There are always two sides to every story. Well, actually there are three. Yours, mine, and more importantly, the truth. It all depends on what you want to believe, want to see, and who to trust.

After years of not taking responsibility for her actions, Stephanie Stevenson realises she has become the woman she never wanted to be. Quitting her job as a reporter, she moves to Bassenthwaite, Cumbria, in an attempt to start over. Four years later, a beautiful woman moves into the cottage next to hers. Could she be the answer to Stephanie's prayers? Or will the arrival of her new neighbour dig up the reporter's past? A past Stephanie believes is best left buried?

Erin Mason is not the average woman-next-door. She, too, holds secrets that are craving to raise their head once again. Could Stephanie be the one to unlock the memories? Or is it the other way around?

Two women: one story. Their story.

Disclaimers: Most definitely a need for a disclaimer, as these two do resemble those ladies from a well known TV show. And God, do I miss it. I have tried to give them a touch of me though, so don't expect yiyiyiyiyis all the way through it. Or even at all.

Sex: Eventually. I thought my juices had dried up at one point! Sorry. Did I say that out loud? Erm. I meant creative juices.

Where was I? Oh right … going bright red, I remember now. In a nutshell (almond), yes - there is. And if you are too young to read about ladies and their naughty dealings, then I'm sorry. You'll have to wait, or lie about your age … or throw caution to the wind. But remember - I told you. Same applies if it illegal to read about lady luvvers where you live.

Violence: What does the term violence denote? Do I have to slap and punch, or can I get away with temper tantrums? On a more serious note, there is a reference to rape, suicide and cancer. But these are only in reference, and I don't go into detail.

Thanks: To my beta readers - Dec and Heike. Thank you for being so patient with me. And Towanda … you are a star - and never forget it, ok?

I know this story has taken me a long time to write, but you can blame work and bloody Bill Gates. I can't tell you how many times Vista ate my chapters. Greedy git.

Also … big thanks to you, the reader, who give me fantastic feedback and the want to keep on writing, however much the people at Microsoft want me to stop. And a big thank you to all the incredible writers out there who have given me hours of joy.

Other Bits and Bobs: The location for this tale is the Lake District, Cumbria. Absolutely breathtaking, if you ever get the chance. Bassenthwaite is a place where I had the honour of reading for my very good friend Kel on the day that she married her soul mate, Michael. Therefore, that is the reason this is set there. The lake at Bassenthwaite is bigger than I have described in this story, but I have tried to keep the rest of it as close as possible to the truth. I also flit to Manchester on occasion. Can't help it. I'm a northern girl.

Dedication: To hope. To life. And definitely to living. And thank you for listening to me rabbit on about this story, and how you made me think about why I do it. Writing, that is.

If you like what you have read, drop me a line. Warning. I am extremely sensitive … I can cry on demand, which is a little like TV on demand, but wetter. Or if you want to check out my published work … under LT Smith …

PD Publishing - LT Smith


By Fingersmith (LT Smith) © Jan 2008

Part One


Being on my own was never a problem. I enjoyed the tranquillity of it all. The not answering to anyone but myself … the freedom of walking around the house naked … the eating crap and crying at shite movies - you know, the 'everything'. But there comes a time in your life where you start to wonder what you are doing … where you are going … and that's what happened to me.

It doesn't always work in the way that you wake up one morning and think, 'I don't want to be on my own anymore.' Or even the doing stuff and wondering what it would be like to do it with someone else. Sometimes it takes something a little less subtle - something like a six-foot goddess with brilliant blue eyes moving into the house next door to bring you out of some kind of stupor.

Problem was … she had a man in her life. Second problem, if the fact she loved testosterone flying about didn't make a huge one ... why on earth would she give someone like me a second look? But the main problem was nothing to do with any of the above. In fact, her not liking me was something I had grown to expect, especially since I didn't really like myself to begin with.

But once again, I am jumping the gun. I should put things into perspective - it may help you out in the long run … it might even help me out too, you never know. Bigger miracles have happened. Water into wine … the parting of the Red Sea … even Labour getting in for another run.

So let's go for a miracle, shall we?


Chapter One

First and foremost, I should introduce myself. Stephanie Stevenson at your service. Go on. Take the piss. Everyone else does. SS for short … or 'Couldn't your parents come up with something more original?' It all boils down to my father being over exuberant with the 'Let's have a drink to wet the baby's head,' and having one too many until he insisted he should name me after some two bit actress he used to like. Don't get me wrong. My father isn't a bullish alcoholic. Far from it, in fact. And that's why my mother gave in. Unfortunately.

But, you can call me Steph. I don't mind that. And to be a little friendlier, I shall tell you a little bit more about me just to make the picture of yours truly, clearer.

Bassenthwaite. Nope, I didn't sneeze. That's where I live. Right near the lake. I know what you're thinking. You're thinking 'What lake?' Bassenthwaite is one of the topmost lakes in the Lake District, Cumbria. Talk about picturesque. I can honestly say the views from my bedroom window can only be called sublime. Hills, dales, sheep (lots of sheep), water … green fields, and fresh air. Well, unless it is winter … then the colour changes a tad, mainly to white, actually. And the lake does look less inviting …

Before I go into detail about why I live in a place that makes rigor mortis look happening, I should really tell you the reason why I left Manchester in the first place. Shouldn't I? Go on, you've twisted my arm.

I was born and raised a city girl ... thought I would be there until the day I keeled over from inhaling the car fumes, or get knocked down by the 192 from Piccadilly to Hazel Grove. But that wasn't to be. Obviously. I left Uni at the tender age of 21 and started in a newspaper office. (Tea anyone?) Although I started at the bottom, it didn't take me long to climb up the proverbial ladder, mainly because of my skill at being a nosey fucker.

To say I loved my job would be a half-truth. Initially I did, and when I realised I no longer liked it, too much water had raced under the bridge. Being a reporter is not all what its cracked up to be - no tilted hats with name cards sticking out … no rushing from the courtroom with front page news, and definitely no freebies. Long days filled with seeing things that people should never be witness to, never mind involved with, was my life.

It was on one of these occasions that I decided enough was enough and I threw in the towel. I bet you want to know the ins and outs of it, don't you? I think my nosiness is rubbing off already.


Ok, then. But please don't judge me. I can do that for the both of us.

Four years ago. That's when it happened. Although it feels as if it happened last week. It was nothing out of the ordinary, well, for Manchester that is. And when you spend enough time hanging about with low lives just to glean a titbit of info, you find that life can take you one of two ways. Firstly. You can become hardened to everything - become just as unsavoury as they are. Secondly, you can become increasingly distrustful. Or thirdly (ok, ok, I know its three, and I said one of two ways, but it's my story after all), you can adopt one and two and mix them up, making a low life that is completely distrustful. Not a good combination, to say the least. Good job I wasn't waving a gun - guns don't go well with distrustful lowlifes. Believe me.

Right. Down to the nitty gritty, and another reminder that I am not happy about the events that follow, ok?

Rape. Such a horrific word - enough to make us all cringe. An extremely violent rape, to be exact. A mother of two, gang raped by three teenagers whilst her children crouched in the corner too scared to cry. Not a pretty picture, is it? No, I didn't think you'd think so. But to me she was just another story - another headliner - another scoop by Stevenson.

At first she didn't want to tell me … didn't want to tell anyone. And in retrospect, I don't think many of us would want to relive that time over and over again. Pity I didn't think that when I was pestering the life out of her to tell tell tell.

To this day I can still see her sitting there - so vulnerable, broken, her husband next to her appearing a mere shell of a man, the word 'incompetent' invisibly written on his forehead. And also to this day I can hear myself asking questions, making her go over it again and again just so I wouldn't get my facts wrong. But in the end I got more than my facts wrong. Any decent person would have apologised, got up, gone back to the office, told them to shove it, and walked out, tossing her keys over her shoulder as she went. Not me. I pushed and pushed, and then pushed some more. Then pushed again until I saw her break into a thousand pieces, her husband's flaccid arms trying to give comfort hanging from her body like ivy.

So I kept on going. Had to get my spread … had to get the kudos that comes with a win. It was only when I felt myself becoming bored with her crying did I stop. In that split second, a flickering of humanity whizzed through me, before I cast it aside, made my excuses (and apologies), and left.

Four days later it came back to haunt me. Not flashbacks about what a selfish twat I had been, but the recriminations of my actions. I will say this as quickly as I can, and yes, I am a coward. I was in the office laughing. Some stupid report had come in about an old bloke being arrested for giving a safety camera the middle finger as he was caught on film, and him refusing to pay the thousand pound fine for crude behaviour. The sound of raised voices from outside my door alerted me that all was not well in camp.

Standing there, or should I say half slumped and looking beside himself with grief, was the husband of the victim. My victim, as it happens. Yes. She killed herself. Her husband found her in the bath … and I won't go into the details, for your sake as well as mine. Turns out she read my article, and that was it. The realisation of what she had been through sunk in and she decided she couldn't bear to live with the memory of it.

Even now I can still remember the look in his eyes as he pointed his finger, unable to say the words he had come to say. The pain there … the agony of not being her protector was evident, but the finger said it all. Quietness reverberated from every wall, the everyday clicking of the keyboards stopped, and I was left standing there exposed to everyone for what I truly was. I was more guilty of her death than the three teens that had started the downward spiral.

All the years of denial surged and flooded, and I knew that my time in this role was over. In that split second I recognized the person I had become and the insight sickened me. There was no way I could turn the clock back and make this alright; there was no way I could live with myself if I carried on.

And as we stood there in muted stalemate, my life changed. My legs gave slightly at the knees and I stuck my hand out to save myself from falling to the floor. The action broke the spell, and the husband lowered his arm slightly as if to catch me. That made me feel even worse, as you can imagine. Then he turned as if to go, stopped, and turned back to me. A voice rough with crying uttered just a few words, but those words disturb me still.

'What do I tell the kids?'

Then he was gone, and I was left with the excruciating pain of beginning to feel again after fourteen years of rejecting anything that has a semblance of remorse or pity.

Two months later I was living in Bassenthwaite. Still a reporter, but this time it is low key. No huge stories to follow up; nothing more exciting than announcing the winner of the local jam making competition, or reports about dogs scaring sheep, and that suits me just fine. I left Manchester behind me, and only go back to visit family on a needs must basis.

But I don't live alone. No sir. I have a very good housemate who keeps me on the straight and narrow. Someone who actually made me feel again … someone who made me understand what it was like to care for another being … someone who walked into my life two weeks after my move. Not bad going considering I was definitely on Self Pity Street. But he saw past all that and saw the inner me; he made me see that life did have a purpose after all.

Reggie. God. If you could see his smile, it would melt your heart. And his eyes … I could wax lyrical about them for hours. Brown. The colour of roasted hazelnuts. Sparkling hazelnuts, at that. And the way he snuffled me every time I got home from work (that's if he didn't come with me), just after bringing me his squeaky ball, made me laugh out loud and make him go crazy.

But I doubt you want to hear about my love story with my canine friend do you? I didn't think so. Well at least I have disclosed my skeleton for you to think about, something I very rarely do as I'm not much of a 'let's pour out my feelings' type of girl. But I feel I can trust you. The question is … do you trust me? You must remember that with this narrative viewpoint all you really get is my side of the story - something a reporter is very good at. Maybe I am feeding you a pack of lies to play with your sympathies … maybe I'm playing with the truth a little to make what I do in the future pale in comparison to what I did before. Or maybe I am just telling you things how they are. Only you can be the judge of that. Everything's relative after all.


Chapter Two

I guess you want to know more about the six-foot goddess now that I've depressed the arse off you. Anything to push the memory of the woman to the back of your mind - or is that just me? Yes, I will say anything to try to forget what I had done - believe me.

Enough. I will try to move forward, as going backwards gets you nowhere fast.

Let's see. How do I introduce my introduction to 'her'? Do I attempt to place the situation into some kind of context? Tell you about my neighbours who sold up shop and buggered off to the glitzy nightlife of Ambleside? Or should I rattle on about watching boxes and removal vans appear in the early hours of Saturday morning? (Can't help being nosey - it's in the blood) Maybe it could be when I saw her bending over a box and was staring at her arse for what seemed like forever?

Hmm. I don't know. Can't get my head around where to begin. I could go for the time when she knocked on my door after I had just given Reggie a bath … That sounds about right.

Ok. I'm set.

It was Saturday evening when I first met her - spoke to her, in fact. I had spent the day peeking through the net curtains like a right old woman, telling Reggie what was happening and waiting to see if he would have any input. All he did was whimper for a bit, bring his ball and then lick his testicles for what seemed like too bloody long. Eventually I gave up the ghost and sorted through some of my own boxes, as you do when you see someone else doing it.

Even though she was my neighbour, she didn't live right on top of me. Her house was about three hundred metres away from mine, which made spying more difficult, especially when it started to get darker. I hadn't seen her up close as yet - only from a distance, and that made her seem quiet small. Did I also tell you I was stupid, too?

It was only Reggie's whine that alerted me I had neglected to take him for his after tea constitutional, and he wasn't a happy boy. This fact he proved by chasing ducks close to the lake, and eventually into it. He was covered in bits of crap and smelled like something had crawled into his fur, died, and promptly began to rot. Hence having a thorough bath when I got him back.

One thing Reggie hates is bath time. Loves water, but hates soap. He is the epitome of a teenage boy … please note, if teenage boys could lick their testicles they would - believe me - it would save on having to shower.

Anyway. I had just gone ten rounds with him and a bottle of shampoo when I heard my doorbell groaning. As I turned to answer, ordering Reggie to stay, it went again. 'I'm coming, for Christ's sake', which Reggie decided the 'coming' part was for him. Out he jumped and fled through the open door. Water was pissing off him like a fire hose and the wooden flooring was a death trap. Attempting to catch him on his hasty departure, I buggered over and skidded along the floor, soaking up what seemed like Lake Windermere in the process.

'Ding … Dong.' Another groan. I think the battery was dying - or auditioning for RADA.

'For fuck's sake!' A slippery endeavour to crack the mountainous climb up the side panel of the bath resulted in another slip just as I was about to get on my knees. Thud. The sound of my shin hitting the tile was enough to make a welder cringe … and my language could make a builder blush, that I can guarantee.

Finally, it was a case of crawling to the open doorway and to dry land that allowed me to take the plunge and try for another attempt of being vertical.

Reggie was racing to and from the door, and jumping on everything in his excitement. I usually loved watching his antics after his bath, as he appeared to be showing his emotions at 'freedom from the watery depths'. But I was in no mood to play and chase him, as I was too busy limping to the door.

Just as I arrived there, Reggie came and sat next to me with my best shoe in his mouth, and that did it - that and the sound of the doorbell wheezing its dying breath again.

Pulling the door open, I glared at the tall brunette standing casually on the steps. Before I knew it I had uttered the welcome, 'What the hell do you want?' and then promptly felt like curling up and dying.

'Erm.' She looked how I felt. Bloody uncomfortable. And it wasn't because my jeans were glued to me, and riding up my arse, either. This was the 'Oh shit' kind of uncomfortable. And to add insult to injury, my face was burning. Talk about being embarrassed.

'Never mind. Sorry to disturb you,' and she turned to go.

'Stop! Wait!' But she continued to walk away, and I could hear her muttering something but did not catch what she said. Reggie, the spawn of Satan, was out of the door and after her. His bark was muffled as he was still carrying my shoe, but she looked down at him, stopped, stooped and tickled his head, before moving on.

I couldn't just let her walk away. That was no way for anyone to be treated when they were coming round to … what was she coming round to do?

That did it. I followed Reggie, who by this stage was trotting happily alongside her as if he decided he too wouldn't stand for my rudeness. The gravel stuck into my feet, as I wasn't wearing shoes, and I was making the noises only people who have ever tried to run barefoot on gravel make, all the time asking her to stop.

Then it occurred to me. Something I wasn't used to doing, or saying, for that matter.

'I'm sorry.' She stopped, I continued. 'Sorry for my rudeness.' She turned, slightly … and so did Reggie, as if he had nothing to do with me fucking over in the first place and hurting my shin, whilst absorbing a small African country's water ration for a year with my clothes.

Eventually, with an overdramatic limp to finish, I was in front of her, hand outstretched. 'Let's start again, shall we?' And I didn't give her chance to answer before I continued. 'Stephanie Stevenson. Rude neighbour and grumpy git at your service.' I smiled my most winning smile, tilted my head and poked my face out as if I was waiting for a response.

Blue eyes flicked down to my outstretched hand, then back to my face. Then a deliberate lick of the lips before she pursed them as if to speak. She seemed troubled somehow. Not that I could blame her, as I had not been the most sociable person under the sun when she had knocked on my door. But she waited, and so did I. My heart was hammering so loudly in my chest, and I couldn't understand why I was out of breath. It wasn't as if I had run far, but the feeling in my legs, stomach, and chest said otherwise.

Slowly, she raised her hand, and tentatively stretched it towards mine. The anticipation was killing me. Why did I need to feel the touch of her so much? God knows. But as her hand gripped mine a feeling of contentment washed through me. It was if there was no other place her hand should ever be but in mine. Weird, I know. And by the look on her face she had read my mind, as she looked troubled. I tried to pull my hand away, but she gripped it firmer and began to shake it in introduction.

'Erin Mason. Your new neighbour.' As my eyes left her hand and ventured higher, I saw a smile spreading like a charm over her face. I couldn't help returning a more natural smile in response, as hers seemed almost addictive. 'Stephanie Stevenson, you say?'


I nodded. 'And this is Reggie.'

Her eyebrows scrunched together, and I thought the next bit came out a little strained. 'I've heard that name somewhere before, but for the life of me, I can't place it.'

'What? Reggie?'


The consternation on her face disappeared with a shake of her head. 'Reggie, eh? The handsome shoe carrier.' She laughed as she said it, and it was like music washing over a waterfa … ah crap. Why was I suddenly turning into a mush ball because someone had a pretty smile, a firm handshake, and a voice that could crawl under my skin at any time? She was extremely attractive, granted. Especially when she smiled. But I wasn't the kind of person who would just go all goofy when I met someone for the first time. I didn't even know her, although I hadn't forgotten she might have heard my name before. Hopefully she had only thought she had heard it before, and not read it in the article that accompanied the suicide of the rape victim. Nah. That was four years ago. No one would remember that, would they? Although I hadn't read it myself - I was too busy living it. However vitriolic it had been …

But the thought stopped there, as I was taken by the blueness of her eyes again, the movement of her lips, the heat coming off her. God help me. Here I was swooning over a woman who five minutes ago I had been excessively rude to - so very un British, and standing in the increasing coldness with a wet backside and a dog with my best shoe. For all I knew, she could've just been released from prison. She might be a murderer … fraudster … armed robber. Or even just been released from a mental institution - out into the community. Or she might even be involved with someone else … there sure as hell was a lot of stuff going in and out of her place all day.

'So you see …' Shit. I had missed what she had been saying, and not even clued myself in when I noted her lips had been moving. 'Robert will only be here for the weekends to start off with.'

Robert? I looked over her shoulder and saw the outline of a well-built man struggling with what appeared to be a pinball machine… ah … Robert. Her other half. Bollocks.

'And I was just wondering if you had a corkscrew we could borrow, as I have no idea where we packed ours.' A tilt of her head as she waited for my response, which, unfortunately, was taking a while to conjure up from somewhere. 'Everybody needs a drink when they first move in, don't you think?'

'Yap!' Thank you, Reggie.

'Erm … I think I have one. Let me check.' And it wasn't until I went to turn away did I notice I was still holding her hand. It felt so natural for it to be there, that I had forgotten I was still grasping it, and part of me wanted to believe she felt it too. But she laughed and pulled away, making the feeling dissipate.

I rushed back to the house on the pretence of searching out a corkscrew; Reggie thinking it was a game and running ahead. All I wanted to do was to hide my embarrassment, and get some bloody shoes on. Gravel is a bitch. A sticky, hurting, jabbing kind of bitch, in fact.

As I reached the kitchen, I heard her coming in behind me - well, felt her actually. I continued to rummage through the drawers in the kitchen unit, knowing full well where the corkscrew was but playing for time until my face and feelings had returned to some kind of normality.

'There you go.' I turned quickly, my hair whipping back over my shoulder. But my hair didn't obscure the look I saw on her face. I am definite … yes definite … I saw her staring at my arse. And if the colour of her face gave any indication, she knew I'd caught her staring too. This feeling should have filled me with some kind of smugness, but it actually riled me a little. There she was, moving in with the pinball wizard and she was clocking my backside. I wonder if he knew that she eyed up women when she had the chance.

'Sorry for staring.' Her voice was thick with embarrassment. 'But you seem to have a piece of soap stuck to the back of your jeans.'

I groped around the back of my pants. Sure enough, wedged onto the blue cloth was something slippery and very securely attached. Hark at me and my sexual allure. There I was, believing she was a closet dyke when all she was doing was trying to figure out why I would be running about with a block of soap stuck to me.

What could I do? Laugh. That's what. What did you expect me to do? Tell her what I had been thinking? So laugh I did. Long and loud and hard (and fake), whilst she stood there for a moment just watching my reaction before she joined in. At least it was a tension breaker. Reggie became excited that we both were laughing and started to fight with my shoe again, which just made me laugh even more (for real this time). I couldn't be arsed worrying about the fact I no longer had a good pair of shoes for when I painted the town red. The amount of times I did that would mean that the shoes would have been outdated by the next time anyway.

Eventually I calmed down enough to walk the few steps over to the doorway and give her the corkscrew. But I couldn't really get my words out. Erin was nearly as bad as I was. Her hand was shaking as she took it from me. Then with her other one, she reached around the back of me and plucked the white slippery object from my butt. As she passed it to me, the laughter started again.

'Right …' she wheezed. 'Time to get back with this. Robert will be wondering where I am.' Crap. I had forgotten about him for a little while. 'Why don't you join us? You can bring Reggie.'

But I didn't feel up to meeting the man in her life right at this moment. I wanted to think about what could happen if she wasn't straight and involved with my next-door neighbour, even if she was my next-door neighbour too. I know I should just get over myself and meet him … get it over and done with, but you know how things are. Well, if you think like a twat like I do.

'Some other time, eh? I have a mountain of things I've got to get through.' The lie slipped out easily, as it had so many times in the past. Nevertheless, this time I felt guilty about it. 'Do you fancy coming over for lunch tomorrow?' Where had that come from? 'I could cook for both you and Robert … save you trying to get your kitchen sorted.' I don't know where that came from either, but at this rate I would be coming out with way too many surprising things and I thought it would be best if I kept my gob shut for a while. 'About two?' I never learn.

The smile that she greeted me with was nothing short of perfection. She was beautiful … so bloody beautiful, and I couldn't help the sigh that escaped my mouth.

'That is so kind of you. Are you sure?'

'I have to make up for my rude behaviour somehow, don't I?' And I did. I had been such a grumpy fucker when I had answered the door, cooking Sunday lunch was the least I could do. Erin was looking at me with such an earnest expression, as if no one had ever offered to cook her something before. It made me feel a little uneasy, to tell the truth. Clearing my throat, I nodded to her hand, 'And you can return the corkscrew then.'

Blinking her eyes rapidly, she refocused on me and the here and now, so it appeared, and then looked to the inanimate object clutched in her hand. A smile broke out again, and I thought she must have then remembered Robert and the wine they would have whilst they were toasting their new home. A fleeting spurt of jealousy poked and prodded inside my gut before I silently told it to fuck off.

'We'll be here at two.' Erin nodded once as if making a decision, and then turned to go, stopped and faced me again. It seemed as if time had stood still for just a moment, as she looked me straight in the face before saying, 'Thanks again for this.'

I muttered a response that should have been 'You're very welcome and good luck in your new home,' but it came out as 'Aha.' A woman of many words, that's me.

After she had left, and I had closed and bolted the front door, it hit me. I had nothing in to give them. Not even the spuds. So, at eight thirty at night, I had to change and drive ten miles to the nearest supermarket with a mad dog in the back of my car, and get groceries.

That'll teach me for opening my big mouth. Next time someone moves in next door, I am taking the batteries out of my doorbell.

Shit. I forgot to get batteries.


Chapter Three

Sunday morning was panic filled to say the least. I have never been the kind of person to entertain with dinner parties and so forth. Usually I invited friends round to watch a film and we stuffed ourselves stupid with pizza and snacks. But even that hadn't been for quite some time. Well, before I moved to Bassenthwaite, actually. To say my social skills were much to be desired would be an understatement.

At one thirty, I was beginning to panic. Everything was nearly cooked and I still had thirty minutes before they arrived. I can only blame the fact that I had a very bad night's sleep … my dreams vivid and realistic, enough to make me get out of bed and pace around the house. Reggie followed me initially, and even he got fed up and went back to bed. The content of the dreams were varied, from the events four years ago, to meeting Erin. Talk about pleasure and pain mixing. But, the meeting with her was not as nice in my dream. Well, to be honest, when I had first met her it wasn't a bed of roses either, but that isn't the point. Hopefully I had dragged myself from my social faux pas in reality … the dream was something entirely different. Erin had been the one who had been raped … and I was interrogating her and watching her crumple. A blacked out shape was sitting next to her trying to give comfort, but his face was blurred … and it made it even worse, if it ever could be.

Each time I woke, I would convince myself that it was only a dream and try to get back to sleep to dream of something else, but it would just recur. Even after I had completed x number of laps of the house, I still went back to sleep to awaken with the thought I had broken Erin just as I had broken that woman all that time ago. Weird how events in your life can mix and mingle in dreams, isn't? Especially when they were so disturbed.

