the truth, that unnerved me more. How could he just sit there and not acknowledge he was the one who put me to sleep?

‘Thought you were going to sleep the day away.’ He put the magazine down on the coffee table and sat back into the cushions, really making himself at home.

The last time I had come round I had felt like crap … Now I couldn’t even begin to tell you what part of me hurt the most. All I can say is that my toes were okay, although I think that was on the count I couldn’t feel them. I was cramping up and my head and stomach were killing me. Breathing was beginning to become a burden.

I heard a noise from upstairs, a thumping on the floor. Read was up there, probably seeing what he could pinch from my bedroom.

‘Where are my manners? Would you like a cuppa?’ I tried to speak, but my mouth refused to work. I had this novel idea that if he left the room maybe I could make a run for it, although by the feeling – or none feeling – in my legs, I doubted I’d pull it off. But it was worth the risk. So I nodded, and then grimaced as pains shot through my scalp.

‘Sam!’ Spencer looked towards the ceiling. ‘Sam! Get your arse down here and get the kettle on!’ Ah fuck. Plan A was out of the window, and the problem with this was I didn’t have a plan B.

Read came down the stairs like a baby elephant in ballet shoes holding something in his hands. Something red.

‘Guess what I’ve found?’ He came into the room, totally animated. ‘This weirdo has kids’ clothes in her room.’ The red item was thrust into Spencer’s face and he shied away from the lad’s hands like they were going to hurt him in some way.

Trying to rectify his obvious weakness, the definite flinch, he laughed and rubbed his eyes as if to say he couldn’t see it as it was too close. Read gave him the object, but I knew what it was… knew before he had mentioned the fact it was kids’ clothing. It was Ash’s jumper … from three boxes down in the office. Read had been busy … must’ve really gone to town in the rummaging department.

Now I know it’s just a bit of wool … just a colourful bit of wool mangled into some kind of shape with needles, but it was all I had of her … of our life as kids … of that impenetrable innocence that is childhood. I could feel the anger building up inside, but didn’t have the strength to do anything about it.

It was the way they were both handling it, as if it was nothing … like it was contaminated, when they were the ones contaminating it.

‘What do we have here then? A little kid’s jumper in the house of someone who works with kids.’ Spencer laughed. ‘This is priceless.’ I know it is, but for different reasons than what he was thinking. ‘I wonder what your boss would think about this … a woman to boot.’ Then he threw his head back and laughed.

I collected all the saliva I could into my mouth, just to be able to form a few words. ‘It’s mine. From when I was a kid.’

‘Yeah right … Why on earth would you keep a jumper from all those years ago?’ Spencer sat forward, the smile splitting his face and his body language saying … ‘Go on … entertain me.’

I swallowed, the tightness in my throat becoming more than uncomfortable. ‘It was the last thing my dad ever gave me … our dad.’ I watched the smile slip down his face. Watched it disappear and be replaced by a longing so painful, I actually felt sorry for him.

‘Go make a brew, Danny.’ Read tried to say something. ‘Now … make a brew. Tea for two.’ Then the smile was back, not as cocky now, but he was trying to gain some of the credibility he thought he had lost by showing something other than anger. It’s a pity he didn’t realise he would have gained more respect if he had shown he was human more often.

Read hovered a little longer, wanting to keep on about the red jumper, but I knew he was a little wary of Spencer … and he had good cause to be. The mood swings he displayed were unnerving. One minute anger: the next cheerful. And the mutterings under his breath were a cause for concern. He was truly fucked up … and it wasn’t anything about my training that told me that. Anyone, even Read, could see Spencer was struggling to actually stick to the plot … but he was losing the battle.

And I was crapping myself. There was no guessing what he was capable of. He had killed before, by his own admission, and seemed proud of it. But with the mention of our father, the unpredictable gene had become well and truly unlocked.

‘Erm … Sam? Tea. Now.’ Then the attention was back to me. We were alone, unfortunately. For once I wanted Read to stay … I don’t know why, but it seemed better the devil you know in a way.

‘So. A present from daddy. More than I ever got.’ The atmosphere changed once again, and then he was on his feet and walking over to the fireplace, the jumper firmly in his hand. He was stroking it in an almost loving way like it was connected to the man himself. I was mesmerised. Especially watching how his shoulders seemed to slump as he leaned over and brought the jumper to his nose and mouth. A smashing sound came from the kitchen, and it looked like Read was having good time breaking up my house. But Spencer didn’t bat an eyelid. He was absorbed.