I couldn't shake the feeling of impending doom from me, and Sunday saw me walking Reggie at the ungodly hour of seven o' clock. It wasn't until I eventually saw Erin and Robert working outside in their garage did I find a semblance of peace. 'At least she's ok,' went through my head. I know. Irrational. But dreams have the way of tricking you and planting a seed of doubt in your head until you believe there must be some half-truth in it all. Was it a sign that I should not get involved with my neighbours? That in some way I would hurt them? I had avoided making any close friends in Bassenthwaite for the very same reason, as I didn't think I was good enough to be called a friend … wasn't good enough to have people trust me. I don't think I actually trusted myself enough not to slip back into the uncaring bitch I had once been.

Funnily enough, I had spent years avoiding feeling anything, and now I felt every thing too much. The slightest frown from someone would hit me like a punch in the gut, and I would spend forever going over stories I had written just to make sure I hadn't offended anyone in any way. So, as you can see, I was fraught. Sleep deprivation and guilt can make your cooking times bugger about a bit.

It was while I was thinking this that the doorbell dinged, the dong had gone completely, and I was standing there wondering who on earth it could be. I know. I should also get a stupidity award.

Robert was handsome. Very handsome, in the ruggedly 'I'm a man's man' kind of handsome way. No wonder she was with him. They made a beautiful couple. Both tall, athletic and gorgeous. I felt like a midget compared to them. It was weird that I hadn't noticed how tall she was last night when I had met her for the first time. Well, I had, but I hadn't put her height in comparison to my own, and how very much of a short arse I was. Although being five foot eight couldn't really be described as short.

'Hey there. I'm Robert. But call me Rob.' A meaty strong hand was thrust out in gesture and I paused slightly, before wiping my sweaty one on my jeans and returning the gesture. Jesus. He had the grip of a bear. And the way he pumped my hand up and down, I thought my fucking arm was going to snap off. I didn't envy her in the sack … even if I wasn't a raving lezza. If he shook hands like that, God only knows what he would be like when …

'I hope we're not too early, Stephanie. But Robert was eager to meet you.' I bet he was. He probably had to miss going to the gym this weekend and wanted to vent some of his excess energy on some poor unsuspecting victim. My fingers were curling up and dying and I wanted to blow them and rub the blood back into circulation, but that would've been rude. 'Call me Steph … please. And no, actually you're right on time.'

After showing them in, sitting them at the table, I dished up lunch. It wasn't bad, although I do believe the roasted vegetables could've done with another five minutes … Isn't that always the way? And I doubt you are interested in my veggies, are you? Ok. Let's continue.

Conversation was lively, and before too long I knew enough about Robert … Rob … to last me for the rest of my life. The one thing I didn't know was what on earth she was doing with him. She seemed so normal in comparison. He was nice in a loud, overly friendly kind of way. It seemed as if he was trying to suck life in all of the time, like he was taking in the world and all it had to offer, whilst she just sat back and let him do it. And then he told me, and I felt like such a shit.

'So when I found out I had cancer, I went to pieces.'

What do you say? Someone you have just met tells you they have cancer and you have just been slagging them off in your head … I mean … what do you honestly say? Sorry? Or something similar? He looked so bloody healthy … so full of life and expectation of what life could bring him.

Erin tilted her head and looked at him with the look that says, 'You shouldn't have said that, Rob.' But why not? Because I would feel uncomfortable about someone telling me they were going to die? It was not my place to say whether he had the right to make me feel bad or not.

'Sorry, Steph. Too much too soon, I guess.'

'No … no … that's ok.' I swallowed. Hard. 'So … erm …'

'You've made her feel all uncomfortable, Rob.' He had, but that's not the point. 'Steph. He's ok now. The doctors gave him the all clear about eleven months ago.' Erin smiled at me, glared at Rob, then turned and smiled at me again. 'He loves to go into details, so I thought I would save you the pain of it.'

'I was getting to that bit, if you would just give me the chance.' Rob scrunched his face in a comical way, his blonde hair pushing itself forward and over his closed eyes. 'She is such a bossy bugger sometimes. Glad I didn't marry you.'

So, they weren't married. A nugget of information for me to hold close. I couldn't believe I was even thinking that. What on earth had got into me? The man had just got over cancer and I was thinking there may be a chance for me with his woman.

'As if I'd marry you, Taggart.' But the laughter implied they thought the world of each other and this was a game they played a lot. I could only imagine what it would be like to have someone you loved go through what Rob had. No wonder he gave the impression he was taking in life as it came. He had played the game of fifty fifty and come out a winner. But how many couples don't get the opportunity? I am morbid, I know. I have to focus on the depressing … makes me happy, see?

When I was loading the dishwasher, Rob came in to help me, chattering away, his huge hands making my dishes look like they had been borrowed from Lilliput. Erin was playing ball with Reggie, and I could hear her laughter accompanied by yaps of joy.

'Erin has been a rock. So supportive.' He was concentrating on cramming the glassware into the slots and didn't see me stop and just look longingly through the doorway, where I could see the back of her as she crouched on the floor. Why couldn't I shake off the wanting her when I knew she was happy with him? And him just getting over cancer too. What was going on in my head? Why did I wish it were just her and me here? I barely knew her, but felt I had known her forever. I have to get out more … meet new people … get myself a girlfriend. Maybe I would start reacting to people differently if I found myself a wider social circle, as the way I was thinking definitely made me aware that my self-imposed prison was in fact very lonely.

'Do you want to see a picture of the twins?'

Twins? Twins? What twins?

'They are with Sue at the moment, but they should be here next weekend.'

And before I knew it, he had a picture out of his wallet. Two adorable faces looked at me, blue eyed with dark hair. 'Neither of them look like me. They both take after their mother, which is a blessing really.' And they did look like her … even down to the sparkle in their eyes that spelled mischief. 'That's George, and that's his sister, Daisy.' Fatherly pride filled his eyes, and I am sure I saw moisture forming just in the corners. 'They will be eight next month.'

Looking at him then I understood why Erin loved him. Although he was a huge manly man, he also had a softness that belied his strength - almost childlike. And his zest for life was addictive … he focused on the good side of things instead of dwelling on the 'what ifs', something I should really take on board. The love for his family was apparent, and he wasn't ashamed to show it. Sensitive, but not in a sissy way. Even though I had had opposing thoughts initially, I concluded that he was a lovely bloke with a cracking personality; it had just been jealousy that had stopped me seeing that from the offset. From this moment on, that was it. I was just going to have to get over the fact that even though I felt myself attracted to Erin, there was no chance of it ever moving on from a one sided attraction. At least it made me realise that I actually wasn't dead from the waist down - a huge advance on four years ago when I believed I had been dead from the neck down.

So, some good did come out of it after all.


Chapter Four

Conversation continued over coffee and I felt myself loosening up now I had made the decision to accept that Erin was not available. Then Rob asked me what I did for a living. I felt a cold chill race down my back, something you shouldn't really experience when talking about your job - well, except if you're a tax collector.

'I work for the Daily Press … the local paper.'

Rob turned to Erin and grinned widely. She, on the other hand, just looked a little startled. 'What a coincidence.' I looked at Erin, expecting her to announce she had taken a job at our place, but that would have been impossible. It was a small office and I hadn't heard of a job coming along for any of the departments. I was one of three reporters, and the rest of the departments were mainly all one-man bands. 'Erin used to be a reporter …'

'Not really,' I barely heard her say it.

'Yes, you did. Well, kind of.' He turned to face me fully, the smile still splitting his face. 'She did freelance work to pay the bills when she was a struggling writer, didn't you, dear.' The endearment was said jokingly, and Erin punched him the arm making him pretend it actually hurt him. 'Ok … you did it for about six months, but at least you two can actually talk about something you both have an interest in.' That was the problem. I didn't have an interest in it. It paid the bills and that was that. But even though both Erin and I looked uncomfortable, Rob didn't get the hint. He was too busy looking extremely pleased with himself. 'That's until you both discover other things.' He stopped and looked her squarely in the face, his expression becoming serious for a minute. 'You never know, Erin. You two might have more in common than you both realise.' Then the grin again, followed by a snort.

You know when you have the feeling that there is something going on around you but you are the last one to get a clue? That's how I felt. I felt like an outsider watching a scene unfold and there was no way I was ever going to get a grip and take the hint. Finally, I suggested another coffee, mainly because I didn't know what else to say, and to tell them that they should leave would have been rude. And I didn't want them to leave, actually. Apart from the couple of instances I had felt at a loss for something to say, I had enjoyed their company. So had Reggie, who was by now zonked out in his basket with his ball at his feet.

I did expect them to decline, but Erin said yes near enough straight away. I thought if anyone was to want another drink it would've been Rob, as a couple of minutes earlier I had felt Erin had been just as uncomfortable as me.

As I was in the kitchen, I could hear them loudly whispering to each other. She didn't sound happy to say the least, but he kept on chuckling, followed by a manic hushing sound. Leave them to it, that's what I say, and continued to sort out the coffee machine.

'Hi. Need any help?' Literally, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention. Her voice was divine to say the least, with a slight accent that I couldn't quite place. She came and stood next to me, waiting for me to tell her what I wanted her to do. Blue eyes watched my hands as they sorted out cups, saucers, and spoons. Then I felt them rest on my face and I could feel the heat rising from my neck upwards. Inside was a battle. I cannot explain why I felt so damned attracted to her, especially when I knew she wasn't available, never mind the fact that her partner had just come through hell AND that she had twins. What was it that made her so enchanting?

'Ignore Rob. He can be a git sometimes. You just have to get used to him.' Clank. I dropped a spoon right on the saucer and the sound made my teeth ache. 'Here. Let me.' A strong hand took my wrist, and another slipped the next spoon from my grip. 'I can't do much in the kitchen. But I can make good coffee.' I looked into her face for the first time since she had entered. Her expression was open and honest, the hint of a smile creeping around her mouth. I knew she was waiting for me to laugh and break the tension, so I did … a forced laugh, just to comply. The smile came out weaker than I think she wanted it to. She must have known that I was being fake just to please her. 'Honestly, Steph. Rob didn't mean anything by it. He's a nice guy, just a little immature sometimes.'

It was at this point I wanted to cry. Don't ask me why, because I couldn't tell you. There was a welling building up inside that was trying to choke me, and I knew that if I didn't let it out soon I would keel over. But that's not what you do in mixed company, is it? Break down and cry for no apparent reason - especially if you had known the people less than twenty-four hours. I knew it wasn't what Rob had implied that made me feel like cracking open the pity jar - or the fact he had made me feel bad about my line of work, not that he did - that was me. It was just … ah God … if I knew I would tell you.

'You ok?' Erin lifted her hand and stroked my cheek and I expected to see moisture on her fingers as she pulled away. Dry. Thank God. I mean, how do you explain a crying episode to strangers, especially when you didn't know why you were crying in the first place? And through all this emotion whirling inside me, I didn't break eye contact once. It was as if I was mesmerised - caught in the tractor beam of her eyes - the blueness was so calming.

Then I answered. 'Sorry, Erin. Just thinking about what Rob had told me … about his illness … Shakes you a bit … makes you feel your own mortality.' She grimaced as I said it, and I knew it was something she had had to deal with on a daily basis for god knows how long. A spurt of guilt raced through me, as I knew I had upset her only just to get myself out of a sticky situation. It hadn't been about Rob's illness, had it? Or had it? I did warn you I was overly sensitive, didn't I?

She sighed sadly. 'It sure does. Nothing can prepare you for hearing that kind of news at thirty five.' Erin turned from me and looked down at the coffee cups. Her face creased slightly, as if she too was going to cry. And that scared me even more than me breaking down in front of her. I didn't know how to deal with people and their emotions, although I had been trying to empathise more with humanity. But this was just so real. This woman standing in front of me had faced a waking nightmare. Her partner … the father of her children … had visited the gates of hell, and come back. No wonder he liked to joke - not many people could've done that.

But she didn't cry. Nope. She sniffed loudly and straightened her shoulders, and I thought 'I bet she's had to do that a fair few times.'

'It's not me that I feel for.' Not surprising. Any mother would feel for her kids … put her kids first, so to speak. How do you break news like that to children anyway? The memory of the husband saying 'What do I tell the kids?' flicked into my head before I flicked it right out again. Now was not the time. 'It's Sue.'

Sue? 'Sue?'

'Yes. My sister. Rob's wife.'

Rob's wife? 'Rob's wife?' Did I also mention I could be stupid, too? Ah … yes. But I think you would have worked it out on your own anyway.

Erin turned and looked at me again, her face showing confusion. 'Rob's wife. My sister. I told you last night.'

Crap. The time her lips were moving and I was too busy labelling her as a serial killer. How do I get out of this? Do I admit guilt? Say 'Sorry, Erin. I was linking you to The Yorkshire Ripper and missed the fact that Rob was your brother-in-law'? Nope. Didn't think so. And don't give me that face … you wouldn't either.

'Sorry, Erin. I didn't know your sister was called Sue.' And she believed me. Thank God.

As she carried on telling me about how Sue handled the news … how they kept it back from the kids until they knew what the outcome could be … all I could do was try and hold back the grin that wanted to spread itself like butter over my face. Not really the time to be grinning like an idiot, is it? At least I am beginning to learn what is right and what is wrong, although sometimes it's still difficult to get my head to think of the right way to react straight away … but with time, I will get there.

Its amazing how more focused you feel when suddenly things start going your way. Ten minutes ago, I was beating myself up for fancying an involved woman. I don't make a habit of going for someone who was either involved or straight - not my style. There were too many things in there that could cause heartache, and not just for me. Sometimes I am not the selfish bitch I make out, and do have a conscience, although it does take a while to kick-start. When I eventually find the one I want to spend the rest of my life with, I want her to want me just as much … need me just as much … love me just as much as I wanted, needed and loved her. One hundred percent commitment. I don't think any of us should settle for anything less than the whole deal - the full package, so to speak.

Then it hit me. I had spent a while half-listening, nodding, grinning idiotically, and believing that somewhere deep down this woman may be the one I had been waiting for. She wasn't involved with Rob, that's true - but that didn't stop her being involved with someone else, did it? Or being as straight as a laser beam? I think I may have jumped the gun a little, so to speak. And the worse thing was my heart was racing so far ahead I don't think she could hear me when I was shouting for her to come back and read through the rules of the race.

'Shall we?' Erin was standing in front of me, coffee ready and sitting peacefully on the tray. 'You ready?'

As I'll ever be, woman. As I'll ever be.


Chapter Five

Time to move forward, don't you think? I could step back and sit this one out, this longing, but I think there comes a time in your life where you're fed up just existing. There has to come a time when you actually want to live. So therefore, I believe, after much waffle, that this was the time when I began to wonder what I was doing. And if you remember, I said there was a man in her life. You, same as me, thought it was going to be Rob … that's what we get for making assumptions, isn't it? Now … all we need to do now is decide:

Do you trust me to tell you the truth? Or are you thinking that I wouldn't know the truth if it smacked me in the face.

And off we go again …


The second cup of coffee was a lot more relaxed than the first. On my part anyway. Rob seemed a lot better, maybe because now I wasn't holding a jealousy stick in front of my eyes.

Don't get me wrong, it wasn't as if I had fallen head over heels for the woman next door - I didn't even know her that well. All I knew was she use to be a freelance journalist and a struggling writer, that she had bought the house next door to me, and that she wasn't with Rob. Oh … and that she had a sister called Sue. Not too much information to be getting my teeth into. Disappointing to think that all my years as a reporter hadn't pushed me into the who, when, how, where, why and what mode of conversation.

Can you imagine it? Go on, picture the scene …

Me sitting on the chair opposite her, notebook and pencil in hand. 'Who are you?' Scribble. 'When are you going to let me take you out to dinner?' Scribble, erase, and scribble again. 'How come you are so goddamn gorgeous?' Scribbling frantically now, as there is so much information to write down. 'Where would you like to go from here?' Scribbling like a mad person - have to get all the details. 'Why are you looking at me like that?' Not scribbling, but moving backwards rapidly. 'What are you doing with that baseball bat?'

Even my daydreams don't go in my favour. Why couldn't they all turn out with the woman swooning at my feet and answering all my questions the way I would want them answered, instead of the reality of it?

Anyway …

They stayed for about another thirty minutes before they realised they still had so much to do. Rob was leaving first thing in the morning to get back to Disley where his wife and family were. Yes. I liked writing that. Where his wife and family were. Had to write it again just out of pure smugness.

As they were leaving, Rob bouncing down the steps ahead, Erin turned to me, took my hand, and shook it. Even I noticed that my handshake needed more work, as it gave the impression of a dead fish. It was because she had surprised me. But what surprised me more was when she said 'Ah stuff it,' and gave me a hug. I was now the epitome of a rag doll, the limp fish syndrome had progressed throughout the rest of my body. Her mouth was so close to my ear as she whispered, 'Thank you for today. Thank you,' that I could feel the softness of her breath on my skin. Her arms tightened quickly around me into a squeeze before she let go, and I felt like something had been ripped away before I had the opportunity of revelling in it.

Standing in front of me, blue eyes holding me fast, she breathed in deeply before saying, 'I'll have to return the favour. Got to keep on the good side of my neighbours, haven't I?' The smile I had been trying to conjure eventually broke free and split across my face. 'My. If I knew the promise of my cooking would've brought such a wonderful smile to your face, I would have invited you sooner.' And that made me go red. Don't ask me why, it just did.

'Yeah … cheers for the lunch, Steph!' Rob called from half way down the path. I waved to him and he waved back and then gestured he had to dash - the 'I've so much to do' look on his face.

Erin turned to go, stopped and turned back. Unfortunately I was in the middle of admonishing myself for not getting a firmer grip when she hugged me at the time her eyes rested on me again. Her face scrunched up as she took in my actions, then a smile appeared. 'You okay?'

I pretended I was trying to swat a fly away, a little overdramatically even for me, and nodded. 'Damned flies. They're attracted by the water.'

She nodded, but I knew she didn't believe me.

Clearing her throat, she asked 'Maybe you could … erm … if you get time … erm … show me round a bit?' The last part of the sentence was high and squeaky, and it would take an idiot not to notice it must have taken a lot for her to ask. I know what you're thinking. And yes, usually I am an idiot, especially when it comes to understanding people and social situations. But to be honest, the same thought had already gone through my head and I had been a little nervous about broaching it. It's amazing how insular we can be as a species. Too frightened about being refused, looking like an idiot and all that. I honestly believe it's a miracle the human race survived at all. It's a good job there are people out there who just take life by the horns - like Rob, for example.

'… because when he gets up here next week, I would love to be able to show him all the sights, if you know what I mean.' He? Don't bloody tell me I blanked out again? 'And by the looks of things, you know where to take the ones special in your life.' Huh? People special in my life? Who on earth could she be talking about? I hadn't mentioned anyone in my life, and the only pictures I had of anybody in my house were my family. And unlike the mistake I had made about her and Rob, there was no way she could mistake the fact that both of my sisters were happily married women. Pictures of them with their husbands and sprogs put paid to that.

'Come on, Erin! Work!' Rob's voice stopped my stupidness. At least I didn't have to admit I hadn't been listening once again, although at that point I didn't really care. I should have known that Erin wouldn't be single … she was just so wonderful. It was not just the fact that she was drop dead gorgeous that mattered, it was the fact she had a fantastic personality too.

The realisation I had missed out once again swept over me. 'He' would be here next week, and it was up to 'me' to smooth the way for her other half. Talk about being gutted. Why do we do it? Set ourselves up for disappointment, I mean. We hover around the outskirts without the common sense to just come out and ask someone if she is involved with someone before we allow ourselves to develop a crush on her. But then again, wouldn't that take some of the excitement away? The 'does she, doesn't she' factor? Imagine if we just went up to people and said 'Hey. I think I might eventually fall for you. What are my chances?' Nah. It wouldn't work, would it? And think about all the people you were a little attracted to and then realised they were twats. If you had already said the aforementioned line, wouldn't they be expecting you to make a move somewhere in the not too distant future?

Did I also say I could waffle for England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales? Especially when I am nervous. Can't help it. I'm waffling now because I feel like the aforesaid twat, but this time it wasn't the question scenario, it was the unspoken expectation set up. At this moment in time, I didn't know which was worse.

So I did the only thing I could think of doing.

'It would be my pleasure.' And it would be, even though it wouldn't be the ideal situation. I liked her. A lot. So, if it came down to me being the person who could make her feel welcome to Bassenthwaite and smooth the way for her and her partner to start a new life here, then I would do it. If friendship was all that was offered, I would take it. One way or another I wanted Erin to be a part of my life and my future.

Funnily enough, her face initially showed no recollection of what she had just asked me. She seemed to blush, swallow, and then splutter all at the same time before bolting out, 'Great! I'll call round tomorrow, ok?' A beaming smile. Wow. What a beautiful reaction to me being a tour guide. Then she turned and raced after Rob waving her hand behind her.

With a heaviness that lumped around inside me, I turned and made my way back into the house. Reggie was sat in the hallway with his lead in his mouth and that begging look only terriers have.

'Ok, fella. I'll show you around too.'

God. I can be such a drama queen sometimes.


Chapter Six

I didn't see Erin the next day. No. I wasn't avoiding her - I'm not that petty, and if you remember, I said that I would take friendship. Although I was finding that difficult, for more than one reason. Firstly, I didn't make friends … I should add 'easily', but I'll stick with the former. Secondly, there was a something deep inside me that wanted so much more. But, once again, I had to swallow the second one down and focus on building a relationship between us … one that she might want too.

Therefore, the reason I didn't see her the next day was because work was a bitch. Mainly because of the indescribable incident that had happened over the weekend. Some teenagers had vandalised the local toilets, and it was my job to talk to the locals who were 'enraged' at such blatant disrespect for the beauty of the town. I mean … toilets! Haven't we all scribbled our names on the toilet walls, leaving messages or exclamations of ardour? That's part of growing up, isn't it? Even if we wipe it off again, we have all done it. Come on. Think back … see? The 'I love?' is there hovering under the surface in all of us, even though I couldn't never quite understand why people were enamoured with punctuation marks …

But once again, I will pull myself back on track and continue with my excuse of why I couldn't see Erin on the Monday.

As I was saying … toilets … graffiti … locals. Took all bloody day just to shut them up, and then I had to write the story. At least the events here paled in comparison to what I'd been used to in Manchester. Toilets burnt to the ground there and it only reached page ten - here a doodle made front page. As usual, Reggie came with me to work. That was another bonus about working in a rural area … dogs were welcome everywhere, although cafes were a little picky … And he was excellent at calming down the local people - they couldn't resist his overshot jaw and wagging tail. Therefore, I didn't get home until gone seven, and all I wanted to do was curl up and sleep after a soak. Which I did.

It wasn't until the next morning that I saw the note on the hallway floor. I must've stepped right over it as I came in the previous night. On closer inspection, I had … well, stepped on it, actually, as I could see my boot mark on the white with a half a paw print on the edge.

The writing on the front was neat and small, and I didn't recognise it. It wasn't until I opened it up and looked for the signature did I feel a tightness in my gut. Erin. Then I looked at the top. She had written the date and time. Six twenty, March 25th - the previous night, to be precise.


Seems as if you are busy today. Wondering whether you would like to come round for a bite to eat tomorrow night? About seven? Hopefully it's a yes. If you can't make it, give us a bell on 6576812.


Short and to the point. I didn't even give myself chance to argue whether I was going to go or not - I was, and that was it. I needed to socialise more - get out - talk to people who were fun and interesting for a change. And her being eye candy couldn't hurt could it? A grin cracked open on my face, and then I noticed a PS …

Reggie is more than welcome. Doggy food is my speciality.

I laughed. Reggie would love to sample her delights, and so would I.

'Stop that, Stevenson.' And I laughed again, making Reggie get out of bed and come and stand next to his mama with a 'What the hell's got into you this morning?' look on his face. 'We, my young man, are going out for dinner.'


'Yes. Now go for tinkies.'

As I stood in the doorway waiting for Reggie to finish his morning ablutions, I allowed my eyes to drift over to Erin's house. The downstairs light was on indicating she was up already. I contemplated calling her and accepting, but that's not something you do at six thirty in the morning, is it? I'm not up on social etiquette, but personally I would rip the head off someone who called me that early and it wasn't important. I fingered my neck and decided I would rather keep it attached to my head for the moment. I'd ring her later …

'Come on, Reg! Brekkie!'

The volume of my voice carried across the morning air, and I honestly believed they heard me a couple of miles away. It must have been excitement that made my voice reach that pitch, excitement that for once in a long time; I was actually going to do something constructive with my day. I was going to start a friendship. Now that was something to shout about, wasn't it?


You were right. I forgot to call. Well, I didn't forget as much as I forgot the piece of paper with her phone number. All day in the office waiting for news to come in so I could get to work, and all day worrying that she would think I was a git that had no manners. Which I didn't … obviously, because I didn't call.

Ah shit.

I even contemplated sneaking home and getting it, but my editor was giving me the evil eye all day. I think it was because of the complaints he'd had for my 'Spend a Penny for Your Thoughts' article I had written about the toilet fiasco. Even the subeditor's lackey, Pippa, was in her element thinking I had got myself into trouble. The locals were not happy that I had decided to use a pun for their misery … God … they want to get a life. At least I was trying to get one. And if I hadn't had to chase the spawn of Satan around for ten minutes to get my hairbrush off him this morning, I wouldn't have forgotten the bloody piece of paper in the first place.

At the memory, I glared at Reggie, who, from his basket in my office, glared back in defiance, as if to say 'And your point is?'

'You know, you little devil.' But the grin he gave me made me forget all over again why he was in the doghouse, or basket, even.