‘Beeeeeeeeeeeeep!’ Fuck. My phone. Low battery.

Spencer shot round and glared at me. My hand was already in my pocket, trying to finger the off button, but not managing it.

‘Beeeeeeeeeeeeep!’ He was over to me like a shot, his breath on my face, his eyes omitting a spark of madness.

‘That had better not be what I think it is.’ He was that close, I could see the spit collecting around his lips. ‘Give.’ I shied away from him, expecting at any moment a fist to come up and knock me into kingdom come again. ‘I said GIVE!’ His hands were trying to get in my pocket, and the more he tried, the more adamant I became.

The struggle was becoming quite violent. Scrap that. It was violent, no question about it. The mobile was clenched in my hand and Spencer was pulling my fingers back one by one to try and get to it. I could see by the LCD the message ‘Low Battery’ interspersed with the credit amount that always displayed itself after a call. If he got the phone off me, he would know I had used it.

And where did that leave me?

Probably under the patio in a bin bag. Or at the bottom of the Norfolk Broads sporting concrete slippers.

There was only one thing for it. Not let him get it. Simple to say, but painful to carry through. He was nearly breaking my fingers by this point, so I did the only thing I knew how to do.

I bit him. Hard. On the side of his hand.

The yelp that left him lured me into a split second of false sense of security, because the yelp was followed by a crunching backhander that threw me backwards and the phone forwards.

My eyes were glazing. Focusing was becoming an issue once again. I could just make him out scrambling on all fours, hunting out the phone, when the room seemed to shrink and become fantastical once again. An image of a person loomed in the doorway, but it didn’t seem like Read … it seemed taller … more threatening.

Then it seemed to fly into the air as if it was falling off a precipice. Lurch … hold … and fall. Right on the scuttling figure of Spencer, who by the looks of things had just found my phone. The noises I could hear were vicious. Thumping and smashing. Sounds of fists hitting flesh. The sound of air being expelled from stomachs and lungs.

I tried to bring my focus to bear, but everything was too much like hard work … too hard to just open my eyes and spotlight what was going on. My hearing was perfect though, but everything seemed surreal. Voices blended into the other sounds and nothing made sense. I distinctly heard Spencer tell the other person to get the fuck off him… but I didn’t hear the attacker answer.

Then there were other sounds. Footsteps. Lots of footsteps. Shadows and shapes began piling into the room. Voices … concern … anger. Everything.

And as I felt that hand on my face, I felt I could finally let go. I knew it was her … knew it was the one who would always love me.

I knew it was Jo.

Then I allowed the blackness to take me once again.

                        **************************************************

I drifted in and out of consciousness, not recognising the passing of time. I knew I had been moved from my house … felt the open air on my face and neck. Was vaguely aware of the slamming of a door and the feeling of people around me, mumbling. But nothing made sense. It was as if I was wrapped in bubble wrap, and I was insulated from the outside world.

I wish I could have said the same for my head. The pains soaring through it were agony and made my stomach retch. I just wanted to fall into the darkness … let it envelop me for good … let this pain go away, but they wouldn’t let me rest. They kept on trying to get me to open my eyes … to wake up ... to listen to their voices. But it seemed too much like hard work. Painfully hard.

At one time I opened my eyes and concentrated on green eyes so like my own and I felt fear race through me… honestly believed it was Spencer, but then the reassuring voice of Jo filtered down to me. Those eyes … they were softer, had emotion – compassion … love. They weren’t the deranged eyes of my stepbrother. I think the memory of those eyes will haunt me for the rest of my life. I always look at people’s eyes … have to look … it’s the only way I can trust them.

‘Don’t worry, Lou … it’s only me.’ Then her voice drifted over her shoulder and I could hear her talking to someone else whose voice I didn’t recognise.

Then I was in a bed. White. Sparse. Clean and clinical. Beeps and clicks and the smell of disinfectant.

Lights in my eyes … blinding … retracting … detracting from reality as sleep once again took me away from the pain … took me away from the noises and pressure.

Finally … they let me go.