By the time I had finished the day, I was fraught to say the least. Sounds such a trivial thing when you think about it. But I wanted to make a good impression. She was the first person in a long time that had made me want to be a better person, make me want to get out and do stuff, and I had buggered it up.

So, I found myself driving into her driveway instead of mine when I got back to Bassenthwaite. The next bit was me banging on her door like I was being chased by a mad axe man. I think she thought I was being chased too, if the look on her face when she answered the door was any indication.

'You're early. I haven't even started cooking yet.' She looked at her watch to check it was the time she thought it was. Five. And, yes, I was two hours early. 'But at least you're here … thought you would be too busy.' Was that a dig because I didn't call? Never mind. I had to explain. And as I tried to get the words out, she just stood there nodding.

'But it said to call if you couldn't make it. So why are you worrying?' To think I call myself a journalist. I can't even read a hand written note properly now. I stopped in mid garbled apology and thought back to the note. She had. And I had made a fool of myself. Again. 'I'm glad you can make it tonight. You're not allergic to anything are you?' Myself? 'Seafood?' I shook my head, words deciding they had given up hope with me, and my ability to make any sense.

As she spoke, she opened the door wider and gestured for me to go inside, but I declined. She shrugged her shoulders and then smiled.

'I've got to get back and shower.' I don't know what possessed me to lift my arm up and sniff under my armpit in front of her. Fuck. All I can say is I was nervously relieved for some reason or another, and it wasn't until I had my nose crammed into the crack did I realise what I was actually doing.

The sound of her laugh was loud and hearty, 'So … do you …' more laughter 'need to shower then?' I just looked up; my arm still raised, and grinned the grin of the exposed. 'You'd better wash all that muck off you. It's amazing how being with some of the scum of the world tends to stick like dirt.' She noted my confused look. 'You know … all the toilet vandals.'

So, she had read my article. I felt chuffed that she had read it. Had she read it because I had written it or because it was the only local paper? I was hoping she had read it because she knew me and wanted to 'have a look'.

'You have a lovely style, you know?' My face scrunched. 'Writing style, I mean.' Then she laughed again. 'Because I don't think the style of sniffing your armpits will catch on.' More laughter, but this time I joined in. You have to laugh at yourself sometimes. What's the point in being so damned angsty all of the time?

After a few more minutes chatting, I got back into my car and drove the short distance back to my house. I had dinner arrangements with the woman next door. But why did it feel as if I was going on a date? And why was it so important? By this point I was focused on just getting ready - nothing else mattered. I didn't even look back in case I realised this was all a dream.


Reggie was ready before me. Obviously. All he had to do was have a quick brush and he was set. He didn't like the bow tie I put on him either. Well, we had to make an impression didn't we? I just want to add that I am not in the habit of dressing him up as if he was a pseudo baby - but that bow tie just made him look even more handsome than he already was, if that was possible. The redness of it brought out the black and tan of his fur, and made those sparkling eyes sparkle just a tad more. Erin was impressed, anyway. And that's what matters. When she answered the door, she spotted it straight away, maybe because he stood on his hind legs and showed it off. My dog is a poser, although he hates being brushed, and you already know his utter dislike for soap. But anything that bought him optimum attention was fine in his book - and mine, for that matter. She made such a fuss of him I believed he wouldn't be able to get his head through the doorway - lots of 'Aren't you the handsome one?' whilst I stood there feeling proud.

The smells coming from her kitchen made my mouth water. A scent of garlic wafted and tempted me to walk inside her house and make my way to where I believed her kitchen would be. I was hungry by this stage, and so was my boy, who raced ahead and into the kitchen to see what he could scrounge.

'Like mother, like son, I see?' Her voice was light and good-humoured. I turned and looked at her standing next to the open door, and watched as she closed it before resting her back on it. The slouch of her frame accentuated her contours, and for a moment I allowed myself to swallow the image of her. She was beyond a doubt the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, and my heart surged in my chest pushing out the sigh that had been waiting there. Her legs seemed to go on for miles; jeans hugged her thighs showing toned muscle, and I felt the moisture building in my mouth. I wanted to blame the smells coming from the kitchen, but I knew it would be a lie. The white shirt she was wearing was unbuttoned just enough so I could glimpse the shape of her cleavage - and it was perfect. Round. Curved. And I can guarantee it would taste …


You bet I am. My appetite was raging, but it wasn't the smell of garlic and seafood that had made me feel as if I was starving. Just the sight of her, as she pushed herself forward and towards me, made me want to grab her and kiss the life out of her. To this day I don't know what stopped me. All I could think about was what her lips would taste like … feel like under mine.

With that thought, I caught myself looking at her mouth. Such a sensuous mouth at that. Lips made from silk, I bet. Red. Inviting. Being slowly licked by her. Or was it the sensation of time slowing everything down so it looked as if she was tortuously licking them? I didn't know and I didn't care. All I knew was they fixated me. Made that yearning even more acute. And when they were moving …

But I caught myself. Don't know how, but I did. I only missed the beginning of the conversation, which was a bonus and a vast improvement on the last couple of days.

'… so I thought we could eat in the sunroom and then get comfortable in the lounge afterwards. What do you think?'

I think you are the most beautiful woman I have ever met.

'That sounds great.' The answer came out almost squeak like. 'I'd better check on Reggie. He loves to sample things he shouldn't.' Next thing I knew was I was in the kitchen leaning on the door and panting. This 'only friends' thing certainly took it out of you. Especially if every time you saw the 'friend' you wanted to jump her bones.

Talking of bones … tenuous I know, but I do have a point. Reggie had decided there was a bone in her dustbin. And if you know dogs, they like to find bones. And to find them, they must be able to knock the bin over and rummage through, making sure all the rest of the crap is splattered everywhere it shouldn't be.

That cooled my ardour slightly. There were two things I could do. One. Confess. Show Erin the mess Reggie had made. Two. Be the fastest cleaner in the world. I opted for two, as you may have guessed. I didn't want Erin to think my dog was the Evil One, although at times he did a fantastic impression. And why didn't I want her to think that? Because I wanted her to like him … love him, maybe. That way maybe she would like me too.

'It should be …' But unfortunately I didn't get the chance to tidy up. Erin walked in just as I was on the floor with my hands full of rubbish and Reggie looking at me as if to say 'Mum? Why are you rooting through this nice lady's bins?'

I froze. Vegetable peelings sticking to my hands and poking through my fingers. It did feel as if I had been caught doing something I shouldn't be. I'm sure I heard Reggie laugh, or was it the sound of my heartbeat thundering through my head? The sensation of being bright red was the key emotion of the moment, and all I could do was raise my hands in the air as if the peelings would explain themselves.

She just stood there and looked down at me, her hands on her hips, and her once voluptuous lips in a straight line. Shit. I was in for it. Reggie was in for it too, as there was no way she would think I had come in here and tipped her bin over, was there?

'As I was saying.' I hoped that was the sound of humour in her tone. 'Dinner will be ready in five minutes.' She paused before continuing. 'If you can wait that long, that is?' Deathly silence, until a gurgle from Reggie's tummy broke it. 'As for you, young man ...' I thought she was going to bollock him … bollock me, for that matter, 'I have something special for you.' Go on! Treat him! He deserves it after making me look like a dick head.

But she didn't get out the biscuit jar. Instead she crouched down next to me and began to help me clear up the peelings, chuckling intermittently whilst I just stared at her. 'Come on, you. Get cracking if you want feeding.'

But it wasn't the fact she was an animal lover that made me feel so bloody contented inside. It wasn't the fact she accepted that Reggie was a git sometimes. It was the fact that as she was getting to her feet again, she looked at me so kindly before she nipped the end of my nose between her thumb and forefinger. Such a small gesture, but it made me feel as if I could do anything. Anything. Anything.

It was at that moment that I knew for sure. And the thing I knew for sure was tonight I was starting to live again.


Chapter Seven

Dinner was excellent. Can't cook, my arse. I wasn't a real seafood lover, but it just melted in my mouth. I did have to be coaxed to sample the oysters as they did a very fishy impression of snot. And unlike kids, I don't like to eat snot - or bogies, for that matter. Talking of bogies, the whelks looked like they had been sneezed out of an elephant's trunk. Sorry. I doubt you wanted to hear so much information about my ability to classify food as bodily waste, did you? Especially food that is supposed to be considered an aphrodisiac.

Anyway. To continue more genteel like - the meal was wonderful … even Reggie enjoyed his bowl of specially prepared beef and vegetables. Now, the thing with Reggie and beef is they have an understanding going on. Reggie wolfs it down like he has been starved and the beef replies by giving him the worst case of flatulence known to man … or known to dog, as this case may be. I can guarantee that half an hour after he has whizzed through it, he could toot the national anthem on demand. That wasn't so bad … it was the smell that made the gag reflexes at the back of your throat work overtime that was the problem. All this information was whirling around inside my head all the time he was guzzling it down, and I just hoped that Erin had a cold …

Over coffee, I could hear the familiar gurgling coming from my furry fart factory, and tried to ignore it. By the second cup, he was windy walloping with the best of them. The first time he did one, Erin was in mid sentence, but she stopped and looked over to Reggie, who by this time was sniffing his backside in surprise.

'Did he just break one off?'

Honestly. It was like having kids. Here I was trying to make a good impression, and my nipper was doing his damndest to put a spanner in the works. At least it took a good thirty seconds before the perfume reached us - unfortunately. And by the time he had rattled a few off, we had both become used to the noise and the smell. The only one to still act surprised was Reggie himself. Every time he would look at us, sometimes with wonder, and other times with an accusatory look on his face.

As she was clearing the table, I had a look around her place. No. I didn't stiff her with the washing up. She insisted. Told me to play with Reggie - and I would have too, if I'd remembered my gas mask. So the next best thing was to have a nosey round.

It was amazing what she had done to the place in just a couple of days. Shelves were sporting books, and I couldn't resist having a look at the kinds of things she would be interested in. Maybe I could glean a little information about the subjects I could broach with her, although we had no difficulty talking about every thing from politics to what shoes were good for walking. Talk about eclectic - the books, I mean. The range of genres she had was phenomenal … everything from carp fishing to Shakespeare.

Carp fishing? What the … and then I remembered. It must belong to 'him', the partner who was coming at the weekend. Over dinner I had forgotten that she had a bloke, and the realisation of her being already with someone else made my heart sink all over again.

It was as I was putting the carp-fishing book back that I noticed it. Erin Mason. The name on the spine of one of the books stuffed down at the bottom … then another one … Erin Mason. She had two books published and I hadn't even asked. I knew she had been a struggling writer, but I didn't know the struggle was over. When I had asked what she did over coffee, she had become shy and muttered something about working from home. Just her countenance told me that I should change the subject, so I actually followed my instinct with a little help from my gut-busting buddy, who had chosen that precise time to hit his crescendo.

I had just got my hand around one of the books and turned it over to have a peek, when I heard her coming back. All I had time to do was clock the title … Into the Light … before stuffing it back on the shelf. Why I didn't say something is beyond me. I mean, she had two books published, and there was me, acting as if they didn't exist. I should have just held the book up and waited for her response. But no …

When she appeared in the room, I was standing at the corner cabinet looking innocent and interested.

'Ah. I see you've spotted my man.' Fuck. Staring right at me was a picture of a bloke in walking gear, crouched down with his arm around a black Labrador. 'Gorgeous, isn't he?' In a hetero way I suppose he could be classed as good looking … although smarmy … with big teeth … and a square jaw like Buzz Lightyear. 'You'll meet him at the weekend.' Whoopee doo. 'And he is going to love you.' I turned at the statement, but thankfully she was talking to Reggie, who went all stupid to the extent he rolled on his belly to flash his todger at her.

But, dogs know when to help you out, don't they? Just as she rubbed his belly, he let one go. And man alive, it was a cracker. I honestly saw her go green around the gills, as her face had not been too far from him at the time.

'I think I'd better walk him around a bit. You know, get rid of some of it before he explodes.' She did laugh, but it sounded muffled as her hand was clamped over her face.

Getting up, slowly, she made her way over to me, releasing the death grip she had over her nostrils and mouth when she thought she was at a safe distance. 'So soon?' The look on her face told me that she genuinely meant it, and I did feel bad that I was using Reggie as an excuse to flee the scene of my unrequited longing. But it was all too real, you know? All this 'friendship' was all too real. I knew with time I would become used to the idea of it, but at that moment, I was content to baby step into the role of 'chum'.

I nodded sadly, gestured to my canine pal, and rubbed my belly. 'I think it's for the best, don't you?' She took it as I meant her to. That it was best for Reggie, but I was actually thinking it would be best for me. 'Thanks for dinner, Erin. I, we, loved it.' And we did. It was great to spend time with someone who I got on with … who made me laugh. Most importantly, to be with someone who gave me an indication that I could feel.

At the door, I felt a little awkward. I wanted to repeat the action she had made to me the previous time we had shared food together - you know - the hug. But in a way I didn't trust myself. All the time I spent with her it seemed as if my feelings for her were becoming more acute. It may have been because every time I saw her she looked more beautiful than the last time, but that might have been because every time I saw her another problem was thrown into the mix. I hadn't even told her I was gay, although that was not usually the first thing you said to someone when you met them, is it? 'Hi. I'm you're dykey neighbour. Welcome to the neighbourhood.' No. I didn't think so.

Reggie was sitting next to the door, his stomach making noises that would impress a civil engineer, so I opened it and let him wander outside. Erin was in the kitchen taking the last of the coffee things through, and I couldn't just shout thanks and bugger off, could I?

In less than two minutes she was back with a parcel of uneaten dessert in her hands. 'Something for breakfast.' The grin she gave me was what the Great Masters would call perfection - the epitome of beauty, and I think my heart jumped into my throat to have a better look. I couldn't even answer her, just took the parcel and smiled. Even to me it felt weak.

'I've had a lovely time, thanks.' She tilted her head and grinned wider, exposing beautifully straight teeth.

'My pleasure.' No. Mine, I think.

I could feel the sigh of contentment and want gurgling up my throat and I had to swallow rapidly to get it to go back down and stay there, but it wanted out. It wanted to expose me, and inform her that I felt things one friend shouldn't feel for another.

'See you soon?' The tone was soft, and I couldn't resist looking into her eyes. Blue. Open. Honest and trusting. Why on earth did I ever think she would give me a second look? Even if she was gay like me … she had it all. Brains. Beauty. Personality. I would be right at the back of the queue of people bending over backwards to be with her.

'Of course.' Of course? Why the fuck did I say that? 'I mean …' But she just laughed and pushed me gently in the stomach.

'I know what you mean.' That laugh again. You know, the musical one. 'Its not as if we live miles apart is it?' I laughed too, but that wasn't what I meant at all. Although I couldn't actually tell you what I did mean, if you know what I mean? I know I'm not making sense - even to myself.

As I stepped onto the porch, her voice broke through the nighttime air. 'Any chance of that tour when you are free? I'd love to see the place through your eyes.'

How could a woman resist such a plea? 'It would be my pleasure.' Then I attempted to leave again.

'What? Not even a hug goodnight?' Good job I had my back to her, because if she could have seen the idiotic grin on my face she might have thought twice about wrapping her arms around me and pulling me close. So close. Close enough so my face was buried in her hair. The smell of her was more addictive than anything I had ever smelled in all my life, but even that paled in comparison to the feel of her in my arms. For an awful minute I thought I wouldn't ever be able to let her go, as unlike the first time she had hugged me, this time I got a very good grip back. And wonderful is an understatement.

When I was pulling begrudgingly away, she quickly kissed my cheek. Just a peck. Featherlike … almost a wish from my imagination to my skin. But it was real, because I could feel the burning of the happy flesh stand against the cold night air. Now, the hug I had wanted and was semi prepared for, but I wasn't prepared for that. Not that I minded, God no. Just stunned a little. I had to work exceptionally hard to stop my hand from hovering to my cheek and caressing the spot where her lips had been in case I exposed myself even more.

'I'm so happy to have found you, Steph.' God. Could this get any better? Was she going to admit her attraction to me after all? Fuck. My heart. My poor heart. It was banging so hard I honestly thought I would collapse. 'Here only a matter of days and here I am …' Yes. Here you are. '… finding myself with a really good friend.' Friend? Aw fuck. When would I ever learn? 'Think we are going to be good friends, don't you?'

All I could do was nod. The disappointment was stopping my mouth from forming the words of agreement.

'Good. Now I think you'd better sort Reggie out, as I can hear him in the bushes after something.' I nodded again, and mumbled another thanks for dinner before walking away, lifting up the parcel of dessert as gesture.

My heart had stopped her acrobatics and was settling to a dull thumping sound in my chest. It almost mimicked the sound of my footsteps as I walked away from her and back to my empty house, collecting my hunter gathering fart man on the way.

And it wasn't until I had unlocked, entered, and locked the door to my house, did I allow myself to gently stroke the place where she had kissed me, releasing another sigh as I did so. Sometimes we know that we haven't a chance in hell, don't we? However, that doesn't stop that tiny pocket buried deep in our chests holding onto that grain of hope … or is it want? Or maybe it is even more than want. Maybe it is need that sits there waiting to be unleashed into the unsuspecting world of loneliness.


Chapter Eight

Sleep didn't want to come. I lay there getting more and more irritable with myself, looking over to the alarm clock and working out how long I had before the alarm would scream and inform me to get my lazy arse out of bed. I was feeling so unsettled and I couldn't understand why. It may have been the rich food, or even the last vestiges of disappointment from realising that I didn't have a cat in hells chance of ever being with her. Either way, I was not a happy camper.

Eventually I fell into a fitful sleep that conjured images of everything from running through the woods to carp fishing. You can imagine how I felt when I woke once again at 3:40 am. Not happy to say the least - fucking fishing and exercise were not the ideal content for a sound sleep, and with a lot of sighing and thudding about, I got out of bed.

After a cup of hot chocolate and twenty minutes watching insomniac's TV, I felt that sleep would arrive a little more easily. I had to be up at 6:30 to walk Reggie before going into the office, as well as doing all those chores that accompany being presentable in a social situation, and I knew that I would be a grumpy git … again. Then again, I spent most of my time being a miserable fucker that another day wouldn't hurt.

I was right. Sleep came almost immediately and I can tell you it was extremely 'restful', for want of a better word. The dreams this time weren't as frantic as the last lot had been. In fact, they were more than appealing.

This time I saw myself sitting at the dining room table with Erin. Candles illuminated the scene and made it appear to be almost gothic. Her eyes were so blue … so vibrant. She was feeding me oysters, but this time they tasted perfect … no allusion to bodily waste at all. Every time she lifted one to my mouth, the juice would spill onto my chin and her fingers would stroke the wetness away. Weirdly, the moisture seemed to move lower and lower, until I could feel a definite wetness between my legs.

Two … three … four oysters, all hand fed, and all accompanied by the gentle brushing of her fingers. A fire spurted awake inside my gut, moving lower and lower and making my hips jerk forward. Then a stray finger traced the contours of my lips until I caught one and sucked it into my mouth. The sensation was exquisite, and I fluttered my eyes closed only to open them and stare right into hers. They were violet - dark violet, and promising something I wanted so fucking much.

Lifting my hand, I grasped her wrist and pulled the finger from my mouth, only to moan at the sound she made as I did so. Gently, I lifted her hand and brushed my lips over the softness of the palm and back, progressing to kissing the fingers one by one … a timid tongue poking out and trailing down each digit. Her skin tasted just as I imagined it would, but better. Turning her hand, she curled it around my face and pulled me towards her, lips parting in expectation. Moisture was building both in my mouth and between my legs. God. This woman … This woman was so sexy … so bloody unbelievably sexy. A shooting pain raced across my chest, but it didn't hurt in the way a pain should. It was agony, but blissful, do you understand that? A real oxymoron; one you could feel.

Just before our lips met, she stopped and held my gaze. My heart was beating so loud, it seemed as if it was inside my head. Rapid breaths met and blended; the look was captivating. I wanted to close the distance and kiss her … taste those lips I had coveted, but I waited, her hand still holding me steady. The intimacy of the position was torture, yet perfect. And although being so close to her that I could see those eyes in detail … read those eyes … note how they were digesting me and the moment … revel in the wanting and knowing she was feeling the same way, it wasn't enough. I had to sample her. Savour her. Understand the texture of those lips as mine moved against hers … know that those lips … that kiss … would signify all I ever wanted in life.

Contact. Blissful contact. So soft. So gentle. So totally blindingly enchanting, I felt myself becoming lost in her and the moment. I didn't even notice my hands sliding into her hair and pulling her face closer, only realised as she imitated the action, bringing us even closer than before, if that was possible. The kiss developed, became more ardent … deeper and richer and fuller. Mouths opened and devoured. Tongues entered and tasted, only to search more fully the hidden treasures we both held.

The sensation of falling forward and into her overcame me, but I wasn't worried. I knew she would catch me … save me from falling. I knew she would never let anything hurt me, even her. And that feeling was the most precious feeling I had felt in so long. Nothing mattered. Nothing but the feel of her holding me, kissing me, stroking my back, my hair … my side …

… Until I felt her hand slip under my top. Those fingers, so deft, so right, so hers, touching my skin, taunting it into submission, making me putty in her hands.

'I … want … you.' Short gasps hitting my skin and making it tingle with expectation. 'I want … you.' Fuck. I wanted her. Wanted her. Wanted … her. But I couldn't answer. I was in a haze of ecstasy, and my voice failed me. My mouth couldn't form the words that I wanted her too; it was too busy trying to consume her throat … consume all of her.

But words were unneeded. Redundant. We had come too far to worry about reciprocating utterances, as my actions more than told her I was hers for the taking.

When I felt the button pop open on my jeans, I knew this was the moment I would treasure for the rest of my life. The moment I knew what it would be like to be taken by her … the moment I knew what it would be like to slip my hands over her body and make her mine too. I felt myself lift up so she could push her hand down and into my underwear, her fingers playing with the hair until they pushed down further and between my folds.

'God.' The first and only word I could say, but that summed up how I was feeling. It was as if she'd been sent by some celestial force to make me feel this way, and part of me wanted to get on my knees and thank the lord for sending me this miracle.

Parting my legs, I opened myself to her, in more ways than one. It had been such a long time since I had opened myself for anything or anyone, as I was too scared of hurting them or them hurting me. I didn't want anyone to get under my skin and make me care, but it was too late. She was already there … spiritually, emotionally and physically. Her smile was in my heart; her want was in my soul, and I knew that if I didn't have her soon I would shrivel and die.

A noise was coming in from the background … a shrill distant noise that was trying to interrupt us, but I tried to ignore it. It got louder and louder, but I still tried to get her to slip her fingers inside. She was becoming distracted … looking over her shoulder … looking for the source of the sound, before she looked at me as if to say 'What is it?' I tried to show her I didn't care, but she pulled her hand away leaving me wanting.

I had to stop the noise. Had to get her back. Had to make her want me again, want me just as much as I wanted her. The cold air was hitting my stomach and I remember looking down at the exposed flesh before looking back at her, my eyes saying don't leave me like this … I need you, Erin. But she did. Stood up and walked away to search out the racket that seemed as if it was right next to me.

And it was. Right next to me, I mean. My alarm clock had decided it was time to stop me fantasising about something I could never have, awake or asleep. I can't repeat the names I called it, as I do profess to have some standards when in company. Let's just say you wouldn't say them to your mother.

Now, I did say that my night's adventuring left me feeling rested, that they were appealing, didn't I? Well, you can see how I could say they were appealing, even though we didn't get to the place where I wanted them. But I class that as our subconscious mirroring real life. In reality I didn't have a hope with her, and I was just glad that I did sample her lips, even though they were the somnambulant type.

As for feeling rested. I did. Strange, I know. But the events of the dream showed me so much more about myself than I ever dreamed possible. They showed me that I was eventually moving on with my life. I had got to the point in my dream where I realised that nothing could hurt me if I had her there, even though I had only known her for a couple of days, I knew that she had come to me for a reason.

I don't know why, but at that moment I had the urge to speak … just the one word. 'Erin.' Just the feel of her name on my lips made me smile. Therefore, if the reason why she had come to me was nothing more than for friendship, or never got past that, then so be it. I was content to just be. It was something I hadn't felt in such a long time, even by just dreaming about her or even saying her name aloud in the early hours, I was beginning to feel happy for the first time in a long time.

Grinning stupidly, I stretched fully in the bed, trying to touch the bottom with my toes, the gaggle of sensation racing up my body and forcing out a growl of contentment. Even though I could feel a definite wetness between my legs, I knew I didn't need to do anything about it. Strange, I know, but that's how I felt.

Today was going to be a good day. The first of many, thanks to the woman who had now become my reason to get up in the morning.


It was only Wednesday. Bloody Wednesday! I had only known Erin since Saturday, and the biggest part of me was wondering how she had become so important so fast. I was beginning to doubt my own state of mind. Maybe I needed to rationalise things a little, as even I knew this was way too soon. And that didn't take into consideration all the other hindrances that came along when fancying a woman whom you know to be involved with someone else.

I needed to broaden my social circle a little … needed to get out and about, show my face, and meet the people, so to speak. The thing about living in the sticks is that everybody knows everybody else, and nobody knows anybody at all. Since I had moved to the area, the only times I had been in a pub was when my family visited, or when we went out for a meeting at work. Once or twice, I had been in one through work, but nothing actually coming from my decision to go and meet people … or even just someone. Even my previous neighbours of four years had had the pleasure of my hellos about ten times.