            *******************************************************************

The first twenty-four hours in hospital were filled with examinations … especially my eyes, to check if I had concussion. Which I had. No surprise really, with the amount of blows to my head I’d received. I also had one broken rib and two cracked ones … five butterfly stitches in my eyebrow, where Spencer’s ring had caught. My mouth was a mess, swollen, bruised, and split open on the inside.

But other than that … I was fine. Back to fighting form … ish. I knew I would heal, as all the wounds were superficial to a degree, well, except for the concussion, which would sort itself out eventually. I hated the cracking sounds inside my head, which, the doctor informed me, was the sound and sensation of my brain aligning itself once again.

Yuck … I know … but I thought you’d want to know, considering you’ve got this far.

I wasn’t allowed any visitors for this first twenty-four hours, which was good in a way, because I was too out of it to actually talk to them. But you can guess who was the first through the door on the second day.

Yes. Surrogate mum, Jo.

I know you’re thinking ‘What about Ash? Where’s she?’ She came in later, and I had the distinct impression she had let Jo have time alone with me before she made her entrance.

Jo. My Jo. My big sister who loved me and looked out for me. Had always had my best interests at heart … well … as she thought. The way she came bustling in, taking control of the situation … telling people I needed more pillows, more water, less light … I just smiled at her and waited for her to stop fussing before I demanded to be hugged. Hospitals always make me feel like I need to be molly coddled and made a fuss of.

And then there she was … hugging me, crying into my hair about how worried she’d been … how she’d heard me on the phone when she’d called … heard me trapped with a man ... a man who had hurt me.

She told me of that helplessness she’d felt, how she’d always wanted to protect me and how she could hear him … hear me … and could nothing about it. Except take the phone to the police.

Then she lost the ability to speak. Just sobbed and shook, and I held her, trying to be the comforter … take her role for a change.

It wasn’t long before her words came tumbling out once again.

‘I thought I’d lost you, Lou. Thought … thought he’d … kill you before I co …could get there.’ More shaking and crying, and I could feel my shoulder becoming wetter and wetter. ‘I co … couldn’t hang up and call the police .. couldn’t turn it off .. had to listen … Ran to … to … the police station.’

‘Shush shush shush …come on, Jo. This can wait …’

‘Need you to know … need you to know.’

‘I know, Jo. Come on. Sit down.’ My words were muffled into her hair, but she loosened her grip and sat on the edge of the bed, one arm still about my neck. Her eyes were swollen and red. The look of absolute devastation painted itself over her, and I needed to make her see I was ok ... that she could stop worrying.

‘Come on, love. I’m ok … look.’ I dipped my head underneath hers, and smiled. But I should have realised that would make her feel worse … if the feeling I had in my face gave me any indication.

‘Look at your face … your beautiful face.’

‘Hey … I’ll heal … just a little swelling and bruising.’

She was off again. Head in her hands and sobbing. I tried to calm her by rubbing up and down her back; tried to cajole her into believing I was ok.

The door to the room opened a crack. And then a little more … and then enough to fit a dark haired head through. A dark haired head attached to a very worried face. A worried face that contained two beautiful blue eyes. Two beautiful blue eyes that were looking at me … then flicked to Jo and then to me again.

‘Come in, Ash.’ The smile she sported was a mixture of relief and ‘I don’t want to intrude’. I just flicked my head backwards as in silent beckoning. The next minute she was in … closing the door carefully and quietly behind her.

‘Hey… how are you?’ Ash stood on one side of the bed, the side opposite to where Jo was trying to sort herself out. ‘How’s the head?’ Her hand came out and tentatively touched the side of my face, and I willingly laid my cheek on the palm of her hand, my eyes fluttering closed. A thumb brushed along my bottom lip, taking care not to touch the bruising. It was a feeling of total connection.

I opened my eyes and looked straight into blue. They were so gentle, so full of love and totally absorbed in my own.

Then the sound of a cough. A cough that, for a split second, broke the connection between Ash and I. But that was enough to make me aware that Jo was staring at us with astonishment. And the cough was a means to get our attention, rather than the onset of a cold.

‘You two are … erm … are …’ She couldn’t say it … couldn’t ask whether we were an item. Good job too, because I didn’t know if we were. I knew what had happened between us. Knew what I wanted to keep happening between us. But didn’t know if that was possible … we were so different … lived in different places.