Now don't get me wrong, I wasn't completely celibate. Just because I didn't go out every night didn't mean I didn't have liaisons with women. That would be too far fetched even for my sad little life. No. I wasn't a nun. However, I wasn't a social butterfly either. My 'relationships' came in the form of one-night stands, and not on my own doorstep. The reason isn't that I was ashamed of who I am and what I do; it was mainly to do with keeping people at arms length. Therefore, all my nocturnal meanderings happened when I visited my hometown. I just carried on being the person I used to be - not caring for others.

Fuck. That makes me seem so bloody cold. It wasn't like that … no … not even in the slightest. The women I chose to sleep with were after exactly the same thing as I was. Release, I think. Just the connection, however briefly, with another human being. To be honest, it had only happened four times - once a year, you could say, although I didn't time it. I couldn't even tell you their full names. Go on. Shake your head in disappointment; I know I did, every single time. Nevertheless, I couldn't be with them, couldn't be more for them, and to them. I couldn't even be more for myself. It would've been cruel to promise them a tomorrow if I couldn't even face looking at my own reflection, wouldn't it?

I know you think I've been rattling on a little, but I just want you to know the bare bones of it. Want you to know what a misfit you are entrusting your time to. And it will also tell you why I wanted more in my life. Why I wanted to start moving forward and into something that did promise a tomorrow, and hopefully the disgust I faced in the mirror every morning would eventually fade over time.

Fingers crossed.

Now where does this link to the previous night? Easy. Last night I realised I didn't want this kind of existence anymore, didn't want to just carry on being a loner with her dog. As I said, I wanted so much more from life: it was as if I'd been given a chance to renew the lease in some form or another and Erin was going to help me. Yes, it does sound confusing … but you have to remember, I was the one having to go through it. A very shaky time to say the least.

Ok. Let's continue. Let's get back to Wednesday morning and the realisation I was going to change my hermit like ways.

Right. Here we go …


Chapter Nine

Erin was in her garden as I came back from Reggie's walk. She had her backside sticking up in the air and was fighting valiantly with some stubborn bush root. Well, that's what it looked like to me. Initially I was tempted to just carry on walking, and, truth be known, if Reggie hadn't decided he wanted to say hello, I probably would've done just that. Old habits die hard, I guess.

But I have to admit, watching her scream and run forward as Reggie jumped up behind her was worth me crawling out from under my antisocial rock. My poor little fella looked startled, and stared at me for guidance. Before I had the chance to shout out a reassurance to both Erin and Reggie, she had realised what had happened. I stared at her with my mouth hanging open like a retard. As you do.

'Buggeration!' A laugh, short and sharp. 'He frightened the crap out of me.' Don't we know it? Reggie just continued to stare at her, expecting some form of reprimand, but she just laughed again and held her hand against her chest, panting heavily. Yes. You guessed it. I was staring at her heaving bosom - can't blame me … it was a sight to behold. Almost like something from a bodice ripper of days gone by, the ones that inflame your imagination, and maybe somewhere decidedly lower. 'Good morning, fella.' Erin bent over and fussed over the now happy dog, whose tail showed everyone that he was both pleased to see her and relieved he wasn't told off. I just watched her. It was a beautiful sight - honestly. A gorgeous woman and a grinning dog right in front of me. I felt a surge erupt in my chest, a surge that swelled outwards and around my body. 'And … good morning, Steph!' Erin was smiling broadly at me, a truly genuine smile. The realisation that I could differentiate between a fake smile and a genuine one made my smile almost crack my face in half. This woman was so good for me, in more ways than one. It was as if she was training me to live in society again, training me to feel again, and it felt fucking fantastic.

'Good morning, neighbour. Sleep well?' Why on earth I asked her if she slept well was beyond me. Maybe because I hadn't. Or maybe because just as I asked the question, the images from my dream popped into my head. Obviously, that made the blood race to the surface. In my mind, the images were apparent and I believed she would see what I got up to when I was asleep. But she patted Reggie on the head and began walking towards me. The closer she came, the more incandescent I became, and by the time she got to me, I was luminous.

'I slept fine. You?' Bang. I must've been purple by this stage. 'Are you feeling ok? You look as if you're sweating.' Concern flooded her face and she lifted her hand and placed it on my forehead. 'You're boiling. I think I'd better get you to bed.' Shit. Why did she have to phrase it like that? Why couldn't she just tell me to get indoors and take the day off? 'Come on. Let me take you to bed.' This calls for a 'fuck!' because the more she went on about taking me to bed, the clearer the images I had of me kissing her palm … me kissing her neck, could even physically feel her fingers in my hair, probably because they had just been near it. If that wasn't bad enough, I could feel myself becoming turned on again. I knew I should have sorted myself out this morning before I got up - but no … I had to be 'Little Miss Contented' and think that my new lease of life would compensate for the burning need I felt in the southern regions of my body. A tip for you. Never trust your body and mind to actually carry out the promises they make. If it's a toss up of being either rational or horny … Ah … I don't have to spell it out to you, do I?

'Honestly. I'm fine.' Her look told me she didn't believe a word of it, followed by her grabbing the top of my arm and trying to guide me back to my house. 'I …' What? Feel horny? 'I …' am a perv? 'am hot.' In more ways than one, I assure you, and mainly in the v part of my jeans. 'I think I put too many layers on this morning.' A quick gulp. 'And I've been chasing Reggie.' At this point Reggie stopped his sniffing of the bush and stared at me as if to say 'Liar!' It felt like her fingers were burning through my coat and jumper, just like Reggie's eyes, eyes that were burning through my face.

She let go. I heaved a sigh of relief, although not a notable one, a secret one, if you know what I mean. 'Are you sure?' I could tell by her face she wasn't convinced, so I tried harder.

'Yes … I'm definite.' Summoning a grin from nowhere, and avoiding looking at my dog, I continued. 'It seemed chilly first thing …' I drifted off for effect whilst tugging at the jacket I was wearing. 'See? Winter wear.' Although I knew I was lying, I also knew that she was not totally convinced either. But what more could I do? I had to take the heat off me some way or another. 'What are you doing Friday?'


'I was thinking about taking some time owing and showing you the neighbourhood.' A tad extreme just to get out of feeling embarrassed, but I was going to ask her anyway. I couldn't put off the inevitable forever. 'You did say you wanted a tour …'

'I would love to. Love to.' Erin was grinning widely, and I felt so good that I could make her do that, nothing else mattered. 'Although I have to be back about six ish.' My face said 'huh?' and she continued. 'Brian is coming on Friday …' And then I blanked out for a moment. I'd forgotten, briefly, the reason why I couldn't be interested in her. So, that was his name. Brian. Like the snail in the Magic Roundabout … 'And my sister is coming too, with Rob and the demon seeds.' She looked so happy … so happy. Well she would do, wouldn't she? Her bloke was coming and so were her family. 'They would love to meet you … especially Brian.' What about Florence, Dougal and Zebedee? Not forgetting Ermintrude the cow. Might as well go for the whole cast.

But I chickened out. I wanted to be the martyr and say 'And I would love to meet the man in your life', but I just couldn't. The words stuck in my throat, and I felt my lips moving but nothing coming out.

'You ok?' I had to say something. Anything.

'Erm.' Good start. 'Erm …' still good, but becoming repetitive. 'That's fine. I have plans for the evening anyway.' Washing hair? Washing dog? What? 'I am popping to Manchester to visit my parents about that time. You know … beat the traffic.' In Keswick? In March? It was so obvious I was making it up as I went along, but the funny thing was, Erin didn't seem to notice, just gave me a disappointed look.

'That's a shame. You will be back before Sunday won't you? I would love you to meet my sister.' It wasn't her sister I was trying to avoid. 'Cos Brian will be here for good from then on.' Bollocks. What was the point in running away? I had to meet him eventually.

'Saturday afternoon. It's just a flying visit. Touch base, and all that.' What I hate more than the term 'touching base' is the knowledge that I was a twat. And the more I tried to avoid both the term and the action, the more I used it, thus becoming even more of a twat. Vicious circle. I mean, I would have to drive all the way to my parents, and then my sisters would visit, and I would have to be all sociable and happy and prove to them how much better I was - all because I wanted to get out of meeting my neighbour's husband. Husband? Partner? I quickly checked her left hand and smiled at the nakedness. Partner, it is. But that still made me a twat. Right?

'Good.' She lifted the bare hand up and brushed her fingers through her hair and continued. 'Because I've told them all about you …' She stopped. Blushed. Stammered. Then tried to get her now tangled fingers out of her long dark hair. 'How …erm … what a good neighbour you've been.' The last couple of words kind of trailed off, and her eyes were frantically searching everywhere but at my face, eventually landing on Reggie, who was calmly itching his ear. Her eyes brightened, as did her face, as she directed the next comment to him. 'And they can't wait to meet you either. Especially Brian.' Why did she have to keep mentioning his name? It was bad enough to think she was with someone else, never mind constantly being reminded of it.

I wanted to ask her that if Brian was so fucking special, why had he let her do all the donkey work when she moved? But, obviously, I didn't. I didn't want to make assumptions about why he wasn't there. I'd assumed Rob was her partner and look where that got me. Sitting there feeling awful whilst the poor guy told me about him getting over cancer. No. It could be a myriad of reasons. Work. Tying loose ends up. Sharpening his jaw. God help me. I was getting worse.

'Anyway. I'd better get to work.' Clicking my fingers, Reggie was at my heels and waiting to be led. 'See you Friday morning then? Say about nine thirty?' I watched her mouth form into an o shape, and initially took it to mean she didn't want to start that early. 'Later?' Then her face crumpled a little and I realised that it wasn't because I had mentioned the time … it was because I had said Friday. I think a part of me actually read the response right. She wanted to see me before that. A huge part of me wanted to say 'What about tonight? Fancy grabbing a bite to eat?' But I just couldn't. I knew if I wanted to start feeling normal around her, I would have to cool things down a bit - no seeing her at every opportunity. I know it sounds callous, but I also knew that as soon as Brian turned up, I would be pushed into the shadows once again.

You're thinking 'How do I know that?' Simple. She had just moved to the country, and Bassenthwaite was as rural as you could get … Erin was bound to be lonely - she was here all alone, after all. Next, she meets a woman who was close to her age … stands to reason that she would want to get to know her better. Especially if that woman knew the area well and appeared to be a happy-go-lucky kind of person. I know I'm not, but it is what you project, isn't it? Therefore, in conclusion, when Brian turned up, the aforementioned woman would no longer be needed. Right? Right.

Yes. Cynical to the last. I couldn't suddenly shake off the wariness I had for other people, even though I thought she was the most wonderful woman I had met for a long time - if ever. Come to think of it, it wasn't her I didn't trust. It was myself. And don't I go on? I'm getting on my own tits now.

'Nine thirty sounds great.' Her voice tried to be upbeat, but I detected a hint of sadness there too. Never mind. She would soon forget about me after Friday.

Mentally I admonished myself before smiling broadly and nodding. 'See you Friday then, Erin. Come on fella.' As I turned to leave, I had another thought. 'And by the way. Get an early night Thursday … you'll need all your strength.' A laugh broke free from her- loud and hearty. 'I'm not joking. Gonna walk the legs off you.'

'Erm … ok. Consider me in bed at seven.' And no. I won't tell you what went through my mind at that very moment.

Leaving her to tend her bush … now that's a funny statement … I went inside to prepare for another day in the office. Hopefully there would be nothing much happening - well, as in having to get my coat on and go out amongst the masses. I wanted a nice quiet day at my desk … having not much sleep the night before was beginning to show, and it was only eight thirty.


Unfortunately, God was not on my side when it came to work, but it was a good day all in all. There was a report of an off duty fireman who had got stuck up a tree trying to save a cat, and it was my job to go and interview everybody involved. Obviously the fireman was embarrassed, as he had to have his colleagues come out and save him. It wasn't as though he had climbed the tree and was too scared to get down. No. It was a case of him climbing the tree, the cat pissing off, and him getting the back of his all in one suit caught on a branch. Initially I thought it would have been a case of slipping out of the suit, but that was a no go. One reason was because he wasn't wearing any underwear … and secondly, even if he didn't mind exposing his nether regions to the old lady who had turned her concern onto him whilst stroking her pussy … the cat, I should say … he was caught in a position where he couldn't get the clothes off without falling. All in all, humiliating to say the least.

The article came out so smoothly, and the puns were a plenty, although I had to avoid writing about pussys and off duty firemen. Steve McCann, the bloke involved, was all for having a joke at his expense, so there was no danger of offending anyone. Dave, our photographer, got a wonderful picture of Steve holding the cat, who seemed be grinning at the camera. It would have been a great shot for Caption of the Week. I also took a couple on my camera phone, as I wanted some on file - or maybe just to take out and laugh at later.

Reggie spent the whole time glaring at the cat and licking his lips, until the moment came when he couldn't take it any longer and launched an attack. The cat fucked off up the same tree and was hissing down at my deranged animal that was impotently scrabbling at the base. Border terriers have this hunting instinct that nothing, or no one, can stop, and my boy was a Border terrier through and through. It ended up with me locking him in the car until I had finished getting interviews. The worse bit was the cat was apparently stuck again, and Steve volunteered to get it down. Thankfully, as soon as he was half way up, Tiddles came down. Another lovely shot by the cameraman - and me - couldn't resist. My editor liked the headline 'Cat Escapes Embarrassment - Man Not So Lucky', and the article was then taken ready for the next day's paper.

That about sums it up. My day, that is. And that was one of the reasons why it was wonderful to live in the countryside. Imagine. The headline news being nothing more than man saves cat, cat pisses off, and man saves man from a tree. Idyllic, to say the least.

By the time I got home, I was beat. I ate, showered and went to bed, where sleep found me quickly. No dreams that night. Nothing but blackness. Just the way I liked it.


Friday morning came around so bloody quickly, but didn't, if you know what I mean? Thursday dragged and raced by every time I thought of being with Erin the next day. I wanted nothing more than it to be there, but at the same time didn't. I know. Confusing. But arrive it did. And for once the weather promised to be lovely.

After I had packed my overnight bag, fed both myself, and the overexcited Reggie, it was eight thirty. Just time enough to take my fella around the lake. Obviously, Reggie was ready and waiting at the door, his lead in his mouth and a tail that could dry paint. He looked so happy … so full of life and ready for the day that it was natural to feel a spark of excitement too. Therefore, it was only normal to continue grinning like an idiot when I opened the door, even when I was greeted by a beautiful woman who had her hand raised to knock.

'Good morning, Erin!' My voice was high and happy, and it was soon joined by the yaps of my dog, which was totally smitten with my neighbour. They do say that dogs tend to be like their owners, or is it the other way around? Either way, or not even continuing that discourse, both of us showed we were pleased to see her. Funnily enough, for once, she looked startled. 'You ok?' I could feel the smile slipping down my face. I knew why she was here … she was cancelling. I bet she was cancelling today. Disappointment eked its way up my body, and I tried to shake it away. This is what I wanted, isn't it? The thing I had been thinking ever since I had offered. Well, not in as many words, but I had wanted to avoid seeing her.

'Sorry …' here it comes … 'I ... well …' just spit it out 'you startled me.' Because I answered my own front door? 'I didn't expect you to be smiling.' Now that was worse than being told to fuck off. In other words, I was a grumpy git. She could see my expression change; I thought it would enable her to recognise the person she knew. 'No … not like that. What I meant was ... it's so early … and you weren't expecting me …' So, I was grumpy early in the morning AND when I met new people … she had me sewn up. The realisation of these two personality traits made me laugh out loud, which made her even more uneasy.

'I like to keep people on their toes.' Erin gave one of those smiles that can't decide if it feels safe or not, and that made me laugh even more … but I did calm it down to splutter, 'So … what can I do for you?'

She didn't answer right away, and seemed as if for a brief moment she had forgotten what she had come around for. I watched as she moved her lips, but nothing came out. It was like watching an inner battle of some description. Why couldn't she just tell me she had changed her mind and didn't want to go out for the day? Then I could just go around my business and forget all about her. Maybe that would be for the best after all.

I was just about to prompt her again, and even contemplated telling her I couldn't make it to save her the job, when she spoke.

'Food?' My face asked the unspoken question - maybe because my brain was so set on her giving me the knock back, I couldn't quite grasp what she was trying to say. 'Food? As in what are we going to eat today?' She looked down at Reggie before continuing. 'I assume Reggie is coming with us.' I nodded, and he licked his paw, as if to say he was listening but the bit of crap wedged between his toes was more interesting. 'And I doubt they will let us into many places for lunch …' She paused, and I waited. 'Picnic?' I waited some more. I knew I was not being much of help, but I didn't want to interrupt her flow. 'How about you take Reggie for a walk, and I make us a packed lunch?'

Then I felt a sensation that bordered on relief flow through me, as I had initially thought she would be telling me to sling my hook and wanted to stay home and prepare for Brian.

'That would be great. What a lovely idea.' The smile she greeted me with made my heart sing Westlife songs - and that was enough for me to speed things along, as I had a sudden urge to start singing them too, and there was no way I was ever going to put her through my singing. Ever. 'So … we'll be with you in about an hour, ok?'

'You have a beautiful smile, you know?' Her face was deadly serious, and her eyes were staring at my lips. I knew they were, because the object of her gaze suddenly decided it needed the help of my tongue to moisten them - and she mirrored the action, her eyes glued. 'So beautiful …' Her voice was a mere whisper, but the timbre of it spoke deep inside me. Then she shook her head and glanced quickly away, nodding at her house, her throat working quickly. 'I'll be waiting at home for you, ok?'

She didn't wait for my response - just walked quickly away, leaving me and Reggie staring after her. Well I never. If I didn't know better, I would have been certain that Ms Erin Mason had been thinking lewd thoughts about her neighbour. But that was the problem … I did know better.

'Come on, fella. Walk.'


We were on the road by nine forty. Lunch packed into the boot of the car; Reggie safely tucked behind the grill separating him from the front; Erin seated and buckled next to me. I told her I wanted her to see Keswick first, as Derwentwater was a sight to behold first thing in the morning, although I really meant at sunrise, but this would have to do.

After parking near the Lakeside Theatre, we made our way around the lake. Not many people were there at this time of the morning, or this time of the year, for that matter. Greenness was poking its head through the backdrop of the lake, as spring had only just arrived, and England was just growing again. Hills, hills, and more hills surrounded the tranquillity of the still water, and I enjoyed explaining the names to her. Castlerigg and Derwent fells straight ahead, and Borrowdale's mountains to the south; Newlands on the west; and Skiddaw, the fourth largest 'mountain' England had to offer, to the north.

She seemed as if she was interested in it all, so I continued to tell her about the five islands in the middle of the three-mile lake, and she grinned when I told her about the floating island as being the fifth one.

'You're pulling my leg,' and nudged me, making me nearly slip over in the goose crap that was round the edge. 'Hey …' She lunged and grabbed my arm to pull me back, and I fell helplessly into her grip. It was so soft, yet not, and for a fleeting minute I didn't want to move. The smell of her filled my nostrils and I could feel my eyes fluttering closed. 'You ok?'

Fluttering over. I pulled back quickly, and tried to compose myself. When I turned to face her again, she was just staring at me, her arms hanging limply at her sides. There was an eerie stillness surrounding us, and I didn't want to be the one to break it. As soon as I turned away to face the lake again, she spoke.

'Fancy walking around it?' I turned to look at her, my face answering her with an expression that asked if she was mad. 'I would love to see it from the other side.'

'Yap!' Trust Reggie to agree to such a stupid idea. He'd agree to anything to get an extra long walk.

'It's quite a trek … you're talking about at least seven miles around.' She looked disappointed, but come on. Do you know how many lakes there are in the Lake District? We would be half-dead by the time we had walked a fifth of them. So, I decided to compromise. 'Look. This one is one of the largest … Tell you what. You pick a lake from the guidebook, and we'll walk round that one, ok?'

Silence, then a muffled ok. 'And if we walk all the way around this one, we won't get a chance to see the rest today.' Another muffled ok, as she fiddled with the cuffs to her coat. She looked up at me and attempted a smile, but I knew she really wanted to see the view from the other side. I sighed and rolled my eyes. 'What if we got into the car and drove to the other side of the lake? Then you could see it.' The smile grew a little bit more. 'On the way, we could stop at the Pencil Museum …'

That did it. Her eyes lit up, and the grin was huge. 'What a good idea.' Sorted. I loved the Pencil Museum, and it was a case of any excuse to go. Would be nice to go with someone I liked too, as the previous times (yes - I've been more than once - sue me), I had gone alone. Yep. The little saddo in the corner, who wouldn't be out of place wearing a flasher mac.

So that's what we did. Went to the museum first, of course. It was on the way, after all. But it wasn't until we parked that I realised that Reggie would have to be left in the car, and there was no way I was going to let that happen. Even though the weather wasn't hot, I didn't like the thought of him being stuck in there on his own, especially if the sun did come out even more. Erin was very understanding, and we continued to the other side of the lake. But the view was absolutely breathtaking. It seemed weird to be standing on the other side looking back on ourselves - or where we used to be. Now, if I wanted to get all philosophical …

But now is not the time, is it? Therefore, I will continue …

Just standing there with her seemed perfect. We didn't have to talk … the silence seemed apt, somehow. Taking in the view of the lake, and the hills, I felt at peace for the first time in a very long time. Even Reggie was happily sniffing around a bush. A couple of swans were nearby, and I could see the makings of a nest. It was that time of year when things start to live again … the earth takes stock from the winter months and begins to start afresh. Rebirth. That's the word. To break away from all the bleakness, and concentrate on the beginning of something wonderful, seemed like an idyllic time of year to me.

Swans are wonderful creatures. So committed to each other. A pang of longing raced through me as I realised this, and I turned to look at Erin. It came as no surprise to see her looking at me. I don't know why, it just didn't. A soft smile graced her mouth and I felt the pang of longing sweep right into my chest. At that moment I wished I was a swan … wished I were one of the swans helping to build a nest, knowing that it was for all time … for the rest of my life. To have that certainty - that knowledge that the one you were with would be with you forever, through thick and thin.

It was also at that precise moment that I realised the only thing holding me back from all this was myself. I had erected the walls; I was the one who locked all the doors and hid the keys. But what I couldn't quite remember was the reason why. I didn't want to hide away behind my own confines, but I didn't quite know how to take the bricks down either. In my head I wanted to speak to Erin, tell her everything, tell her who I was and who I wanted to be. Maybe that was the key? Maybe if I came clean I could shake off the shackles of guilt I had laboriously wrapped around myself until I felt so restricted I barely wanted to speak to another human being. However, now was not the time. And I believe that Erin was not the person I should be opening up to either. I had known her less than a week, and to tell her of my shady past would not be the wisest move I had ever made in my life. Why tell her anyway? It wasn't as if she was ever going to be my swan, was it?

'I love swans.' Short and to the point, but as she said it she wasn't looking at them. She was still looking at me. 'The way they mate for life … makes me want that too.' But you have that, Erin. You have that. 'Imagine spending every day with the person you love the most in the world. Wouldn't that be perfect?' But you have that. Brian's coming tonight … and then you can start your 'every days'.

Instead of saying that, I just nodded and looked back over the water. Both swans were busy with the nest, the cob bringing the material, whilst the pen assembled. Together they worked to start their life, to build their home ready for their offspring. A sad smile slipped on and off my face before I turned back to her. Her attention was fixed on the birds, fascinated at the wonder of nature. This was the time I had to really look at the woman standing in front of me. Standing there with her hands in her pockets, most people would have thought she was relaxed, but I could tell by the hunch of her shoulders that something was bothering her. That ... and the crease between her eyebrows told me she was uneasy. What was she thinking that would make her look like that? I knew she was concentrating on the swans, but it seemed more than that. Not exactly unhappy, but not cheerful either.

Even though she was not smiling radiantly, or looking at peace, she was still beautiful. So bloody beautiful. Her long dark hair was swept back into a ponytail, and wisps had escaped confinement to dance upon her cheeks and throat. Blue eyes stared intently straight ahead of her, so fixed … so blue … so enchanting. For a brief moment I was thankful she wasn't looking at me that way, as I knew I would crumble under such scrutiny and bare all. Red, soft lips were parted as if she was about to speak, but they were silent. I wanted to feel how soft they really were; experience them as they took mine with hers and swallowed me whole.

'Steph?' The sound of her voice brought me back to the here and now, as it seemed the only thing I could hear. 'You ready?' Ready for what? 'Shall we?' Shall we what? God, I was so dim sometimes. 'Or would you rather stay here all day?' Ah. She wanted to go. Her face still seemed sad, and all I felt like doing was making her smile - anything to make her smile.

As I stepped forward, I had the sensation I was going back. Confusion was paramount in my mind, and there was nothing I could do to shake off the impression. Maybe because the feeling wasn't in my head, it was actually happening; I was going backwards. Frantically I stepped forward, but I felt my boot slip underneath me and myself falling towards the ground. All I could see was gooey mud racing towards my face, and the smell wasn't anything like wet soil. More like swan crap.

Splat. Face first. I knew I should never stand with my hands in my pockets, but I was distracted, ok? And by the time I had dragged them out, the only thing they were able to do was to slap helplessly at my sides as my face got the health spa treatment. One thing I was thankful for was that I had shut my mouth, as that would have made me gag even more than I was already doing. I lay there for what seemed like an age, but was in fact only seconds, allowing myself to come to terms with what had happened. But it was enough time for Reggie to think I was playing dead and he had to come and see if he could save me. Therefore, when I tried to get up, he was launching himself onto my back, which just made me slam back into the stinking mess in front of me.

Booted feet were next to me, and I could hear Erin trying to get Reggie from doing his 'let's save mamma' dance on my back. I could also hear her trying not to laugh, and I felt a flicker of annoyance that she would take great pleasure in my misfortune. It wasn't until I was able to turn myself over and look at her grinning face did I stop being irritated. The vision that greeted me actually stopped my heart in my chest. There she was, in all her beauty, looking down at me, her hand stretched out to help, with a smile that could rock the world. I had my wish. Well, one of them. I did say I would do anything to make her smile … even if it meant me landing face first in a swan's bathroom.

'You … ok?' I knew she was trying not to laugh, but the words came out stuttered and strained. 'Take … my … hand.' Do you know she didn't blink as I lifted my crap-filled hand and slapped it right into hers? Even when I purposely rubbed as much of the poop off it and onto her palm? No. She gripped me and pulled me to my feet, and in that movement she also swept me off them. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Once on my feet, I looked down at myself. I was covered from the waist up, and God only knew what my face looked like, as I could feel the formerly wet mess beginning to stiffen. She was still holding onto my hand, and I surreptitiously wanted to keep on holding it, but I knew I was just eking out the inevitable.

I looked her right in the eyes, blue eyes that were open and expectant. Initially, I thought she might be waiting for me to go ape shit - or swan shit, but I didn't feel angry at all. I felt so bloody happy. I know. Falling into a pile of poop is not what most people think of liberating, but to me it was. Because she smiled, you see? I had made her smile. Well, not me, as such … my situation. I could've been pissed off that she was laughing at my misfortune, but I took this as a sign. I had wanted something, and the world had conspired to help me achieve it.

Now, if I really put my mind to it, maybe she …

'You stink.' Maybe not. 'Have you got a wet one?' A wet what? And wasn't that a loaded and ambiguous question? 'Or we could get you somewhere so you could wipe … erm … wash it off.'

So, that was the morning. Me covered in swan doings and scrubbing myself clean in the nearest public convenience. As I stood there, my jacket in the sink and soapsuds up my arms, I couldn't help just stopping to relive the moment when she smiled at me. And you know what? It was all worth it, and I had to stop myself from writing it on the toilet doors.


We stopped for lunch at Buttermere. Now, there's a view, but I won't bore you with details, as I know you are more interested in the woman I was eating a packed lunch with. So was I, for that matter. All of God's creation paled in comparison to her. Even Reggie decided he wouldn't chase the ducks, as he would rather sit and stare adoringly at Erin. Don't blame him in the slightest. Erin was definitely more exciting than ducks.

Over lunch, I remembered to ask her the thing I had been thinking about. Where on earth did I know her accent from? Every time she spoke, I thought about doing it, but one thing or another had happened. I didn't even think to ask her when I had dinner at her place. Makes me wonder what we actually spoke about. In my limited experience of accents, I had presumed she came from near where I had originated. Disley had been mentioned, and that was on the outer fringes of Cheshire, but that wasn't it. Her voice had more of a lilt to it, more singy songy, if that's even a phrase. Slight, but there, if you know what I mean.

Ireland. That was it. She was Irish … well she wasn't actually. Or was she? God. I have the ability to confuse myself, and every one right along with me. As we were eating, she told me she had been born in Ireland, but her family had moved to Manchester when she was nine, as her father got a managerial job in some kind of publishing place. This was the perfect opportunity to ask her about her books, but like a chicken, I clucked, and didn't. Don't know why. That should have been something I should've commented on right away, but it would've given away the fact I had been rooting through her bookshelves. I couldn't understand why she never mentioned it, either. Therefore, the mystery continues … well, until I grew a spine.

After lunch, I thought it apt to leave looking at lakes for a while and take Erin to see Ambleside. Yep. The glitzy place where my ex neighbours had buggered off to. Ambleside is a gorgeous little place just above Windermere … to sum it all up in a nutshell … picture-bloody-sque. The main thing I wanted her to see was the Bridge House. It was so cute, in a crookedy, fairytale way. The structure consisted of two rooms, one above the other, and actually straddled Stock Beck. I felt like the ultimate tour guide as I explained the reason was to avoid land tax, and that it used to be an apple store for Ambleside Hall.

'You wouldn't believe that a family used to live in there, would you?'

Erin turned to face me, and I could tell she didn't believe a word of it. I nodded and tried to look intelligent, as if I really knew what I was talking about.

'Is that the same as the floating island?'

A grin split my face in two, but that's the problem. I was actually telling the truth - on both counts, however hard to believe they sounded. And the worst thing is, when this happens it is difficult to appear like you are not lying.

'Trust me.'

Erin's eyebrow rose until it was nearly in her fringe, and her lip curled up slightly adding to the picture of not believing a thing I said.

'Check out the local history.'

'Under gullible?'

'Ok. Don't.'

Neither of us were arsey, although it may seem like it. There was a friendly banter between us that usually comes along when you've known someone for a very long time. I hadn't even known her for a full seven days yet, but that didn't stop us standing close together and looking at the architectural marvel standing in front of us. The twisted outline was weirdly comforting. It felt as if I had been transported into one of Grimm's fairytales, and I was standing next to the fair maiden. Did that make me Prince Charming? Or was I the ogre that usually hid underneath the bridge? I was hoping for the former, but sometimes I knew for definite that I would have the personality of the evil stumpy creature who lived off young virgins. My past paid claim to that.

When that thought popped into my head I felt the smile slide. A memory so strong of the woman crying on the sofa in her house flooded and consumed me. And there was I, Miss Ogre, pushing for answers, pushing for the truth. Then his voice, 'What do I tell the kids?'

'Hey. You all right?' Her voice was soft, her breath was on my cheek, and I knew that if I looked at her right at this very minute she would see it all, as if she could read my mind. I also knew that if I turned to face her, she would see the tears waiting to spill over and race for safety. A lump had formed in my throat, and it wasn't just for the death of that poor woman. It was the shame I felt; the shame I felt at being part of the consequences that led to it. Therefore, answering her seemed difficult … well, words, that is. I had to rid the lump, get rid of it, but that is easier said than done, isn't it? When you get a lump the size of a grapefruit jamming in your throat, wishing it away was never the answer.

She didn't say anything else. But after a little while, I felt her hand curl around my arm and her fingers squeeze in comfort. That should have made me feel worse, even help to release the lump into a bout of crying, but it didn't. I felt the lump decrease in size and sink back down into my chest, where from there it dissipated into nothingness. Just her touch had done that … just a hand on my arm in reassurance had eased the pain. Why? Why her? Why couldn't it have been from someone who could be with me? Could be mine?

Shaking my head, I turned to face her. There was a sympathy there that I honestly could equate to empathy. But there was no way this woman standing in front of me had ever done the things I had. Erin was the kind of person who people aspire to; she didn't force others to lay their worst nightmares out in the open.

Swallowing a few times, I enabled myself to form the words, 'Wordsworth's Cottage is not far,' and then dragged a smile up from deep within.

She digested the information before smiling in return. 'Another day, perhaps?' I was going to ask why not today, but she nodded her head to the ground. Reggie was staring up at me in the way that dogs do when they want to say you are their world. Bless him. 'That gives me another excuse to get you to myself again.'

What a funny choice of words. I mean, why on earth would she want to get me on my own? Did she mean like a girls day out when the man in her life was here? But whilst these questions were buzzing through my head, I didn't miss the faint hue of a blush scoot up from the base of her throat and settle around her cheeks. This was the time … this was my chance to ask about Brian. Ask why she was with him when … when what? When she blushes because she thinks you might have got the wrong end of the stick? That stick always gets a mention, doesn't it? I mean, what a life to lead. Always being referred to in a bad way. Either someone is holding you at the wrong end, you are a shitty stick that would only poke hateful people, or even you could be given or even receiving the said stick - both of which sound painful.

And yes. I am delaying. A good tactic for when you don't know what to do or say next. Therefore, sticks do have their uses after all …

But time does not stop when you want it to. Nope. It continues to burr and fizzle, and then it becomes and awkward moment. That is one thing I did not want to happen. Up to now, silent times between Erin and I were just that - silent times. Not a big deal. Nothing to get my knickers in a twist about. Just because she had mentioned that she wanted to get me on my own again, and the fact she had a fella, shouldn't be an excuse for me to get all pious … or to waffle on endlessly about sticks and their uses.

'How about we go to Windermere?' There. That was better. I can move on when I put my mind to it. Not the most noteworthy comeback, but a comeback nevertheless. Her face said nothing, and neither did her mouth. 'Or …' She went to speak, and I stopped, and so did she. 'Or … we could …' I waited for an idea, or her to stop me and say Windermere would be fine, but neither were racing to get into pole position. 'Do you like sugar?'

Priceless. That was the expression on her face. Priceless. Me going from sticky moment to sweetness in the blink of a sloth's eye - seamless, even.


It was for the first time in a while that I could actually give a true smile. 'Yes. Sugar.' I held my hand out towards her, and took her fingers in mine. Then with a gentle pull, I began to walk away, leading her with me. 'If you like sugar … you are going to love this.'

Oh. I surprise myself sometimes on my way with the ladies. So slick … so charming … and so bloody naff. But, like a lamb, she followed. And so did Reggie. He loved sugar nearly as much as he loved me, but definitely less than he loved beef.


Kendal Mint Cake. If you ever try it, make sure you are ready to have so much energy you could run the marathon. The slogan on the packet is that mint cake went up Everest with Sir Edmund Hilary and Sirdar Tensing in 1953, who both enjoyed a chunk when sitting on the summit. I'm surprised they didn't run down. I mean, all it is made from is sugar, glucose and water - then peppermint oil. It should just say on the packet 'If you need a sugar rush - look no further. Guaranteed to make you high as a kite or your money back'.

And that's what I gave her. No, not her money back. A sugar rush. And I did it in style too … took her to Kendal to buy it. No expense spared. I couldn't believe she had never tried it before … and I couldn't believe she had more than one piece … or two …and when she got to the third bit, I could feel my stomach churning and my fillings begin to ache. Even Reggie stopped begging after one chunk, and my dog was a scrounger. He spent the rest of the time trying to dislodge his piece from the roof of his mouth.

'Good stuff.' I grimaced at her. Couldn't help it. Just the thought of all that sugar fighting to hit every nerve ending in her body, made me shudder. 'Very moreish.' Then ate another piece. It was fascinating to watch, especially when I saw her eyes begin to widen, as they tend to do when the body is bombarded with a stimulant. She lifted yet another chunk in front of her eyes, and gazed adoringly at it.

'White-handed mistress, one sweet word with thee ... honey, milk and sugar, there is three.' Fuck me. She was quoting Shakespeare at it. I had to do something before she ate the whole bar.

Carefully, and hopefully without causing offence, I folded the top over the packet and slipped it in my pocket. Erin didn't seem to notice, as her attention was focused, or should I say unfocused, on everything going on around us, her mouth moving in fixed pleasure. Then her knee started bouncing, her foot tapping on the floor in an unsteady rhythm. It was a definite high … if this bar can help men climb Everest, I'm sure to God it can make someone itchy to do something a little more exciting than sitting on a wall in Kendal Market.

Her head snapped round, and I felt the intensity of her gaze. 'I need to walk.' I bet you do. She leaned closer, her breath on my face, and all I could smell was mint. She repeated, 'I need to walk …' as I said, well, not out loud, I bet you do. But I couldn't say anything. Having her so close, close enough to feel the soft warm air leaving her body to seep into mine, was enough to freeze me to the spot. 'You said we could walk around a lake.' Trust me, and my ability to be a twat. 'Which one's the biggest?' If she thought I was trailing my butt around Lake Windermere this late in the afternoon, she could think again. 'Windermere?' As if! Windermere was at least eleven miles long, and a full circuit would be … I'm not even going there.

'Erm.' Good answer, Stevenson. 'Erm.' Yet again, bravo. 'Windermere is … erm …' the ability to think was marred by her face. She was still so bloody close, and by the looks of it, hanging onto every word I was trying to say. I couldn't tell her it was too big, as that would only incite her more. 'Windermere. Well … erm … we could get around it ok, but Reggie would have difficulty.' I heard him harrumph at my feet. Trust my dog to try and drop me in the shit. Again. 'What about Lake Coniston?'

'Is it big?'

I nodded, and that seemed to placate her for the minute. I knew that by that time we actually got there, the effects from eating too much sugar would have lessened, and she would probably feel like curling up and going to sleep. Good plan. A better plan, especially if the other plan involved me fighting to keep up as we power walked around Lake Windermere.

'Let's go then.' And she was off, marching ahead like she was in the lead of the Racewalking team at the Olympics. Honestly. Both Reggie and I had to run to keep up with her. I may have been a little shorter than her in the leg department, but this was ridiculous.

By the time we reached the car, I was out of breath. She, on the other hand, hadn't even broken a sweat. It was at this point that I wished I were wearing a tracksuit.

We were only in the car for less than forty minutes, and all the time she was fidgeting about like she had ants crawling around her underwear. Lucky buggers. From the corner of my eye, I could see the longing on her face as we passed through Windermere. The vastness of the lake stood out above everything else, and sailing boats peppered the water. At one point I thought she was going to ask me to pull over so she could run around it, but she didn't.

By the time we arrived at Coniston, my prediction had come into fruition. Erin was relaxed and leaning back into the seat. I couldn't help but give myself a self-satisfied grin that definitely bordered on smugness. Even her eyes were beginning to close … result. It was only at the sound of the handbrake clicking into place, did her eyes pop open, and for a split second, I wished I hadn't disturbed her. I wanted to see what she looked like asleep. Ok. Not the most normal thing I have ever wanted, but you see, there would not be another opportunity for me to see what she would look like when she was totally relaxed. Quite perverse, if you think about it. Watching someone sleep, especially when that person would never be sleeping next to you in the full sense of the phrase.

'You ok?' I tried to make my voice soft, as I know what it feels like when someone wakes you up and talks at a volume that could make your ears bleed.

At this, she stretched back exposing a taut stomach, and momentarily I had an overwhelming urge to trace my fingers along it. It wasn't until I noticed that I had stretched out my hand that I stopped myself. The worse thing was that Erin was in mid yawn by this point, and stopped. Looked at my traitorous hand. Then looked at me. Caught red handed, or stretched handed, as this case may be.

'Thought you had a bug on you.' In March? 'Was going to flick it off.' Her hands were half way down again, but suspended in mid air, her eyes looking to her belly expecting to see a huge arachnid happily dancing on her skin.

'ARGH! Get it off! Get it off!' Get what off? I was lying. But the reaction she gave me said otherwise, and then I expected to see a huge arachnid with fangs and 'LOVE' and 'HATE' tattooed down each leg. Therefore, I joined her in the screaming, flaying my arms about and slapping haphazardly at her, an action she copied with abandon. Reggie was by this time going crackers in the back, thinking he had to save his mamma and the lady who gave him beef. This was getting us nowhere. The more frantic she became, the more I hit her … the more I hit her, the more frantic she became. Then it dawned on me.

'Stop!' One word. And it worked. She stopped, and I stopped too. 'Let me see.' Now this is the bit I have been leading up to. The bit where I could use both my hands on Erin Mason. The bit where I could stroke all over her beautifully flawless skin. The bit where I could feel the smoothness, experience what it would be like to have this woman underneath my touch. She just sat there, her breathing heavy and laboured, but totally trusting me to take care of her and capture the deadly creature that had made up home in her naval. Then I spotted it. Spotted the thing she must have seen when I mentioned bug. A piece of fluff from her sweater had stuck to her skin, and it did, at first glance, resemble something you wouldn't be too happy crawling about on you.

'Here it is.' I tried to be cajoling, but when I lifted the piece of fluff up she screamed again. So I dropped it. Well, you would, wouldn't you? Big mistake. As I leaned down to get it again, and then show her it was nothing more than wool, she lifted her knee up and smacked me right in the jaw, knocking me backwards until the side window stopped me going any further.

'Jesus!' Talk about a wake up call. That's the last time I try to grab an eyeful off some half-asleep woman. My jaw felt as if it had been disjointed, and the back of my head must have had a lump the size of a golf ball nesting in it. She was over to my side of the car in a flash, the dangers of the 'fluff' a memory.

'Steph. God. I'm so sorry.' Her hands came out and cupped my face, and the pain shot up the side, making my ears ache. But I didn't care. The touch of those hands ... I can't describe it. And the position she was in, it looked as if she was just about to kiss me. Imagine it. There she was, leaning over the car, kneeling even, her hands on my face, her face so close to mine, concern flooding. Her thumbs started stroking the sides, and I felt a warmness seep and trickle down the length of my body. Apart from the quickly diminishing pain, this was heaven. 'You're bleeding.' I didn't care. I would give up more than blood for her to continue the stroking. 'Your lip. It's bleeding.' Ah well. I have two. Her finger grazed over my lip, and it was so intimate. So bloody intimate. I wanted to part my lips and capture that lone digit inside my mouth and suck. 'See?'

Blood, red and rich and mine, coated her finger. But it was only blood. Life was too short to worry about such things, wasn't it? I just wanted to stay here and allow her to take care of me. But I couldn't do that, could I? Pretend I needed to be molly coddled because I was bleeding? Damn right I could. This felt so right … so absolutely right. Me laying back and her leaning over me, holding my face, brushing her fingers over the now tingling lips. Even the pain in my jaw had subsided … well, until I tried to give a contented smile that is.

Crack. Firmly and surely put back into place. 'Fuck.' The only verb I could muster, well, the only one after the initial crunching of my face locking back into shape. Involuntarily, my hand came up to rub the spot, and in the process, it knocked hers away. Instantly, I missed it. I wanted to grab hold of her hand and put it back, allow it to continue its ministrations. But it was too late. So, I did the only thing I could think of doing. I grinned at her, but she just looked concerned. I grinned wider, trying to make her see I was fine now that I had rubbed the spot. I was too. Until I got blood on my hand. My eyes grew wide, and I knew if I kept on staring at it, I would flake out. Therefore, it was only natural to act butch and wipe it down the side of my jeans, and in my head I was manlier than John Wayne. I'm surprised I didn't whip a pencil from my pocket and start sharpening it with a knife.

'Ready?' Was that my voice? That deep and masculine throb? 'Want to see the lake?' Erin just looked startled, as if she had only now realised she was sat in the car with The Duke. If I had ended the question with 'A man ought to do what he thinks is right' it wouldn't have looked out of place. But in fact it was more of a 'Life is tough, but it's tougher when you're stupid,' and I was definitely stupid. Believe me. If I hadn't been so stupid, I would have still been laying there with a gorgeous woman stroking my face.

A gorgeous straightt woman.

Inwardly, I sighed. This was not getting any easier. The more time I spent getting to know her, the more I wanted to get to know her better. All this time I had avoided getting involved with anyone, and now I felt I was drowning. I didn't have a chance in hell. Not … a … chance. Even if she wasn't involved with a man, she was just too damned perfect to want a reject like me, however manly I could speak.

All the time I had been thinking, she hadn't said a word. She just looked at me, firstly with surprise, and then with something that bordered on questioning. But I wasn't in the mood to answer any questions that she may have thought up. I just wanted to get the day over and done with before I made a bigger fool of myself than I had already. It was only the matter of a couple of hours before I dropped her off, packed the car up, and fled to Manchester. Then all she would have to do was shower and change, and then wait for Mr Right to come knocking, shouting through the letterbox, 'To infinity and beyond!' I know. I'm being a bitch. He had done nothing wrong, just had what I wanted, that's all. And it was only a couple more hours of pretending that everything was perfect. I could manage it. Just.

I sat up straight and tried to arrange myself into some kind of order. Silence sliced through the air and hurt, but it seemed hard to break, like I couldn't, or shouldn't be the first one to do it. Even Reggie was quiet, and that was a miracle in itself.

'Fancy a quick one?' Excuse me? Did I hear that right? 'Not all the way, though.' A pause, for her or my benefit, I'm not too sure. 'I think the sugar has worn off.' My head snapped around to look at her, the pain in the back of my head making a brief appearance, but enough to make me utter a slight groan. 'Look. You're in pain.' Her hand came forward, stopped, and then continued until it had clasped my limp one. 'We could just go home.' I was still thinking about fancying a quick one, obviously, although I knew she meant a walk around the lake. I looked down at her fingers, which were holding and stroking mine. I think it was a nervous reaction or something, as there was no way she was thinking what I wanted her to think. Unfortunately. And on that note, I slipped my hand away from hers. No point prolonging the agony of unrequited feelings, was there?

A sigh slipped out and met the air. It was from me, in case you were wondering. I couldn't contain it … just popped out before I had the chance to stop it … something like a pressure valve on a steamer. It seemed as if I was always sighing when I was around her … I just hoped she didn't think I had breathing problems to add to everything else. Silence yawned once again, and at the same time I heard Erin join it. I wanted to just say something light, something about the area, something that could be anything. But I didn't have to, as Erin decided she would be the one to break the quietness.

'Is this where Donald Campbell broke the water speed record?' For a minute, I couldn't even remember who the hell Donald Campbell was. I was too busy thinking of something to say, and my brain was acting like a fucked up smack head. 'He died here, didn't he?' That Donald Campbell. Information charged into my thick skull, and started to pour out and generate the senses inside until I could move my mouth and relay all kinds of useless tat.

As I was doing it, I unbuckled my seatbelt and climbed out of the car. Then walked around the back, still yammering on about the events in 1967. She followed me. Seatbelt off, out of the car, around to where Reggie was standing with his face mashed against the rear view window. It wasn't until I paused for breath did she speak again.

'You are so intelligent, Steph.' Good job I was bending down, as the blush I sported was glowing. I would've preferred to be called gorgeous, sexy, and even a charmer, but at least she had thought enough to actually say something complimentary. The blush deepened at the thought, and I knew if she saw it, I could guarantee it would be worse still. 'You know so much.'

I kept my head facing the ground, and fiddled with Reggie's harness and lead. 'Part of my job to know the area, that's all.'

'No. It's more than that. You have a real interest for things that go on around you.' She gave a small sharp laugh. 'And from my experience with the media, most reporters are more interested in digging up the dirt and making people's lives a misery.'

Snap. My head was up and I was staring right at her.

'What do you mean by that?' Cold and matter of fact.

'Nothing. I was just …' I didn't give her time to finish. Turning sharply, I tugged on Reggie's lead to make him hurry along. All I wanted to do was run and hide my shame away, because just in that short intercourse, I felt more exposed than I had in a very long time.

'Steph?' I was putting distance between us, and for the life of me I couldn't honestly say the reason why. She had only been making a point … how was she to know what I'd got up to in Manchester. It wasn't as if I had continued being the hardhearted cow I once was. Or had I? Four years and I'd let no one get close to me, always fobbed them off with one excuse or another. Until now, that is. And it hurt. I hurt. But it wasn't her fault; it was mine.

I stopped near the John Ruskin Museum and waited for her to catch up. When she did, I just nodded to the entrance and said, 'Another day?' I knew she had been expecting me to continue being a twat … and I surprised myself at breaking my habit, especially making arrangements to see her alone again. 'We could do it after we visit Dove Cottage - the Wordsworth place, if you want?'

Erin gazed at me for what appeared to be ages, but in fact was the matter of seconds. Her face showed confusion, but then it broke open into the most gorgeous smile I had ever seen.

'I would love that.'

And so would I, Erin. So would I.


Chapter Ten

We didn't stay long at the lake, as I still had to drive to Manchester. Erin rattled on about how sad it was that I couldn't delay my journey for an hour or so, because she so desperately wanted me to meet Brian, and everyone else who was coming up. I assured her that I would be home the following afternoon. I can't give you much more detail, as, to be honest, my mind was elsewhere. All I can tell you is that her voice was musical, and the name Brian popped up too many fucking times.

It was with a mix of sadness and relief when I saw the entrance to the lane where we both lived. Sad because I didn't want the day to end … didn't want to relinquish her to the arms of another. Relief because I knew if I stayed with her much longer I would blurt out that Brian was a twat, and I couldn't bear the pain of being with someone who didn't want me the way I wanted them. Weird, I know. We barely knew each other; yet, I felt I had known her all my life.

Therefore, it was with forced indifference that I bade her farewell with the promise of calling around to her place the following day. Just as I was about to turn and leave, I heard her say my name softly. Facing her, I saw her expression was soft and beautiful, and before I knew what was happening, she held me in a tight hug.

'Thank you so much for today, Steph. It meant so much to me.' Her arms were gripping me tightly, and I couldn't help but pull her closer, and into me. The scent of her overwhelmed and begged me to remember it, as if I ever could forget. 'And don't forget …' so gentle 'you promised me another tour.' Yes I did. And for a split second, everything seemed perfect. 'Reggie could stay with Brian.' The split second was over, and I felt tightness in my gut that threatened to flood up my throat and throw itself all over the ground.

It surprised me how calm my voice sounded. 'He would love that.' As if? If there was one thing I didn't want my dog doing was like being with the man who shattered any chance I ever had with Erin. Even if I had to train him to attack at the sound of his name. Nevertheless, just like the feeling of perfection, my feeling of revenge was just as short. If it wasn't Brian, it would be some other bloke … and I couldn't train Reggie to attack at the sound of all the male names in the world. She was straight - a fact that however much I disliked it, it didn't make it less true.

Sadly, I knew this was my time to say goodbye. Again. Erin turned to go, but stopped, turned back, and kissed me gently on the cheek. She was gone by the time I had gotten over the surprise, my hand slowly stroking my cheek and inwardly vowing never to wash again.

It was a battle. Yep. Definitely that. A battle between my heart and my head. My heart was telling me that I should keep hope alive, whilst my head was reprimanding me and booming out 'Get a grip! She will never want you!' Like all the battles that raged within me, once again my head won out. Sometimes I wished it would just chill, even for a few minutes, so I could at least dream.