Ash looked me into the eyes again and then just leaned forward and brushed her lips against mine, as in answer to Jo’s unfinished question. Reaffirmation of what had happened between us a couple of days ago … the day my world began to spin again.

I tried to increase the pressure of the kiss, but my mouth was having none of it, and I winced in pain.

‘You ok, baby?’ I nodded and touched my mouth expecting to see blood on my fingers. ‘And hello, Jo. Sorry I didn’t get time to chat the last time I saw you.’ I looked from one to the other, my expression asking for clarification. ‘Jo came to the station just as we were going to raid Spencer’s place. She had your phone and was trying to get the desk sergeant to listen to it. He wasn’t very helpful.’

‘He was a total wanker … treated me as if I had lost the plot.’

‘Well, in his defence, you weren’t making much sense. Every time he tried to take the phone from you, you wouldn’t let it go.’ She smiled at Jo, trying to take the sting out of the statement. ‘It’s a good job we were there … I thought I recognised your voice … a little older, but it stood out against the Norfolk accents. Then I heard the name Lou.’

At this Jo laughed, shortly followed by Ash. I looked from one to the other and wondered why they were laughing. ‘Sorry about that, Jo … I just needed to get the phone off you.’

‘Sorry for slapping you … didn’t realise what as going on. Thought someone was trying to nick it from me.’

‘Are you two going to tell me what is going on? I feel a bit left out here.’ I sat back on the pillows and pouted my lip, well … tried to, but I cringed at the sharp pain that ripped through my face.

Ash sat down on the bed and gestured to Jo to tell me her side of events. I was ‘all ears’; to use another of my mum’s many nonsense phrases. Not literally ‘all ears’, but you know what I mean.

It had been Jo who had called … although I guess you gathered that already. She had been worried that I hadn’t turned up … thought I was teaching her a lesson for some reason or another. She’d a good idea why I had wanted to meet and thought I was too pissed off with her to bother turning up.

So, when the phone was answered and she didn’t hear my voice, she hadn’t thought much about it. …Just gone into defence mode … stating her side of events. Then there was still no recognition from me, but she could hear me talking in the background. Heard the words ‘imprisoning me in my own home’. Heard a man she didn’t recognise bragging about killing someone called Mike.

I saw a glimmer of a smile flicker along Ash’s face … and I knew why. She had the evidence she needed to put Spencer behind bars for longer than just breaking into my house.

‘Will that stand up in court?’ Ash shrugged her shoulders, but still looked contented with the fact Spencer had eventually slipped up.

‘We checked his place out last night.’

‘And?’

‘Let’s just say he’s a very sick man. The things he had stored there … things I can’t really divulge at the moment. We’re still collecting evidence.’ She grabbed my hand and brought my fingers up to her mouth. Then turned it over and kissed my palm. I stroked her cheek, needing to know if this was really happening or if it was an aftershock of the concussion.

‘I would tell you two to get a room, but you already have.’ We both looked at Jo. ‘I feel like a gooseberry. I’ll be outside.’ And she was off at a near run, the door slamming her on the arse as she left. As I was just about to slip my hand around Ash’s neck, Jo poked her head back around the door. ‘By the way… mum and dad are waiting.’

‘Tell them to hang on a few more minutes.’ She nodded and was gone.

Then I slipped my hand around to the back of Ash’s head and pulled her to me, planted a soft kiss on her lips and then guided her head to my chest. I heard a contented sigh as she relaxed into me, and I wrapped my arms about her, as she did to me.

And there we lay. In each other’s arms. Oblivious to the world and everyone in it.

                        *******************************************************

           

Chapter Thirty-Seven

The next few days flew by. Jo finished telling me what had actually happened. She had called me and got the scenario with Spencer, but it was the events after she had the attention of one dark haired woman that made my heart swell.

Ash had eventually got the details from Jo … about what she had heard and what was happening. Jo told me she had never seen such a mixture of emotions lash through one person, and she should’ve guessed then it wasn’t just a working relationship we had going on. But she did say how impressed she’d been watching Ash organise everyone in the station in such a short amount of time.

They had found my keys outside, but they couldn’t just walk in … they didn’t know what they were dealing with. Good job too, and I was in there and even I didn’t know what was going on. Eventually, they had the house surrounded and Ash had informed them she was going in the back way. Obviously, everyone didn’t want her to do it … said they had specialists lined up to get in and out of the house. But she insisted … said it was her case and she would do what she thought best for all parties.

By all accounts, she had been outside the back for less than five minutes, trying to gauge her best course of action. She noticed the smashed kitchen window and was just about to go in when Read arrived … laughing to himself and rubbing his hands together. He was totally absorbed in being a smug little fucker that he didn’t even notice a six-foot woman climbing through a small window. No wonder he always got caught when he was up to something. He was thick.

She came at him from behind, tried to take him down swiftly and quietly, but she didn’t allow for the fact he was holding a sugar canister in his hand. She whacked him on the side on the neck and he went down like a sack of spuds … and so did the glass container.

No reaction from the other room. All she could hear was Spencer shouting at me and demanding for whatever I had in my hand.

After the sound of me being slapped, all rationality went out of the window. She didn’t even consider if there were more than two people in the house … just needed to get to me. When she got to the living room door, there was Spencer on all fours scrabbling around looking for something. Then she went for him. Just leapt over and got him.

The people on the outside, Jo being one of them, heard the commotion and decided it was time they made their move. They used the keys, as they would be quieter and not alert the occupants what was going on. But they could have used a bulldozer and still not have been noticed.

The scene was violent, but Jo said her primary concern was getting to me. I was out of it … my eyes kept fluttering open, as if I was trying to focus but it just too difficult. When she placed her hand on my face she said I just went … flaked out. She thought I’d snuffed it and went ballistic.

Ash had contained Spencer and two police officers fixed handcuffs on him.

Then it was Ash who calmed Jo down, took her hand, and squeezed her fingers. It was Ash who gently pulled me forward and into her arms. It was Ash who stroked the side of my head … tenderly checking the cuts and swelling.

It was Ash who laid me down and smoothed my hair.

The ambulance crew came and took me away just as the coppers were dragging out a raging Spencer. Read came out like a lamb … handcuffs behind his back … his eyes completely submissive. He knew this time he wouldn’t get away with anything.

After she stopped talking she just looked at her lap, her fingers refusing to sit still. Her eyes flicked up to meet mine, and I knew she wanted to say something else.

‘What?’ She looked back at her lap again. ‘Jo? Tell me.’ I leaned forward and grabbed her fingers pulling her hand and arm over to me. ‘Whatever it is … we need to get it out into the open.’

A swallow. A look. A decision. ‘I’m sorry, Lou … so sorry.’

I knew what she was apologising for, but couldn’t say anything … so I nodded. ‘I thought it was for the best … I thought if you made a fresh start – a clean break … then … you could get on with your life.’

‘But you knew how I felt about her, Jo. You knew how much I loved her.’

She gripped my hand. ‘I knew how you felt. Had watched you agonise over Ash for so long, but I never knew she felt the same … never knew she loved you.’ Loved me. Jo said Ash had loved me.

‘How do you know that now, but not then?’

‘Cos she told me … yesterday. Said we had been wrong to make a decision that involved you without telling you.’ Jo leaned closer to me, fully capturing my attention. ‘And then she said she understood why I had done it … why we had both done it … because we both loved you … in different ways.’

‘She said that? She said she loved me?’

‘And Lou … I think she still does.’

I didn’t hear anything else that she said. I was too absorbed with the words, ‘I think she still does’.

My heart was leaping about inside my chest, but my head was saying ‘Please let her still love me … please.’

The next thing I knew, I was buried in my sister’s arms and she was crying into my hair. ‘I love you, Lou … I’m so sorry … so sorry.’

I wanted to tell her it was ok … it was in the past, but I couldn’t. Not because I didn’t forgive her … nope. Because I couldn’t breathe.

So, like all good sisters … I gave her a hug that knocked the wind out of her sails.

                        ***************************************************

Ash came every day to see me, but nothing was mentioned about … erm … anything really. She just chatted about the case and how Jo could stand as a witness to what had happened. They had raided Spencer’s place and found quite a bit of evidence, and that was another nail in his coffin.

He had pictures of me and Jo … of Jo’s kids coming out of school … of my mum and dad. Fucking freaky to say the least. It all pointed to one thing.

When he’d finished with me, he was going after the rest of them.

I can’t, with all honesty, hand on heart (and all that jazz), swear that he would have killed me. His main focus was to let me know how angry he was at being second best, never once contemplating that when it came to our father … we were all second best.