With a sigh, I knew it was time to get going. I had to pack and get the house in order before I left. Not that there was much to do; just an overnight bag and checking everything was unplugged and locked up. And call my parents to tell them I was coming … something I should have really done in the week, but never got around to it. I think deep down I was hoping that Erin would tell me that Brian wasn't coming after all, and therefore I didn't have to run off into the sunset, dodging the tail weaving in and out of my legs. But. I wasn't so lucky.

Five-thirty saw me throwing my bag into the boot of my car only to stare toward her house. Inside I was in two minds whether to go and say goodbye, but in the end, I decided not to. Head won again, but not because my negotiations in the battle stations I called my head and heart had come to some kind of resolution. Nope. It was the fuck off huge Land Rover I saw turning into the top of the lane that prompted me. Driven by Buzz Lightyear, of all people.

Time to go. And I did. I was out of the lane by the time he had craply reversed his weapon of moss destruction at the base of her driveway.

'Want to go and see Nanna and Grandad, fella?'


At least I had Reggie. Then it hit me. The smell of a minty fart, that is. I was in for a good journey, by the looks of things. Could my day get any worse?



The journey was a nightmare from start to finish. I had definitely set off at the wrong time, as everyone, their dog, and guinea pig, had decided five thirty was a fantastic time to set off to Manchester Being stuck in the car with Mr Mint Imperial himself, wasn't fun either.

By the time I reached my parents, I was fraught to say the least. Thankfully, my sisters hadn't arrived, so at least I had the chance relax for a good twenty minutes. It was such a good feeling though, as my mum opened the front door and threw her arms around my neck. It always amazes me that whatever happens in life, going home to see your parents always gives you a sense of safety. Well, for me anyway. I always felt, and still do, as if the outside world couldn't affect or hurt me in any way as soon as the door closed behind to lock, and block, it all out.

My dad was still the same. I say that as if I hadn't seen him for years, but in reality it had only been a couple of months. There he was, sitting in front of the tv and arguing with the newscaster. When I was a kid that used to wind me up, but now it made everything just feel right. I had been there a good five minutes before he stopped ranting for long enough to notice I was there. Then he struggled to his feet, as his slipper had decided to attack his trouser leg.

'Hello, sweetheart.' When he hugged me, he did the thing he knew I hated. Rubbed his stubble all over my face, and then laughed like a maniac. Git. But a nice git, if you know what I mean. 'Where's your mother?' I started laughing and he looked at me quizzically. 'What?'

'You always say the same thing.' I hugged him close to me again, and then looked at his confused face. 'Where's your mother? Every time. Did you think she ran off with the buck toothed milkman again?'

He laughed aloud. 'Wouldn't put it past her.' Then he stopped, looked over my shoulder, and then back at me. 'Where is she?'

For as long as I could remember, every time my dad couldn't see my mother, or hear her, he would shout her name or ask us where she was. The standing joke was that she had run off either with the coalman or the milkman, both of which had bucked teeth and frizzy hair. They didn't, in case you were wondering. Their teeth were average, and if my memory serves me rightly - the milkman was bald. And we hadn't had a coalman for over thirty years, so maybe he was bald too. But that didn't stop us saying it. Families are weird, but I wouldn't change mine for the world - even all the tea in China.

'She's making a brew.' At this, his face lit up. Not because he was going to get a cup of tea, but the knowledge that she was there. To have a love like that, eh? They had been married for over forty years and his face still lit up when he thought of her. For a fleeting moment, I thought of Erin. Did she think of Brian like that? More to the point, did he think of her like that? I hoped so. I know you think I'm lying, but deep down, all I wanted was the best for her, even if it was with someone other than me.

'Tea's ready!' My mum's voice drifted through to the living room, and my dad tapped me on the arm before scuttling off to the kitchen, leaving me standing there in contemplation. All that was in my mind was Erin's face - so happy - so contented - so not mine. With a sad smile of defeat, I followed in the footsteps of my father, and went to the kitchen.

I was only half way through a cuppa when the brood arrived, and then all hell broke loose. It was good to see them, and for a little while I forgot about how shitty I had been feeling. The name Brian started to ease from my mind, and even the image of him in his Star Command vehicle had lessened. However hard I tried, the image of Erin was still there though, throbbing uncontrollably in the background.

My sisters, their husbands, and all their kids (which actually only amounted to four spawns) had turned out to see me, and in a comforting way, that made me feel special. They had given up their Friday night at short notice and come over. My parents' house was not big, by any stretch of the imagination, and to have seven adults and four kids there, it was positively cramped. Reggie was in his element, as the kids wanted to play ball with him - a game that ended up being shifted outside, as there was no room for his racing about. Thankfully, he had stopped farting as we hit Cheadle, so that was a blessing. For all of us.

Over the course of the evening, the topic drifted onto my new neighbour. My eldest sister, Anna, decided it was a good idea to tease me, for some reason or another. Turning to her husband, the bloke who could barely string a sentence together, she nudged him. 'Looks like Steph won't be single much longer.' It was supposed to be a joke, I know that. But when the joke hurts, that's taking it too far, isn't it? But then again, how was she supposed to know? She wasn't. Nevertheless, I wasn't in the mood for 'Let's torment the crap out of Steph,' and proved as such by standing up sharply, knocking the tea things off the table, before storming out and up to my room.

I could hear her asking 'What did I say?' before I heard Julia tell her to put a sock in it. Ju, as I called her, was the middle sister of the three of us, and we had always been closer to each other, both in age and temperament. If Ju would have said the same thing, I think my reaction would have been different - who knows. All I did know was by the time she knocked on my bedroom door, I was already half changed to go out. I had decided that I needed a trip to Manchester … to the village, of all places. In my fucked up little head I truly believe that all I needed was a good fu …

'Can I come in?' I glared towards the now open door, and into the face of my sister, who was peeping around it.

'No one's stopping you.' Then I turned back to sorting out my top.

I heard her come in, stand behind me, then finally settle on the bed. She waited until I had finished getting dressed before she spoke.

'What's going on, Steph?' I didn't answer. There wasn't anything going on. I just wanted to go out. Not a crime now, is it? 'Why did you fly off the handle like that?'

Yes. Why did you?

I ignored the question. Both hers and mine

'Is it your neighbour? Erin?' At the sound of her name, I whirled around and glared at Ju. 'Ah. I see.'

'There's nothing to see. She's with someone.' Ju went to speak again, but I cut her off. 'A man. She's straight.' I saw the realisation dawn on her face, and her expression turn into that kind where the person is just about to come out with something profound like the 'plenty of fish and sea' scenario. But I didn't want any other fish. I didn't like fishing. I wanted that one … the one I didn't have the tackle for. At the thought of that, I laughed, short and sharp. Trust me to make a pun out of wanting someone and not having the right tackle. How ironic.

Turning back to the mirror, I applied some lipstick and smacked my lips together in an attempt to finalise my thoughts. But Ju was having none of it. I felt her get up off the bed and stand behind me, her green eyes peeking over my shoulder to look at me through my reflection. She didn't say anything, just watched me pick up my mascara. Then as I was trying to put it on, her voice came low and even.

'Weird.' I stopped, and waited for her to continue. However, she stayed silent until I attempted to put the crap on again. 'Weird.' This time I glared at her.

'What's weird?' But she shrugged and watched me slam the brush back into the tube, only to pull it out and hover it in front of my face, all the while expecting her to say something. But nothing. Well, until I brushed the make-up over the other set of eyelashes.


'Look. You are getting on my tits. What's weird?'

Ju shrugged and sighed. 'Just … nah … you wouldn't be interested.' I turned to face her, and I could feel she was holding something from me - something important, maybe something that would affect the rest of my life.

'Believe me. You have my undivided attention.' She sighed again and turned to go. 'Tell.'

Ju walked over to the bed and sat down. Her body language sent my defences into overdrive and I had to know what was going on in her head. I waited. She stayed mute. I waited some more, and then the waiting began to get on my nerves. 'Come on, sis. I'm sorry for being a pain.' I tried the puppy dog eyes, and it was a matter of mere seconds before she crumpled.

'I was just thinking.' Yes. What? Tell. 'That isn't it strange.' What's strange? Life? Love? Expectation? World Peace? 'That it is impossible …' Women are impossible - especially when they dragged things out until you could rattle each letter from between their teeth. 'To apply mascara with your mouth shut.'

What? Is this some kind of dementia? Was my sister finally losing the plot? Then I saw the smile creeping up from the corners of her mouth, and I knew she had me.

'You git.' The smile broke loose, not only from her, but from me too. Then an all out laugh. I couldn't help myself. Not the laughing, the launching myself at her, and pinning her to the bed. 'Why you little …'

Ju was laughing unrestrained now, and it felt good. I had my fingers jabbing in her sides, and she was laughing hard and stupidly, and I knew if I continued I could make her pee her pants, just like I did when we were kids.

Then it hit me. I felt good, not just 'it'. Felt good to just enjoy the moment. Life was too bloody short to be so up myself all of the time. And I had been up myself … angry … doleful … down right twattish … for far too long. At that split second I seemed to take notice of myself, of how I had been acting, and not just over the course of the last half an hour. Initially I felt a twinge of disappointment at myself, but then I realised that I could change my life … change my outlook … change my future. It was almost a fucked up version of A Christmas Carol, without the spirits and clanking chains. It occurred to me that even though I couldn't have Erin, meeting her was still the best thing to happen to me for so bloody long. Through her, I realised that I could actually feel again … hope again … learn to trust, and hopefully be able to love.

'You're a good person, Steph.' Ju's voice crept up and into my consciousness. It startled me for a second, as I had forgotten that I was straddled over my sister and in the middle of trying to get her to piss herself. Looking down into her face, I saw honesty and sincerity. I knew my face was begging her to continue, but my voice had decided it was off duty. 'Don't ever forget that.' I think I had, through it all, I mean. Well, you would, wouldn't you? Every day, all I did was beat myself up about things in my past I had no control over here in the present. All I ever saw was the person whom I disliked, and I never gave myself a chance to make it up to anyone, not even myself. I'd been in hiding. Not only from the man who lost his wife, but from myself too. To sum up, I had been living a very solitary existence, not a life, a mere breathing in and out. It was fear more than anything. Being attached, or involved with living, meant to take responsibility for whom I was and who I could be.

'Do you love her?'

A simple question. A stupid question. How on earth could I be in love with someone I had only known for a week? And I was just about to tell Ju so, and then stopped. Did I love her? Nah. I was infatuated, true. But love? I barely knew her. And she had someone else in her life.

But does that necessarily make a difference? Do we choose not to love, or be loved, depending on time and circumstances? Is it within our power to select when and with whom? We can try, but love is a fickle player and doesn't always act as rationally as we would wish.

I slumped back and released Ju from underneath me, slipping off her body to sit next to her on the bed. Hanging my head forward, I slipped my hands into my hair and gripped. I felt her shift and sit up, and then I knew she was waiting for me to answer. But I couldn't. In all truthfulness, I couldn't. It would have been easy to just say no and leave it at that, but … the word jammed and throbbed and acted like a cat in the proverbial pillowcase in my throat. It would be like dismissing all the emotions I had been experiencing since I first saw Erin. And to me, that seemed as if I was going backwards instead of onwards and upwards. If this wasn't love, then what was it? A crush? A stab at life again … a dream that I could be the person she had shown me I could be?

So I answered the only way I knew how.

'I don't know.' Not original. Not the answer to the meaning of life, but at least it was sound in the air. I turned to face my sister, allowing my hands to stop their search in my hair and flop down onto my thighs. 'Honestly, Ju. I don't know.'

She reached over and placed her hand over one of mine. 'Steph.' By the tone of her voice, I knew she wanted to discuss it further. But what could I say? A voice inside me told me to open up - tell her - but for the life of me, I didn't know what to say. I wanted to bare all, but how? There was nothing to tell, was there? I know it's all confusing. I know my story is all over the place, but that is exactly how I was feeling. At that moment, I didn't know my arse from my elbow; or my elbow from any other part of my anatomy.

'Life has a funny way of telling us we are still part of the race.' She gripped my fingers tighter, and I could feel tears collecting, waiting to be unleashed. 'Maybe Erin was sent as a reminder that you have so much to give … you know, like a miracle.' A miracle. She was too … the perfect example of something wonderful and amazing. 'And what you need to do is decide.'

'De … decide … what?' It hurt even to say it, as I had no idea what I would be deciding between.

'Whether you want to knock down those walls you have erected, or block everything out … just like you've been doing for years.' Before I knew what was happening, I was in her arms. Tears flooded down my face and soaked her top. Amazing really, considering I had spent the last four years holding everything back, not allowing anyone close enough to even see the glistening in my eyes, never mind get to know the real me. The only problem I could see was how I was going to stop the flow. Four years was a long time to keep things bottled up, and now the dam was down, how did I stop it?

Easy. I had a wonderful sister who held onto me, stroked me, and whispered words of love in my ear.

After I had stopped crying, and blown my nose, I felt something I hadn't felt for far too bloody long. Light. So wonderfully light and free … I felt as if I could float from the bed and hover in the air. My eyes were stinging and my throat hurt, but I didn't care. I knew from that moment I would make it.

'Aunty Steph! Reggie's eaten the bread we put out for the birds.' Dave, Ju's son, anxiously came racing into the room. 'He … he … you been cryin'?' Bless kids and their inability to be tactful. 'He didn't eat all of it.' I tried to wipe the tears away from my eyes, but all that did was make it more obvious. Mainly because my mascara had decided to slither down my face and smudge itself at every opportunity. 'Why are your eyes all black?' I snorted out a laugh, couldn't help it. Why couldn't we all just accept things the way kids did? 'You look really scary.' And say what we mean? 'I love you.' He stood in front of me, his blue eyes so wide and honest, waiting for some kind of reaction from me.

Leaning forward, I kissed him gently on the cheek. 'Love you, too, Dave.' With that, he threw his arms around my neck and started to squeeze. His muffled voice drifted up and I could just about make out that Reggie was being a git, eating bread, and chasing next door's cat whilst barking madly. 'Give me a minute, Dave. I just have something to do … can you try to get him inside?' He nodded, and gave off the appearance of someone who has been given a very responsible job to do before scuttling off out of the room. Turning towards Ju, I was about to say something about her revelation … her profile of who she thought I was and what I had been doing, when she lifted her hand to stop me.

'It is your decision, Steph.' I went to speak again, but she shushed me. 'Only you can be responsible for how you are feeling. You have to make the choice to start living, or be happy with what you have.'

True. I was in control of my life. Not events that happened four years ago. I could begin to build a new me, a happier me. Begin to be the woman I had always wanted to be. But I also knew that Rome wasn't built in a day. One person could make a difference - especially if that person was me.

Ju left me to think not long after that, and before I knew it we were all saying our goodbyes at the front door. Anna stopped as she was leaving, her face trying to tell me she was sorry for upsetting me, but I just grabbed hold of her and pulled her into a hug, whispering an 'I'm sorry,' into her ear before releasing her.

'What for? It should …'

'No. You have nothing to be sorry about.' I looked at her in earnest, and she deliberated before nodding slowly, almost as if she was accepting the fact that I had removed the firmly wedged stick from up my arse. Keith, Ju's husband, hugged me as he left, and whispered in my ear, 'I'm here too, if you need me.' It was good to know my sister had found her swan.

Ten minutes after they had gone I had my coat on and was heading out of the door. I needed to get out and think about what was going to happen next, and what I was going to do to make my life bearable again. What I didn't expect at this stage in my acceptance of my future was to find myself in Manchester's gay village. Especially the bit where I was chatting up a woman who bore an uncanny resemblance to Erin Mason.

Amazing to think that not even an hour had passed since I had my epiphany, and here I was, ready to bed someone on the first instance. Where had all my philosophising gone? Where was the 'new me'? You know, the one who believed she had a future in the real world? But I was, wasn't I? I was taking control of how I looked at life. Was starting to live again. Wasn't I? Well, I would've been if I had made the conscious decision to allow this woman to be a part of my future, but that wasn't the case. I was here for the only thing I ever wanted to be here for. Sex. Not love, or understanding, but the ultimate three letter word … the one that preceded cum and run - in that order.

As I was kissing her, pinning her against the wall, all I could think about was how I wished she were Erin Mason. Then, as she whispered about going back to her place to continue, all I wanted was it to be Erin saying it. But that didn't stop me from sucking onto her neck and growling a yes into her skin … didn't stop me from capturing her nipple between my thumb and forefinger and rolling it until she leaned backwards and gasped.

Even in the taxi back to her place, I didn't relent in trying to take her. Maybe because if I did, I would remember that this was not what I was looking for … not what I wanted, although the lower part of my anatomy would firmly disagree. I didn't even care that the taxi driver was watching us through his mirror. Watching as my hand snaked its way underneath her skirt and up her thigh … watching as I devoured her throat and shoulder … watching as I pushed myself into her and above her … and still watching as I claimed her lips as if they would suddenly disappear if I didn't.

It wasn't until the slam of her apartment door that something ricocheted in my head … a something that made me freeze my administrations to the now overly ripe woman leaning against the door with her skirt pushed high and her thighs parted. My hands were either side of her head and my face was mere inches from hers. I could see the expectation on her face, as I had made sure all the way from the club that she knew I was going to fuck her. But when it came down to it, I couldn't. It was the ricocheting, you see. The reverberating sound of Erin's voice … her laughter … the knowledge that I knew a woman like that which made me stop and stare at the woman whose name escaped me.

As her voice questioned with a soft 'Baby?' I knew I had to go. I couldn't go through with it. It was definitely a case of my body writing cheques that my head and heart couldn't cash, to use a tired old phrase.

'Is there something wrong?' Yes. Everything. 'Don't tell me you're …' I didn't have to answer. My body said everything I needed to say. I was rigid. There was no sign of the sex-starved monster of five minutes ago. All I appeared to be was an empty shell again … back to square one. I couldn't have sex with this woman, although every nerve ending in my lower body was screaming at me to just do it, just take her and let her take me, the upper half was defiantly pulling away. The vacant look in my eyes told her that there was no way I would be changing my mind. It was a mistake - although it could've been a lot bigger if I had gone all the way.

Initially, I thought she was going to blow her top, shout, and scream at me for wasting her time, but she didn't. The anger on her face dissipated when she made eye contact. She must've seen the disillusionment hovering underneath the surface - not with her but at myself. Disbelief that I couldn't take what she was offering me on a plate - no strings attached.

I lifted my hand and touched her cheek, as I needed to explain to her what the matter was. I didn't want her to think I didn't find her attractive or desirable, because she was both times a hundred. I wanted to tell her that it wasn't her it was me, but how lame does that sound?

Less than two minutes later I was out of the door and half way down the stairway with not even a glance back. Five minutes saw me pounding concrete. Ten, I was in a taxi and on my way back to my parents.

Reggie was sitting behind the door patiently waiting for me, ball ensconced in his mouth, the look of adoration clear. In less than thirty-five minutes I was home, undressed and in bed, with a very contented dog curling up at my feet. Sleep eluded me. You can understand why. I just lay there, staring. Thoughts of what had transpired that evening whirled and danced around inside my head. Why couldn't I just take what was offered? Why did I believe I wanted to move on, but wouldn't actually take a step to realise my dream?

I shifted, moving the sleeping dog slightly with my foot. If Reggie hadn't have been there, I believe I would have been pacing around the room, even going as far as pulling my hair. But no. I carried on lying there and staring. Lying there and thinking. Lying there trying to sort my life into some kind of order. Then it came to me. I wasn't avoiding moving forward. Nope. I was moving, slowly … inching even … but moving. It wasn't a case of not being able to take what was offered me; it was more like I was becoming more selective. There was only one person I had wanted to be with me tonight, pinned against that wall … Erin. Her name seemed to echo around the room as if I had spoken it out loud, but I knew I hadn't. And I also knew that whether she wanted me or not, I wanted her. End of.

With that realisation, if you can actually call it a realisation, I felt the tentacles of sleep begin to grip. Eyes began to flutter closed, and the last thing I remember was a snort of contentment oozing from the bottom of the bed as Reggie settled himself further into the duvet.


Morning arrived and nearly blinded me with its stark brightness. I had slept in, as I discovered when I looked at the clock that happily announced it was nearly ten o'clock. Stretching my body, I grunted in the way a person would do when they had slept well. Reggie decided it was time he performed his serious head rubbing of the day and climbed up my body to deliver his good morning message. I loved the way he would become excited in the morning when he realised I was awake. His tail would go crazy, as if he had just realised I was there and he wasn't dreaming. Dogs have a fantastic way of making you feel special time and time again, even when you feel like crap. Therefore, I allowed myself another fifteen minutes to wake up and make a fuss of my boy before making an appearance downstairs.

After letting Reggie out to perform his morning ritual of sniffing every blade of grass to make sure it was all in order, I strolled into the dining room to see my parents sitting at the table. Both of them looked at each other before looking at me, and then they looked at each other again before saying hello. I had the distinct impression I was on the outside of something, but to be honest, I couldn't be arsed worrying about it.

Mug of tea, the paper, and back to let Reggie in. I plonked myself at the table and opened the paper. I knew they were watching me, and I knew it would be my mo…

'You got in early.' What was this? The familial neighbourhood watch? 'You usually don't come back till the early hours.' And? Problem? 'I … erm … we were wondering if everything was ok?' I dropped the paper and gave her a look. You know, the type of look that says I am now erecting a brick wall. Enter at your own risk. 'Well … erm … you see …' It always amazes me how our parents don't recognise the look. I folded the paper carefully and slowly, making sure they knew I was folding it carefully and slowly, and that they should be worrying themselves stupid right about now. But no. My mother and father were waiting patiently for me to stop. Even Reggie was licking his nuts in boredom. I must have lost my look somewhere and nobody had been bothered enough to tell me.

'I was just tired. Been a busy week.' I knew they wouldn't believe me, but thankfully they didn't push any further. My mum gave me her look in return … yep, the one that totally takes you in at that precise moment and knows that every word you will utter after that moment will be a lie. So I grinned widely at them before launching into the story about the off duty fireman and the cat.

After five minutes my dad decided he wanted to show me his culinary skills, a term that should, in this instance, be used very loosely. It wasn't that he couldn't cook. No … it was more of a case that he used the same knife he had put his marmalade on to cut through a bacon sandwich, thus making it taste of oranges, not to mention the splattering of everything up the walls.

It was just before one o'clock that I decided it was time to get my arse into gear and face my demons. Funnily enough I already knew that the demons I had were of my own doing, but that didn't stop my gut squeezing and pinching at the thought of seeing Erin and Brian. Reggie gave a loving lick to both my parents before I bundled him into his box in the car, and after I had kissed them (I must note that neither of them had wiped the doggy lick from their faces before I kissed them), I started my engine and slipped away and onward to heartbreak.

God. I am such a drama queen, aren't I? Can't help it … all part of the training of being a martyr. Part of the job description - long hours and underpaid.


Chapter Eleven

Two and a half hours later saw me pulling into my driveway. I could see them all outside her house … Rob, Sue (must've been her - too alike to be a stranger), two kids running around like bandits … Erin … and last, but in no way least, Brian (aka twat). Standing there looking all butch and manly. He was leaning against the house as if he truly believed it would fall down without his Charles Atlas strength to hold it up. Mr Samson. Buzz. Wanker. I actually felt myself pale and then flush with anger. It was only the thought of how irrational I was being that stopped me speeding up and ramming my car into his relaxed posture. I really really really wanted to do that so much. Reggie started to whimper in the back and clamour at the front of his box, clicking his nails against the metal grid.

I couldn't do it. Go up to them and be all nice as pie with lashings of icing sugar, I mean. I couldn't. I doubted I could get past a hello without punching him squarely in the face. This was ludicrous. Why did I feel so bloody strongly about her? Why did I have this overwhelming urge to inflict bodily harm on someone over someone who I knew deep down would never ever feel the same way about me? I just hoped that nobody saw me sitting there like a waste of space…

'STEPH!' Fuck. Trust Erin to spot me. I could see her looking at twat head, who was already moving towards my car, and gesturing wildly. Unfortunately this was accompanied with her moving hastily in my direction - led by him. Oh bollocks. This was the time where I had to grin and bear it. This was the moment when I had to suck it in and break bread with the bloke, when all I wanted to do was break a piece of two by four over his head.

Slowly, I opened the car door and slipped out. A forced wave came from a reluctant hand, almost making it appear I had special physical needs. Erin was grinning widely even though she was running, all the time looking over her shoulder and speaking. The only things I could hear were the words 'Brian' and 'Come on'. Christ. She was impatient. He was right behind her and anyone watching would think he was on the other side of the lake.

I opened the back door and unclipped Reggie's box door, where an extremely excited dog shot out, over the seat, and through the open doorway. Just like me he wanted to run to Erin and get patted and praised, and I couldn't help but turn and watch as they had a happy reunion. But that didn't happen. Reggie raced towards Erin and Buzz, slowed down as if he was going to say hello, then ran straight past. Erin's laugh reverberated, followed by a macho guffaw (yep - I honestly think that is the first time in my life I have actually heard a bona fide guffaw - told you he was a wanker, didn't I?)

The next thing I knew she was in front of me, her arms embracing and pulling me close. I just wanted to absorb the moment - pretend that this would never stop and that this would be the way we would spend the rest of our lives.

'Missed you, Steph,' a whisper followed by a small laugh landed in my ear and trickled down my skin. 'Weird, I know.' Definitely weird, considering the love of your life is standing right behind you. At this she pulled away and I felt the cool air hit my skin like a slap. Even though I wanted to ignore his presence, I couldn't do it. Not to her … and actually not to myself. 'This is …'

'Brian. I know.' I shoved my hand out, forcing the fingers to unwrap from their fist like position and act cordially. 'Good to meet you at last.' Nothing. He stared at my hand then at my face … then at Erin's face, who was staring at my hand, then Brian's face, and then at mine. And I thought I was the one with the issues here. I felt my hand drop just as Erin started to laugh … followed by wanker boy. The anger was surging back and I wanted to tell them both to go fuck themselves … or each other. Talk about being well suited. How rude to treat someone like that. Didn't they know how hard that had been for me? Didn't they understand that all I had wanted to do was sidle away into my own little shell and never have to speak to him?

'Brian?' They both looked at each other and laughed even louder - him still using the Shakespearean guffaw. Erin was doubling over by this stage, tears springing from her eyes, 'Brian?' In order to stop me slapping both him and her, I jabbed my hands into my sides and stood as if I was a statue and just waited. The urge to storm off had flitted inside my head, but then disappeared just as quickly. I was waiting for an apology. I may be many things, but bloody down right rude is not one of them. Well, not all the time. 'Brian?' For fuck's sake. This was becoming ridiculous. Brian Brian Brian. Got that? BRIAN! 'You think HE is Brian?' Well, who else would it be? Lord Lucan? Then she started laughing again.

Brian decided he wanted to join in on my humiliation, only making me hate him all the more. 'Brian.' Were they pissed? They must be, especially if they didn't even know his name. And it definitely was Brian … the one from the picture - and may I take this opportunity to stress that he looked more like Buzz Lightyear when you were really close to him. But I still said nothing. Just glared.

'I'm sorry, Steph.' Yeah. You sound it Erin. You sound like you have just found out that all your family's been wiped out by a freak accident. 'This isn't Brian.' But it had to be. She had pointed it out when I saw the picture in her house.

The words 'Gorgeous, isn't he?' resounded in my head, and I wanted to repeat those to her, and then add that 'No. He wasn't. He was rude … obnoxious … and should be on set at Disney Pixar.'

'This is James Cullam. My publisher.' Huh? But … but that's Brian. I could hear Reggie yapping excitedly in the background, and I knew he was on his way back. As soon as that scamp of a dog was in sight I would make my excuses and leave. These people didn't know their arse from their elbow. I distinctly remember all the bloody 'Brian this and Brian that' to be mistaken in this bloke's identity. But the look on her face was one of absolute truth, and by this stage the man with no name - or even two names, had stuck his hand out in greeting, and this time it was me who was staring at it in wonder. If I took his hand that would mean I believed what they said. If I took his hand maybe I too would be transported to cloud cuckoo land to join them. 'Aha … and here's Brian now.' I looked past Buzz and expected to see his doppelganger - Buzz Lightyear Two - the sequel - not as good quality, but still entertaining… but all I saw was Reggie jumping from side to side like he was chasing something. Then I saw it. Saw him. Saw Brian.

A huge black Labrador came bounding up to me, front paws landing with an oof on my chest, and a very wet tongue sticking out and wiping itself up my stunned face. 'Now this is Brian.' A dog. A dog. And for the record, so not to add to anymore confusion … a dog. 'Gorgeous, isn't he?' What I could see of him and his rapidly swiping tongue … erm … yes. 'And didn't I tell you that he would love Reggie?' Erm … yes again. But this time I didn't want to disown my dog for loving Brian back. Before I had chance to comment, Brian was down, barked once at Reggie, who barked back, and they were off, chasing each other round the lake.

I felt numb … maybe it was the realisation that the love of Erin's life was not actually the bloke from the picture … maybe it was the fact that a huge dog had thrown its whole body weight against me. Whatever the reason, I was still numb. And still stupid. The reason I was still stupid was because I hadn't firmly gripped the newly named James' hand and pumped it up and down like a madwoman. He was still standing there, although unlike me when he had ignored my outstretched hand, he was smiling. By the feeling creeping across my face, I think I was beginning to smile too. Well, more like grin madly - teeth exposed - the works. With a hot flush of happiness, I stuck my hand out in greeting and began to pump it wildly like I had expected myself to do when I first found out.

'Sorry … sorry … sorry …' Was I gushing? Dribbling a little? 'I think I got the wrong end of the stick at some point …' There comes the shitty stick again - you would honestly think I would learn, wouldn't you?

They were both laughing, and James was returning my over zealous handshake with gusto, guffawing (which, incidentally, didn't sound so twattish now) loudly. Just at the precise moment James released me, or I him, and who cares, I looked at Erin. Her blue eyes seemed to lock with mine, if only for an instant, and I felt my whole being gravitate towards her. The sensation was like being caught into a whirlpool, and it felt glorious, even though it was brief. When she broke the contact, I followed her gaze, which had gone to James by this point. He was smiling at her and I am definite I caught the tail end of a nod. So, I quickly turned my attention back to her, and once again … a definite nod, followed by a smile, followed by another look straight at me.

'Erm … I … we were wondering,' Erin's voice wavered a little, 'if you would … erm … that is … if you … well … if …'

'For God's sake, Erin.' James' voice was bold and loud, but there was a hint of laughter behind it. 'What she is trying to ask you … badly …' Erin slapped his shoulder and he pretended he was injured. All I wanted him to do was to bloody ask whatever it was he, or she, wanted to ask me. To say the suspense was killing me would be an understatement. 'Do you fancy coming over for a barbeque later?'

Was that it? All the fumbling and if if ifs? A barbeque? Anyone would think she was trying to pop the question at the rate she was going. And all this internal monologue had given her the opportunity to believe I wasn't interested in attending aforementioned barbeque, as when I came back into the land of the living, James was looking at me expectantly, yet Erin's expression was one of disappointment.

'Another time, maybe? You must be tired from your journey.' Why did I just stare at her? Was it the fact that I was once again mesmerised by just how bloody beautiful she was? The way wisps of her hair fell across her cheeks? The blueness of her eyes … the redness of those lips I had coveted so much? Was it the scent of her perfume, which drifted into my conscious and subconscious? Whatever the reasoning behind my self-elected muteness, it wasn't doing me any favours. It was only when I heard the words 'no worries,' did I snap out of my 'I adore you' phase.

'I'd love to, Erin … erm … and James.' I had to include him in my response, didn't I? It had been him who had invited me after all. The expression on her face lit up, I'm sure it did, and with that expression so did my future. I know I am a pessimist, but even I got the distinct impression that she wanted me there. And if my memory serves me rightly, it wasn't just the gesture and reaction from one neighbour to another … or one friend to another. It seemed like this question held something more … something a little more in depth, if you get my meaning. It almost appeared that Erin had asked me as she would have asked someone she liked, liked more than a neighbour … liked more than a friend. I just hoped that for once in my life I had not read things the wrong way, and that I wasn't racing ahead of myself.

'Reggie is more than welcome too.' At the sound of his name being mentioned, my mutt appeared around the corner, his face grinning like a maniac. Seconds after, a grinning Labrador came careering around the corner in hot pursuit. 'Bless. They are so happy. Look at them.' Reggie steamed past me and into the wooded area at the side of my house. Brian followed without a backward glance to his mistress. 'I say that Reggie's welcome, although I doubt we'll see much of those little buggers tonight.' I laughed at the sight. Reggie was in his element - and so was I. An evening with the beautiful Erin Mason. What more could a woman want?

Five minutes later, and a discussion whether I should meet her sister and the sprogs now or at the barbeque, I was inside the house, Reggie panting at my feet. I pressed my back against the front door and threw my overnight bag halfway down the hallway. A gurgling sensation rippled up from my belly and gathered at the base of my throat. It wasn't uncomfortable … by no stretch of the imagination. It was wonderful … almost effervescent. A joy was inside me, a joy that I believed was long since dead. All this feeling from an invitation to a barbeque - Jesus knows what I would have been like if she had asked me on a date.

A date. Imagine the possibility? And for the first time I allowed that sensation to undulate inside - allowed the chance of 'a date' with the beautiful woman next door to become a likelihood - something that could possibly happen. A tiny voice reverberated within me, a voice that ordered me to stop and listen … to stop and realise that I was not good enough, but I shook my head, and with a resounding 'Shut the fuck up!' I peeled myself from the door and skipped down the hallway. It was time to stop listening to the negative side of life, and start living. Whatever the outcome from this evening, from any evening thereafter, I would take it on the chin. Life was for living after all … not for hiding away in the dark recesses of an old cottage in the middle of nowhere.


Chapter Twelve

Reggie was ready before I was. Obviously. All he had to do was to lick himself all over, gnash his hind leg for a bit, and then scoot across the floor on his backside for a while. I, on the other hand, had to shower, dry my hair, dress, undress, dress again … slag myself off in the mirror, undress again … dress … begin pulling my hair from the roots whilst wailing to the heavens, undress again … and then finally put on the very first outfit.

Finished. Unhappily so. I mean, all I was wearing were jeans and a t-shirt. Anyone would think I was attending the annual ball instead of a casual barbeque at my next-door neighbour's house. But I had to feel right … and to feel right I had to be comfortable … right? I convinced myself that my jeans were wedging up my arse, and that I would spend the best part of the evening trying to dislodge them from crawling up to my colon, until I whipped out a shoehorn and pulled them free with an exaggerated pull. However, they were not tight … they were in fact quite loose around the curve of my butt. I discovered this by standing in front of the mirror for nearly fifteen minutes staring at my rear. Finally I decided enough was enough and turned back, only to imagine that I had a camel toe where my crotch should have been. I know you think I am going on, but imagine being in my shoes? Or jeans? You would want everything to be perfect, wouldn't you?

Ten minutes later, I left the house wearing a cream pair of cargo pants, and praying that Reggie didn't find any mud that he would happily share with mama - usually right down the front of my legs - worse still - two paw prints on my backside …

I believe I was still arguing with myself as I approached the group of people who were, in turn, arguing over how to light a barbeque. Good to know that families are the same wherever you are - makes you feel safe.

'Need any help?' My voice was steady and in control … pity it couldn't have a word with the fashion police who were in my head. 'I can have a go if you like?' Now there is one thing I am bloody good at, and that's starting a barbeque. Not the first thing you would write on a CV, but in a sticky situation - preferably, before blows are thrown - I'd come in useful.

'Thank God someone round here has a clue.' Erin started laughing and passed me the box of matches. 'You look great by the way.' So did she, but I didn't have chance to tell her as a familiar voice rang out from behind me.

'You must be Steph.' I turned and looked straight into blue eyes … nearly as blue as Erin's, but not quite. 'I'm Sue, Erin's sister.' I stuck my hand out and realised it was the one with the matches. Therefore, I swapped the matches into the other hand, only to stick out the hand that still held the fucking box. Talk about presenting myself as an idiot. And they had trusted me with flammable objects - I bet they were crapping their pants. But no … they were in fact pissing them - so I joined in, accompanied by the single woof of my faithful companion, who was eyeing up the meat that was stacked on the table, Brian seated right next to him.

'I've heard so much about you.' On this revelation, Sue threw her arms around me and pulled me into a hug. As much as she resembled her sister, I didn't get the same feeling I did when Erin had hugged me. This felt like a sister hugging a sister - or a friend hugging a fr … I think you get the message without me going on and on and on … I could see Erin standing behind her, and I was definite I saw a hue cross her face in a flash. A hue of red … well, more like pink. Why would she be blushing? 'All we seem to here about these days is Steph this and Steph that …' Sue let me go and I saw the flush on Erin's face darken as it reappeared, and I felt a lurch of happiness gather and expand within me. Was she embarrassed because she had been caught out talking about me? 'Sis tells me you're a reporter. What paper?' Pride comes before a fall, doesn't it? Sue was waiting expectantly for my response, and I tried my best to get the words out without stammering. I must definitely think of a new vocation in life if every time I had to say I was a reporter made my insides churn up with fear and loathing.

However, the conversation of my job was short lived, as Erin seemed to take the initiative. 'Come on then, Zeus … get the fire bolts thrown, and let's get cooking.' Inwardly I thanked her, as I didn't want the evening to be ruined before it had started. I knew that the conversation would have gone along the lines of 'Why are you working here and not where you originate from?' And to be honest, there was no way I would be going into detail about that.

So, I grinned, held up the matches and said 'Me make fire for woman.' Considering my come back, I should have told them why I had moved to Bassenthwaite - less embarrassing. However, everyone laughed - which surprised me. Inwardly I was trying to dig up some more jokes, but eventually gave up, as they were even worse than the first attempt.

It wasn't long after when the barbeque was going. Rob said it would be best if we let it gather heat for about an hour and a half. What would we do in that time? I was ok when I was eating, or had something to do other than make conversation. Remember I was out of practice at socialising. The only socialising I did was either with my own family, interviewing, or chatting up a woman once a year at a gay bar. But there was no need to worry, as being with Erin's family seemed like an extension of my own.

Thankfully I wasn't in charge of cooking the meat - the hunter-gathering role was passed over to the 'men' in the group, and as for all the sundries, Erin and Sue had prepared them before I had arrived. This gave me time to get to know the sprogs of the household. Please remember when I use the term 'sprog', I do so endearingly. George and Daisy were a handful to say the least, but in a good way. They had so much energy that they made me breathless watching them play with Brian and Reggie. Reggie was in his element, as he had so many people throwing a ball for him and another dog to compete with when chasing it. Now and again, he would trot over just to make sure I was ok, and then he would be off again.

'Fancy a game of football?' You would expect this to be asked by Rob or James … even George or Daisy, but no. It was asked by Erin. 'I think the blokes have everything under control.' As she said this, we both turned to look at James wafting the smoke away from the grill and coughing melodramatically. 'He is such a girl, don't you think?' I looked back at her, but her face held a softness as she observed him, you know, like a sister who has a little brother. This made me feel even better, as even though I had established James (ok ok - maybe it took more than me to establish it) was her publisher and not the love of her life, it didn't mean that she didn't fancy him, did it? But watching the way she looked at him, watching the way he coughed and wafted then placed his hand on his hip, it all became clear. James wouldn't be interested in Erin. And it wasn't the fact that he was by now staring at Rob's arse that gave it away. No. It was the case of he was the epitome of a man who was extremely comfortable with his feminine side. Extremely comfortable, as in not really being interested in how beautiful Erin and her sister were … as in noting that Rob was a very handsome man comfortable. A laugh popped out. Couldn't help it. Pop. Just there in the air like a sign that things were getting better and better. 'Well?'

'Well what?'

'Footie? You, me, Sue, Rob and the kids.' She turned back to James at this point. 'You're not up to playing footie are you, Priscilla?'

James didn't bat an eyelid, just shook his head dramatically, and shouted back, 'Nope. You guys go for it.'

I was still a little shocked that she had called him Priscilla. Not very PC, is it? Erin had plonked herself down next to me by this stage and was changing into a pair of trainers, but I was just staring down at the ground. Did she accept the fact that even though James did an outstanding impression of being a straight man, he was in fact gay? Or was that a little dig at his sexuality? I couldn't imagine Erin being horrible to anyone, but when it comes to sexual orientation, sometimes people can surprise you. One minute they are your best friend, and the next you are the plague of Satan. As if whom you slept with should be of interest to anyone else. Whatever we do in our bedrooms is private - as long as both parties are willing.

'Did you … Steph? You ok?' She looked concerned, and I can guarantee I looked a little green by this stage. Here I was a raving lezza (ok - not so much of the raving, as action had been a little slow of late), sitting next to a woman whom I fancied the arse off, deliberating whether she was a homophobe. Where's the problem with that? Erin looked over to James and back at me. 'God no.' Don't tell me she had read my mind. Women do have the gift … 'I hope you don't think I was being horrible to Pris … erm … James.' Well … now you mention it. 'James is gay, Steph.' I know that - took me a while, but finally I caught up. 'You …you … don't … have a … problem with that, do you?' What? You calling your male publisher Priscilla? Not me you should be asking. 'James did a charity event at Gay Pride last year and went as a character from Priscilla Queen of the Desert … the name just stuck.'

I looked to the floor and stared at her feet. She had one trainer on and the other lay limply by the side of her bare foot. Silence came between us, and all I could hear were voices that seemed distant and detached. What if she wasn't gay? And why was I doing a Gwyneth Paltrow? She seemed relaxed in James' presence, had a joke about his charity gig, and seemed quite proud of the fact that her publisher had gone all out at Pride. If that didn't say she wasn't a homophobe, I must be losing the plot somewhere along the line.

'I should have told you, shouldn't I?' Her voice seemed loud in my ear, maybe because she was sat right next to me. 'I just assumed that it was pretty obvious.' Then another bout of quietness, until she asked, 'Steph? Can I ask you something?'

'You just did.' I tried to keep my face straight, and I knew this wasn't the time to be arsing about, but I wanted to disentangle the air of tension from around us. The line was ignored, as I believe she had a more important line to deliver. 'You're not … how can I say this?' Quickly. Especially if you are going to ask me if I am gay. 'You're not a … please don't take offence by this will you?' She was. She was going to ask if I was a carpet muncher. 'You're not a … a … homophobe, are you?'

'Huh?' I mean, HUH? Me? A homophone? I mean a homophobe. Jesus. I couldn't even get the word right. But asking if I was a homophobe. As if. And if the next thing could have been measured on a Richter scale I would say it would frighten dogs - and my proof was in the fact that Reggie came scurrying over to see what the problem was, as Brian did a leap onto Erin and knocked her flying. 'Homophobe! Me?!' I saw her feet lift and fly past me as she disappeared off the bench, and when I turned, she was flat on her back being ferociously licked by an overexcited Labrador.

'Get … off … me … Brian.' But the dog was in for the duration. He wasn't a small Lab by any stretch of the imagination, and it took quite a lot of pulling and cajoling by me to get him off her, but I managed - eventually.

I looked down on her prostrate form, her legs suspended by the bench, and I wanted to laugh. She had mud all over her, big juicy paw prints all down her top and her hair was slapped onto her cheeks by saliva. It was adorable. Honestly. I know that at that precise moment, Erin felt the furthest away from adorable any woman could ever feel. I also knew that if I laughed now I would pay dearly. So I swallowed and swallowed and swallowed the vibrations eking up from within, until I felt I had some semblance of control. I leaned over her and offered her my hand.

As I felt the warmth of her fingers wrap themselves around my own, I felt the familiar spark race up my arm, but I just smiled at her and said 'No. Erin. I am very far removed from a homophobe. Believe me.' Just as I delivered the totally in control speech I felt a shove from behind and felt myself falling forwards. Unfortunately, I only had one free hand to save myself, and that one was aiming itself right for Erin's right tit. Therefore I felt like right tit as I landed flat on top of her, as well as looked like one. Her face was so close … so close … close enough to actually feel the closeness and want to close that miniscule gap between us with a stolen kiss. The temptation was so strong … the want was overpoweringly magnetic, but neither of us did anything about it.

Then she spoke. Each word hit my skin, imitating the kiss I so desperately wanted. 'Well, Stephanie Stevenson. That's good to know.' The eyes had me once again. The lips tantalising and closer still. All it would need was for me to lean just a little …

'You playing?' I turned my head at the same moment that Erin did and felt her cheek rub alongside my own. I couldn't help it. My eyes fluttered shut as if they were taking a snapshot of the memory, something I could indulge in when I was on own … something I could revel in. Then as my eyes opened again, they were greeted by two pairs of blues eyes - blues eyes that were set in very young faces … blue eyes that were waiting impatiently for us to get our acts together and come and have a game of footie. 'We're all waiting for you two to stop kissing.'

'But …' Both Erin and I shot out the 'but', but neither of us continued. We stopped after the one word, turned and looked at each other before laughing loud and long.

And through the laughter, I heard Daisy say to George, 'And they call us kids.' Bless them. And also bless one laughing black Labrador who had the insight to push me over in the first place.

As they were walking away, I heard George say something to Daisy, her turn to look at us, and then shrug, before beginning to run to get the ball. When I turned back to Erin, her face was blood red. Wonder what it was he had said that made her react like that? Not the mention of us kissing … or was it? Nah. It must have been all the falling over and stuff.


The evening was wonderful. The food was wonderful. The company … ah, you guessed it … was wonderful. But none of the 'wonderfuls' compared to how wonderfully brilliantly elated I was feeling by the time I was getting myself ready to leave. As my mother always says 'Never outstay your welcome'. So here I was … not outstaying my welcome, and not wanting to leave the safety of the group of people I had connected myself to.

Too many 'You're not leaving already' lines were thrown my way, but I just smiled and nodded, wanting nothing more than to stay with them. Reggie was curled up in the curve of Brian's legs and both dogs looked contently happy. It was a pity I couldn't do the same thing. I would have loved to curl up in the curves of Erin and fall asleep with the knowledge that was where I belonged. I also knew that this night would be the start of many to follow, and I think that thought was the one thing that actually allowed me to make a move in the direction of my dark, uninviting cottage.

Kisses and hugs and slaps on the back, and I turned to leave. Reggie was licking Brian's ears by this stage, the look of total contentment on both their faces. 'Hey! Wait up.' Erin was next to me, linking my arm with hers. 'I'll walk you back. Don't want you getting kidnapped do we?' I snorted a laugh, and she joined me.

As we walked back I could still hear the rest of them wishing me a goodnight. Then I heard Sue shush them and say something that I couldn't quite catch. Next thing they were all trundling inside Erin's cottage as if they were on a mission. Fuck knows what they were up to, but to be perfectly honest, I didn't care. I was strolling happily back to my house with a gorgeous woman as a companion. It felt as if we had been on a date and she was seeing me home. Yep. I was feeling that 'first date' feeling, and deep down I knew it hadn't been a first date, but that didn't stop me imagining it, did it?

'Well.' We stopped at my front door, and the feeling of the end of a first date came over so bloody strongly. You know that feeling when the woman sees you home and then you are deliberating whether to kiss or not? That was racing through me. The overwhelming urge to just kiss her was winning hands down. 'Here we are, then.' Yes. Here we are. Now kiss me and save me the embarrassment of kissing you and getting punch in the choppers.

But no. We both stood there, the feeling of stalemate racing through the air and creating a tension that I usually didn't feel with her. Reggie was sitting at my feet looking at the both of us. I half expected him to say, 'For Christ's sake! Kiss each other!' So, I opened the door and told him to go inside and wait. Turning back to Erin, I felt the spark of expectation rise again. Then it happened. No. Not what you are thinking. I wish. No. It was that bloody little voice again, not the coveted kiss I longed for. Just a whisper at first and I actually felt myself shaking my head as if to dispel it. However, it wouldn't go, just became a little louder … a little more insistent. Words along the lines of 'She's way out of your league' and 'You think she wants to kiss you. Just because she's not a homophobe, doesn't mean she's a pervert like you.' Considering I usually didn't feel my sexual preferences were perverted, this took me by surprise. Therefore, the surprise turned into me extending my hand and taking hers - not in the 'Oh … lover. Come here.' More like 'Nice to meet you. We'll have to do it again sometime.'

You know the strangest thing? The strangest thing through all of this palaver was the look of absolute shock on her face, and the way she physically shook her body as if she was dismissing the fact I was dismissing her. It was at this precise moment that I knew I had made a terrible social faux pas, but there was nothing I could do about it. In that instant I knew she was expecting the same thing as I was - a kiss. Even if it had been a little one on the cheek, a kiss was what she had expected, and I had truly fucked it up. I know I could've just made light of it … you know, laughed, and then brought out my manly 'I'm taking control' stance, whilst pulling her into me and claiming her perfect mouth for my own. I wish I had. I wished beyond all wishes that I could have taken the initiative, but the voice was still there and telling me I had read the signs wrong - it was all in my head.

Warm fingers wrapped around my own, and this enabled me to come back to the present. Erin was smiling at me by now, the shock she seemed to have felt had subsided and she was back to the friendly neighbour guise. Pity I was such a twat, really.

'Thank you for coming over.' No. Thank you for inviting me. Yes. They were the words that were itching to break free from my muted mouth, but all I did was stare at her. And grin. 'Would … erm … would you like to come over tomorrow?' She coughed and started again. 'We are all going out for the day, and I'm sure they would love it if you could come along too.' Her face showed surprise, then shock, and she started to babble a little about her wanting me there too. I just grinned and waited for her to stop.

'I'd love to.'

'Really?' The smile was a picture in the making - a true Kodak moment. Moths were fluttering around her in order to get closer to the source of radiant light she was emitting from her face. And then it happened. The giant leap - the one I had been waiting for, yearning for, promising to sell my first born for. Well, when I say 'giant leap', I mean more like a baby step. I know you are thinking 'For fuck's sake! Just bloody tell me what happened!' And I will. She kissed me. A kiss. The kiss. The one true thing I had wanted to happen for so bloody long (well, a week, but who am I to argue with the mysteries of time).

Cough. Erm. Well … when I say kiss, I don't necessarily mean tongues down the throat and an extended game of tonsil hockey. It was classier than that. It was on the cheek. And I know by this stage you are thinking one of two things. One. I am over exaggerating the impact of a kiss on the cheek. Two. How on earth can this 'kiss on the cheek' be anything more than a kiss on the cheek? Go on … I'll make it three. The final one is 'This woman is a twat.' But you see, it was more than a kiss on the cheek … more than a goodnight to a friend or neighbour. It was perfect.

Let me explain. When someone kisses you on the cheek, you just know … the emotions it evokes, for a start. Then we have the amount of time the aforementioned lips stay on the cheek. If it is fleeting, then yeah … nothing to write home about. But when it stays for longer (and I promise you I wasn't saying 'one elephant … two elephants' in my head) then it is more than likely not just a friendly peck. The kiss was soft. Perfect. Moreishly wonderful. And I wanted nothing more than to turn my head, take her lips with my lips, and show her how much I wanted her at that precise moment … well, more than just at the moment … I just wanted her. Full stop.