Enough about him … enough about how fucked up he had made Spencer … how he had destroyed more than one person’s life, and how his actions had nearly cost us our lives. And if I never saw him again for as long as I lived, it would be a day too soon.

I could justify all this and say without him I would never have seen Ash again, but wasn’t it his fault in the first place that I was dragged out of bed in the middle of the night, loaded into a taxi with bin bags as a suitcase, and ultimately lost Ash in the first place?

I know. I said ‘enough’ about him, but sometimes we have to go through the same things in our minds just to try and make some sense of it all. Then again, however many times I went through any event that involved him … it would never make sense.

Back to Ash. Yes … you, like me, want to know what is going to happen next. At least you didn’t have to wait for the ultimate knock back … didn’t sit with baited breath waiting for the yay or nay. You didn’t even have the agony of loving her so much you thought if she walked out of your life you would just curl up and die.

Now. I’m not saying you have never experienced this … or never will … just not with Ash … not my Ash.

I, on the other hand, wasn’t as fortunate.

Seeing her come in every day. Feeling the tenderest of kisses on my lips. Looking into those eyes that consumed me. Having her so close to me yet so distant. I wanted to just ask her … ask her to tell me what would happen next … or maybe the clichéd ‘Where do we go from here?’ But I was too scared what the answer would be.

I know you may disagree with me to some extent, but I was no fool. I knew her life was in Manchester. Knew her job … her home … her family … everything was nearly two hundred miles away. And the same for me. Everything I had was here.

But everything I wanted was going away from me … going back to her life without me in it. And that made my stomach clench and unclench … not to mention the feelings it had inside my chest.

To say it was agony would be redundant. A euphemism even. I can’t put into words how I was feeling; how this situation made me ache.

Six days after being admitted, I was allowed home, and I was escorted by the woman who occupied my every waking moment … and sleeping ones too. The swelling on my face had gone, and there was just the ghost of bruising on my cheek and inside my mouth. It was the bloody butterfly stitches that were the bastard … itched like buggery… if buggery itched, that is.

Standing outside my house, I felt a panic charge through me. I know, completely irrational. The man who had held me prisoner and made me fear for my life was held in the cells at Bethel Street police station. He couldn’t hurt me now. But the mind is a funny bugger … plays tricks and recreates scenarios again and again. Usually the ones you don’t want to relive.

‘Here. Let me.’

Ash took the key from my hand and swiftly unlocked the door. I stood there … hesitated momentarily … then stepped inside.

Total recall.

Me being dragged back inside by an irate Spencer. Me being slammed against the door with his face thrust into my own. Me waking up in the front room facing a stranger who was out to hurt me.

I squinted my eyes trying in vain to dispel the images, straightening my back and shoulders as if that was going to help. Her hand was on my back and she was gently brushing her palm up and down in soothing strokes. I felt the tension begin to disperse and evaporate … just by a touch.

‘Come. Sit down. I’ll make us a cuppa.’ And I was guided into the front room. The blood began to pound again as my eyes raced around the room seeking evidence of the events from nearly a week ago. But it was clean … sorted … in order. All except for one thing that seemed out of place.

One thing that was neatly folded over the arm of the settee.

Something red and small.

Something that seemed so vulnerable and out of place.

Something that ultimately belonged to the woman standing right behind me.

I don’t even have to tell you what it was. But as my eyes landed on it, a mixture of emotions charged through me. Pain. Regret. Longing. Hurt. Anger. I think you get the drift.

Then the definitive feeling surged up … a feeling of being exposed. What would Ash think if she saw the jumper? Would she think I was some kind of freak? I had to get rid of it – and quick.

I think it was this thought that moved me forward and into the room.

Just as my hands slipped around the softness, her voice came clearly from behind.

‘I was surprised you had kept that for this long.’

Fuck.

‘I doubt I’ll fit in that now.’

Double fuck and mashed potatoes.

I mean, what do you say? I’d been caught, red jumper handed, and my face was matching the colour of the wool, if not outdoing it in brightness.

Her body was right behind me now, and I knew she would be looking over my shoulder, if the feeling of her breath on my skin was any indication. It had a lovely cooling quality.

‘Do you remember that day, Lou? God … we were so wet. The rain came from nowhere didn’t it?’

Strange. But this was the first time we’d ever discussed that day. We had talked about me leaving in the dead of night, but not that day … the day that was etched into my memory like an oasis. It was, as I’ve said before, one of my favourite memories. The day we went to Concroft Park. It was the day I realised Ash was everything I would ever want or need in my life.

And that was still true even now.

I didn’t even realise I had lifted the jumper to my face … didn’t realise I was crying into it until I felt her arms around me, turning me, holding me. Being there like she had always been. But unlike that day, now I knew I loved her … not in a friend loving a friend way … but loved her ... was in love with her.

That hurt even more. Because now I knew she would be leaving me instead of the other way round. And there was nothing I could do.

Was there?

Was there something I could do to stop history partly repeating itself?

I could tell her. Let her know I wanted this forever. Tell her she was my everything. My all. My reason.

But what if she didn’t want that? What if the night we had spent together was enough? What if Jo had been wrong and she had loved me then but not now?

Dare I risk it all?

Christ! Any more questions? Fuck.

Why couldn’t I just stop sniffling in her arms, look into her eyes, cup her face and tell her … tell her … tell her? What could be so bad? The worst she could do was say no.

And that’s what stopped me.

Her saying no. I honestly believed that hearing her utter that single syllable word would be my undoing.

I didn’t even realise I was gripping her like a man on a life raft cast out at sea. My face was so far into her neck I had trouble breathing anything else but her, but that’s all I wanted to breathe … her... her scent … commit it to memory alongside the scent from the red jumper and the smell of the rain.

‘Hey, Lou … you ok?’ I nodded into her and gripped onto her even more than the aforementioned clichéd man on a life raft. ‘Come on … sit down. I’ll make us a cuppa.’

It surprised me that she didn’t to have prise my fingers from her as she pulled away. I think it was a subconscious decision on my part to let go … and not only now … but …

I sat there and waited for her to come back with two steaming mugs, the jumper dangling flaccidly from my hand, resignation apparent. I lifted my gaze to be captured by blue eyes, which surveyed me … the expression open and raw.

Tentatively she placed the drinks on the table and sat down next to me, turning her whole body to face me. I kept my eyes averted … couldn’t bear the scrutiny … didn’t think I could be strong enough.

‘Lou?’ I answered her with a weak yes. ‘Look at me.’ I flicked my eyes to her and then back to looking straight ahead. ‘Look at me.’ Her hand came and cupped my face, turning it towards her and holding it in place.

‘Can I tell you something?’ I nodded into her open palm. ‘Are you sure you want to hear it?’ I paused … and then nodded again. The butterflies in my stomach were going crazy. ‘Sure?’ I fixed my eyes onto hers, my breathing hitching, knowing that this ‘something’ would either make or break me. A nod. She swallowed, but her eyes never left mine. Then it came.

‘I love you.’

Three little words. That’s all they were. Three little words … but they were the three little words I had longed for nearly all of my life, but only if they were uttered by the woman who was not just holding my face in her hands, but my heart … my future … my reason to be.

‘I love you.’ There they were again … palpable … assured and … waiting for a response from me instead of wide eyed wonder.

‘I … I … I...’ The words were jamming in my throat … not because of nerves or fear, but bloody excitement.

‘You don’t have to say it back just because I said it.’ Her face tried to look non-plussed, but I could see a shadow appear behind her eyes.

‘I … I…’ I was sounding like a retard … and she was pulling away from me. And I still couldn’t get the words out. So I did what any self-respecting person who had swallowed her feet would do. I kissed her. Hard. With everything I had. If I couldn’t say it, I had to show her.

Her lips were unreceptive at first, but I carried on. Needed her to know ... needed her to understand I loved her too. I cupped the back of her head and pulled her in, deepening the kiss … deepening the contact. Her mouth opened a little and my tongue took its chance and slipped inside.

She sucked at it. Caressed it. Loved it. And I felt her falling backwards onto the couch taking me with her. I was sprawled over her body; my mouth devouring her, my hands eagerly stroked her face, her throat and shoulders until I had one on either side of her.

Then I pulled back, pulled away from the kiss and just looked at her underneath me.

‘I love you, Ash … so much … so much.’ The grin spliced her face and she grabbed the back of my head and pulled me back down to capture my mouth with hers again.

I was falling inside her, headlong, unguarded. And I was so happy to finally let go.

                        **************************************************************

part 11 (conclusion)

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