Then those precious lips moved to my ear. 'I'll give you a knock in the morning, then. Ok?' Words like feathers. Breath like a hummingbird's wings in flight. I turned my face to look into blue eyes … blue eyes that seemed darker than usual … Was is the lack of light, or something more? I was definite I saw some form of longing looking at me, but I wasn't sure whether it was my own reflection pooling inside those blue orbs. I could feel my chest heaving, the breath shooting from my nostrils, as I had my mouth truly and firmly closed, as I didn't trust myself not to just blurt out and tell her how I was feeling. Her hand rested on the top of my left arm, and I could feel sparks of electricity race through the skin and charge around my body. She leaned closer … her mouth mere centimetres … mere millimetres … mere …

And I kissed her. Everything was lost … everything was found and grabbed and held close. Everything I had been feeling tumbled and twirled and danced and found itself caught in some kind of oblivion - some kind of epiphany. A surge of emotion raced and pressed against my lips making them want to open and swallow her … open and give myself to her. Her hand had not moved from my arm. Her lips had not opened …

I felt a gush from the pit of my stomach, as it felt as if a key had been turned within me … a key that released the fear … released the emotion that had been imprisoned inside for years. The force of my sob pushed her away, and tears sprang loose from deep within, culminating and devastating, not allowing me to push them back inside … wanting to expose me there and then on my doorstep, in the darkness, on a Saturday evening.

Erin moved closer. Her expression was of concern, but I couldn't tell her why I was crying … couldn't tell her because I didn't understand it myself. All I knew was I had to get away … had to flee the scene. Inside. I had to get inside and break apart … break loose the fear and loathing I had buried deep … break it out, crack it open, and lay it bare. Examine it. Excavate and tag it. Understand me more before I allowed myself to understand her … understand what I could have … wanted to have. Without this I would end up with nothing, even though I wanted her so much, there was no way I was going to just fall in headfirst and ignore everything I had been trying for years to hide. What if I became the woman I had been four years ago again? Where would that leave her? Leave me? I had to move this on, move this out … make a break from my past in order to live my future.

I could see her opening her arms as if to take me into an embrace, the fear on her face was enough to make me push her roughly away. 'No. Don't. Touch. Me.' And I was gone. Inside the house, door slamming behind me as I cradled my head in my hands and sobbed. I knew she was still waiting outside … still standing on my porch wondering what had happened. Part of me wanted to open the door and fall into her arms, but the stronger part held me firm. It was for the best, for now. For now. For the best.

So. As you can tell, it was more than just a peck on the cheek … Baby steps? Do you think? Or was it the giant leap I had first told you about? Only time would tell, and I had that in abundance. The only thing I was unsure about was whether she would still want me when I had stopped beating myself up.

Five minutes later I heard her footsteps move away from the porch, and then the familiar crunch of gravel as she walked back to her own house. My legs decided that was the precise moment they would stop holding me up, and I felt myself slide down the door and land on the floor. Tears came easily … flooding and flowing. Sobs came and went, as I began to rectify my own demons. Reggie tried to lick and comfort me, but I kept on pushing him down and away, until he decided it would be for the best if he curled up next to me and waited for mummy to come back to him.

I couldn't tell you how long I stayed like that. All I know is that by the time the first flush of tears were over, I was beginning to seize up. I stretched my legs out and grimaced at the pain rushing up my calves. Time for bed. And that's where the second bout of crying began.


Chapter Thirteen

All night I had nightmares. Different dreams, but with the same conclusion. Death. Sometimes it would be the woman crying and her husband hanging onto her, before the final shot was of her lying in a bathtub, the water red with blood. Other times it was Erin, her face in an agony of hurt, me knowing it was because of what I had said and done. The final shot was of her. Dead. Me looking over the body and crying, spluttering words of sorrow and regret, knowing it was my fault.

The next day saw me up and out at the crack of dawn, Reggie trotting by my side. Once around the lake and back inside to stare at the four walls - four walls that were less of a prison than the one I had placed myself willingly into. I couldn't settle … couldn't concentrate. Even tried to watch TV, but the pictures just moved and mouthed muted words.

There was no familiar knock at the door. No one came to call and ask if I would like to go out for the day with them all. I knew it was because of the way I had reacted … knew it was because when we had kissed I had pushed her away and not told her it was not because I didn't want to kiss her. She must've thought I had regretted the action … must be disgusted with her. I hadn't told her the only person I had been disgusted with was me. All it would have taken was one phone call … one 'I'm sorry for last night. It wasn't you it was me.' But, once again, the words 'lame' and 'sound' spring to mind. I could've told her I wanted her, but I had things I had to sort out before I made that final step. But would she want me with all my psychotic baggage? Wouldn't it just be better to stop it all now?

I know. I was crawling further and further into the pit of despair, and I knew the driver was my own insecurities. I had to shape up. Shape up and shake off the past. Shake up and pick up the phone. Tell her. Tell her I wanted last night to continue … wanted the parts before I lost my head to continue. Apologise and beg her to understand that it wasn't her it was …

But I didn't. I just sat there and watched them all bundle into the car. Watched as I saw both Erin and Sue glance over to my house. Watched as Sue grabbed Erin's arm and spoke words forcefully to her, shake her, and then let go. Erin's arms hung limply at her sides … she appeared almost like a rag doll as she ambled, shoulders slumped, towards the waiting car. However, I found it difficult to watch as the car's engine started, and moved away, taking her with it. The reason being I was crying again.

One day. Please God. One day, please give me a spine. Please. Then maybe one day I would begin to live again.


All the way through my tale you have witnessed me fluctuate from being in control, accepting that I have to change, and then finally bottling out at the last minute. Do you feel as confused as I do? I hope not. You could say I was truly fucked up … and you would be right. Think about it. What exactly was my problem? I made a mistake - one of many mistakes, but now I was trying to get my life back into some kind of order. Maybe it was the fact I was trying to make my life perfect … hoping that in turn I would actually get some kind of perfection in my life. Funny thing was, the only perfection I could see was living in the house next door, and what I was hoping to do was to make myself worthy of her.

In all this blackness, I didn't realise that the more I sought perfection, the more I felt it slipping away from me. What I needed to do was to follow the line of 'Imperfection is beauty', accept who I was, what I had done, and move on. You are thinking, 'Didn't she have this internal monologue a while ago?' Yes. I did. But having the internal monologue and actually seeing it into fruition are poles apart. Deep down I believe I needed time to wallow in my own misery; needed time to take a long hard look at myself; and last, but by no means least, needed to sort my bloody life out once and for all. We all have shortcomings, misgivings, regrets, but if we decide to live our lives by them, where does it leave us? I'll tell you where. It leaves us in the middle of nothing, surrounding by emptiness, and clutching onto a tiny thing called hope. What I needed was a miracle. But they are not as easy to come by as you might believe, hence being called miracles.

It was whilst having this debate with myself that I remembered something … something extremely important to whom I was and who I wanted to become. My dream. Remember? The dream I had about Erin. The one when I compared her to something being sent to me by some celestial force, making me want to get on my knees and thank the Lord. I know you shouldn't live you life holding one person as the be all and end all of all creation … the be all and end all of your happiness, as this would bound to end badly. But it was a start, wasn't it? Then Ju's voice sneaked in, 'Life has a funny way of telling us we are still part of the race … Erin was sent as a reminder that you have so much to give …like a miracle …'

There you have it. My miracle. Flesh and blood and living next door to me. I felt the smile split my face, and I knew that everything would be ok. Everything would work out in the end. If she was speaking to me, that is. If I hadn't spend the best part of two weeks hiding away from her, avoiding going outside if there was any chance of seeing her and experience the coldness that I knew she would send my way.

Bollocks. This was quite an obstacle. I don't think it would have been too bad if I had called her on the Sunday and explained why I had acted like a total moron … or maybe it would, but not as bad as it would be two weeks after. But no. I had spent Sunday feeling sorry for myself, and half of the night Googling her on the internet. At least I had found out about her books. I know … it took me long enough. It had been ages since I had surreptitiously lifted one of her books from the shelf before ramming it back. Into the Light. And you know what it was about? Well? Do you? You probably do, as I guess you are far smarter than me. It was a work of fiction, but I believe there must have been some fact in there, or why else would a woman write a story about another woman coming out - falling in love with her best friend, and realising that it was the most natural thing in the world. Her other book, Rainbows and Shadows, was a sequel, but seemed darker. And yes, I did order them, but by the time I was having the inward dialogue they still hadn't arrived. But I knew one thing. Erin was gay. Took me long enough. All the classic signs were there, but I had no gaydar, so it appeared. I used to think I was pretty good at spotting a fellow lady lover, but it appears that I am shite at it, especially when it comes to people I like. Well, more than like. Actually, this was the first time someone had gotten past me, maybe because I just wanted it so much. And I did … want it so much, that is.

At that moment, I made a decision, hopefully one that would change the course of my life. I would shower (and God, did I need to - feeling sorry for yourself doesn't half fuck up hygiene priorities), eat … needed to give me strength - maybe pancakes were the order of the day? Yes … with syrup - or should I have honey? And who gives a shit if I cover them in duck poop. I was feeling better already (and better still after I had sorted out the rudiments to healthy living).

Getting up from the sofa could have gained gold at the Olympics. I didn't think I actually felt myself touch the sides … I had this euphoric feeling raging through every nerve ending, and I knew that I would have to calm myself down before I skipped over to Erin's like someone high on crack.

Twenty minutes later, I was scrubbed and dressed. I felt so much better already … so much better than I had felt in the last two weeks … the last four years … It wasn't until I went into the kitchen and started banging about with the bowl to make the pancake mix that I noticed that something was missing. And that something usually came sniffing at my feet at the first opportunity of food. Reggie wasn't there ...wasn't in his basket … wasn't swirling around my legs in the bid to catch anything that happened to come his way. Wasn't in the living room … dining room, bedrooms … not even in the bathroom. I called his name repeatedly, but there was no sight or sound of him anywhere in the house.

Back in the kitchen, I opened the back door wider and peered outside. He wasn't snuffling around the flowerbeds, or bushes. Wasn't digging a hole at the end of the garden and burying his toys … he wasn't anywhere. And this sent a chill down my spine. Reggie never wandered off … never wanted to explore territory on his own. The only other time I had known him to do that was when he met Brian … but he was with Brian then, and not on his own … I looked over at Erin's house, and I knew that she was out. I could tell. Wasn't the fact that she had gone out in her car, as that was still there … it was the general feel about it. The house looked empty, if that makes any sense. But I had to check, didn't I? Had to go over there and double check to see if Reggie had wandered over in the bid to play with his pal once again.

Grabbing my keys, Reggie's lead, and a jacket, I was off towards Erin's house, the first time in a long time. I didn't care that she might be cool towards me, didn't worry that she might slam the door in my face. All that mattered was seeing if Reggie was ok. As I ran, I called his name. Nothing. He would've come back to me by now, would've come back to see what was going on. And this insight made me worry even more. What if he was trapped? Injured? What if he was stuck down a hole, as was the fate of many Border terriers? What if someone had stolen him? Panic was well and truly settling in by this stage, and the fact I was right … Erin was out … and so was Brian, by the looks of things. I didn't know what to do … where to go … whom to shout to. All I had was me, and that didn't fill me with any kind of comfort.

First things first. I had to calm down - think straight … imagine I was Reggie sneaking out of the house. Where would he have gone? That was obvious … he would have gone over to Erin's to play with Brian, but they weren't here. So where else? Nowhere … there wasn't anywhere he would have gone to … he had never sneaked off to do his own thing before … well, as far as I was aware.

It was a choice of going back inside and calling the vets to see if anyone had taken a stray into the surgery … or phone the police. But what would the boys in blue do? Nothing. To them he was just a dog. I had to act fast, and acting fast meant running round in circles and screaming his name. Or maybe not. Maybe if I was to retrace the steps I had taken this morning when we had gone for our usual constitution, I might find him. He had shown interest in a hole near the fallen tree. He could be there … getting trapped as I stood there deliberating whether to just get my arse into gear or not.

Decision made. I was off at a run, all the time shouting his name, and inwardly praying that my baby was ok.


Three hours later, I was back. I was exhausted and still missing a very important part of my life. Reggie was nowhere to be seen. I had gone around the lake twice … gone down towards the water, nearly dug the small hole near the fallen down tree to three times its original size with my bare hands, all the while knowing that he wasn't there, even though I could tell there had been something scrabbling near there, as there were claw marks. All I hoped was that he didn't actually get down, although I knew deep down that the hole was too small. I felt defeated. Drained. Hopeless. And worse still, Erin's car had gone from her driveway. It had been there the last time I had passed, but now it was gone, and I didn't have a chance to tell her I needed her help. Why hadn't I left a note on her door? Asked her to help me find Reggie if she came back? All it would have taken was one minute, and maybe I would have had three pairs of eyes, and a fantastic sense of smell to help me find my furry pal.

All that was left to do now was to call the vets and the police, something I should have done in the first place. But hindsight doesn't change the fact I couldn't find my dog, does it?

As I mounted the steps to my porch, I could see something pinned onto my front door. Paper. A piece of paper with my name printed on the front. Tearing it off, I opened it and read quickly. I physically felt the vomit race up my throat as I read the words 'I have found Reggie and am taking him to the vets.' Before I had time to read the rest, I threw up all over my front doorway; heaving punches to an empty stomach strained the muscles and made me feel momentarily faint. I gripped the side panel and tried to collect myself, which came begrudgingly a few moments later. Back to the note. 'Don't panic.' Don't panic! That bit should have come first. 'He hurt his paw trying to dig a hole near the fallen down tree. You weren't in when I got back with him, so I am taking him to the vets to have it checked out. I'll bring him back as soon as he's patched up. Erin.'

I was in a dual state. I know - that doesn't make sense, does it. Ok, I'll clarify. What I mean is that on one hand I was relieved to know that Reggie was ok, but worried about his paw. And also, I was happy that Erin had found him, but shitting my pants because I knew I would have to see her. Yes …. No need to remind me that I was actually going around to see her before I found out Reggie had done a bunk. But it's not the same is it? Going round to apologise for being a twat seemed like a better position than thanking her for saving Reggie. The last one could be construed to be a forced 'let's make up', couldn't it? And who gives a shit. Erin had found Reggie, taken him to the vets, and let me know she had. One could say that it was a start … a conversation starter, to be exact. All I needed to do now was wait for them to get back, as I didn't know which vets she had taken him to.

I hate waiting. Waiting is pants. Especially when your stomach is fucking about with everything inside and starting a revolution. Small intestines were given the opportunity to shake off the shackles of subservience to the larger intestines, whereas the place where my colon used to be was decidedly lower and touching the inside of my underwear. Sorry for being vulgar, but I believe in sharing all the nitty gritty details. I guess you don't want to know what my bladder was planning, do you?

It was just over an hour when I heard her car pull into the drive, although it felt as if it had been a lifetime. I wanted to race out and grab that wounded soldier and crush the life out of him - in a motherly loving way of course. But there was the barrier between Erin and I to get through yet. And before I had a chance to even contemplate thinking the last bit through, I was out of the door and speeding for the car. She hadn't even had to chance to take off her seatbelt when I was grabbing at the door handle trying to get to Reggie. Then I stopped myself. This wasn't the way to behave. Not in the slightest. I had to collect my decorum and act like an adult.

Stepping back, I tried to relax my face into a welcoming, appreciative smile, but all I seemed to manage was something posed by the elephant man. Well, that's what it felt like. And if I had started quoting 'The Lord is my shepherd' whilst sucking in dramatically, I wouldn't have been the least surprised.

'Hey …' My voice sounded weak even for me. Erin just looked at me briefly, before sorting her seatbelt into position. Slowly. Very slowly, and bordering on aggravating if the truth be known. I could hear Reggie whimpering in the background, and I had to physically dig my fingers into my sides to stop myself opening the car door. I cleared my throat, and tried again. 'Is he ok … erm … everything … ok?' Still quiet. I know I deserved it, but come on! At least she could've put things aside for the kids.

Then she opened the door, the metal slamming against my wrist in the process. The squawk I released seemed to pop the pressure valve I could feel generating between us … well, mainly from her, as I was too concerned about my man.

'Shit, Steph! God. I'm so sorry!' Her hands cupped my wrist and began to rub vigorously up and down, trying to bring some blood back to the wounded spot. Erin's face was wrapped in concentration and concern, and who was I to say anything. I must admit, it did sting like buggery, and who would know if I laid it on a bit thick.

'Ow … ow … ouch!' I should have been awarded an Oscar. I would have upstaged Bette Davies. All the time I was performing, Erin was apologising for being so stupid, and it wasn't long before I began to feel an inkling of guilt. Here I was, allowing this woman to feel bad about something that wasn't her fault. Story of my life, don't you think. It seemed as if it was a recurring theme around me, although I did take the blame more now. Sometimes a little too much, if you know what I mean. 'Erin.' Nothing. No response. No stopping from her rubbing and apologising. 'Erin.' I spoke a little louder in the hope she might actually hear me this time. But no. She actually bent lower and rubbed harder. 'Erin!' This time I coupled her name with the action of tugging my hand away. 'I'm ok. Honestly. See?' And I waved my arm in the air to display my agile limbs. Well. I tried to wave it in the air, but on the way, I kind of smacked her in the face.

'Shit!' This time it was the both of us who shouted out, which was shortly accompanied by the howling of two very distressed dogs who were clamouring to get out of the car. I was cringing like crazy by now, the pain in my hand informing me I must have socked her in the teeth. I quickly looked at my knuckles, and sure enough … teeth marks. My eyes shot to her face, and the first thing I noticed was her holding her mouth. The second thing I noticed was that when she pulled her hand away, there was blood on her fingers. What was it with the both of us? Last time it had been her smacking me in the mouth when she thought there had been a spider crawling over her.

'Fucking hell fire! Erin! Fucking hell fire!' Sue me for repeating myself, but would you be able to come up with something more original? I couldn't think of anything else to say, obviously, and even the reference to hell, fucking and fire seemed to escape me after the second utterance. Therefore, I did the next best thing I could think of. I lifted the offending hand and gently touched her cheek. The face that had showed so much pain seemed to freeze as my fingers touched the skin … everything seemed to stop … hold … and transport me to a place where there was nothing else but her and the feel of the softness. Even the boys had stopped howling. The expression on her face just captured me … her eyes seemed to expand, and in that instant I could see deep within her. So open. So honest and open. I couldn't resist … couldn't resist …

Fingers curled and stroked slowly down her cheek, shortly followed by my other hand, which cupped her jaw gently. It seemed that if I did anything wrong at this precise moment, everything would be lost forever. And there was no way I wanted that. Tentatively, I pulled her head towards my face and paused briefly to look deep into her eyes. I didn't have to ask if it was ok … didn't have to ask for permission … and it wasn't because I was scared she would say no. Our lips met. Tenderly. Softly. The warmth sifted from her to me … from me to her, until I couldn't stop myself from moving my lips against hers. A spurt shot up from my stomach, as I felt her lips move against my own, and I knew that at this precise moment I was hers for as long as she wanted me. I didn't even question how long that would be, because I knew, deep down, that it didn't matter. What I was feeling at this moment would be enough to last me my whole life.

I pulled her closer, or did she pull me? The kiss became more ardent, more demanding … more real, as her blood slipped from her to me. Mouths opened and tongues gently caressed lips, lips that were fervently seeking forever. Her hands slipped up my arms, along my hands and onto my face, pulling me closer. Nothing existed, except her. Nothing mattered, except her. I was lost, found, captured, and released in one kiss. Everything I had experienced before this moment fizzled and faded away. I had no past. All that mattered was the here and now, something I had been wishing for far too long.

Slowly, reverently, the kiss began to slow. But it wasn't as if it was over. Erin pulled away from me, her eyes fluttering open and looking hazily into my own. 'God.' The word was more like a gasp, and I felt my heart reboot, as if everything that had transpired in the last few minutes had made it go crazy and stop. She leaned her forehead against my own, and I heard her whisper 'God' again. I was thanking him in my own quiet way, because to have this woman react to me like this was nothing short of a miracle. 'Steph?' Even the way she said my name seemed different … seemed more personal, if you know what I mean. 'Do you know how much I like you?' And can this get any better? Here was a woman who I wanted more than anything telling me she wanted me. Even in my wildest imaginings I never thought this moment would be as perfect as this. I couldn't speak … couldn't put into words all I wanted to say. It seemed as if I had every word in the English dictionary fighting to get out, but I couldn't seem to get a handful to work with me. All I could do was nod, but feeling her head nod along with mine was worth it all. I wanted to ask her what would happen now … or did she forgive me … or even could I take her out to dinner, but the words … ah … you get the drift. The moment was too wonderful to ruin them with jumbled sentences.

'Yap!' And through it all I hadn't given Reggie a second thought. Him injured too. What kind of mother was I?

'He's ok. Just a pulled nail.' That voice. So close … so beautifully close. Her breath was digesting me, so soft and light. 'Although I think he wants to see his mamma.'

When she pulled away, I felt the emptiness engulf me. In her arms I believed I could do just about anything; in her arms I felt safe and protected for the first time in a bloody long time. I think I was still a little dazed from it all. I mean, one minute I had been frantic with worry about Reggie, then worrying about what Erin would say to me when we finally saw each other after me making a fool of myself, ending it all in the blissful meeting of my lips with hers. Wouldn't you feel a little out of it?

Before I knew it, Reggie was there looking sorry for himself. He had a bandage on his left leg, and the base of it was covered with waterproof plaster, making his foot look huge. 'Don't let that worry you … it's not as bad as it looks. Believe me.' But there he was, looking all small and pitiful, and I couldn't even remember the anger or fear I felt when I realised he had mogged off on his own. All I felt was this gushing of love coupled with this overwhelming feeling of protectiveness. Scooping him into my arms seemed the most natural thing in the world, and as he nuzzled my neck and emitted tiny whimpers, all I wanted to do was to get him inside and comfortable. But I didn't want Erin to go either. It seemed as if I had only just found her, and if I turned away now I would lose her forever.

'Are you coming in?' Why did those words seem weird? Why was I holding my breath?

'Do you mind if Brian comes in too?' And just those few words seemed to make everything all right again. I should have known that Erin wouldn't be the type of person who would just kiss and run … or even the kind of person who would leave a person to look after an injured animal on her own. As I looked at her face, something else caught my attention. Her mouth. Not in the way it had a few minutes before, it was more the fact that it was beginning to swell. Once again I felt the same feelings I had when I had seen Reggie sitting in the back of her car sporting a bandage. The same gushing of love coupled with an overwhelming feeling of protectiveness, and I wanted to scoop her into my arms and feel her nuzzle against my neck.

Tenderly, I lifted my hand to the swollen lip and tentatively stroked it. 'Come on. I'll get you some ice for that.' Without another word, we gathered our canine friends and made our way inside the house, all the time my heart was racing and my stomach was bobbing with happiness. Now was the time to deal with my overwhelming urge to mother and comfort.


Chapter Fourteen

It was only an hour later when I had the chance to kiss her again, but it felt like a lifetime. Both Reggie and Brian had been fed and loved, and were now curled up in front of the fire looking contented. I felt a little uneasy about kissing her again, or attempting to kiss her again, I should say. Not that I believed she would push me away in disgust, we had come too far for that. It was the fact that her lip still looked painful; I must have thwacked her good and proper. Trust me to put a spanner in the works when I had the opportunity to be with the woman I wanted. I mean, I had been waiting for this moment from near enough the first time I had seen her, and now I had the chance, or the opening, I had made it uncomfortable for her. Totally unintended, of course.

Erin was lounging on the sofa as I came back carrying two mugs of hot chocolate. It was only three o'clock in the afternoon, but I thought we both might have needed the sugar after all the excitement of the day. When I held out the beverage, I knew I had made the right decision. Her face lit up and her hands shot out to accept the hot cup. As she tentatively took her first sip, I saw her wince in pain and felt the inklings of guilt race through me. She must have noticed I was feeling uncomfortable, and before I had the chance to apologise again, she plonked her cup on the side and held her arms open in invitation.

The speed I moved at when putting my own mug down made her laugh. I didn't have to be told twice to snuggle with her on the couch, and the next thing I knew I was in her arms. Nothing seedy or sexual, just in her arms, and for the moment that was perfect. I didn't need anything more than this. Then I felt her lips graze the top of my head, and the previous feeling of not wanting anything more than this increased. Her lips went to the side of my face, and once again … nothing more was needed. But when those lips touched my lips, I was undecided. On one hand, I felt so wonderfully at home and contented I semi believed I didn't need more than this, but as those lips started to kiss me deeply, and my own began to kiss her back … ah … there was a definite urge for more.

Before I knew it, I had pushed her back onto the couch and glorified in the feel of her underneath me. Even though we were fully dressed, I could feel her. So toned and firm. So soft and womanly. And all I wanted at that precise moment was to know what she felt like as I made love to her. The kiss was becoming more ardent, more demanding, and there was a fire burning within me that her mouth was feeding. Hands were examining curves and dips; fingers were playing in hair; lips were taking and giving, and the contact of everything was nearly blinding. The taste of her throat was addictive, but the sounds she made as I sucked and licked the skin were enough to drive me over the edge. My hands were on a mission, and I couldn't stop them. Surreptitiously, they danced at the rim of her top and begged me to allow them to slip inside. I did try to tell them to wait, but they were insistent, and before I knew it, I could feel her stomach dancing underneath my fingertips.

Slowly, I granted them permission to venture higher … and higher … and higher, until I could feel the curve of her breast underneath her bra. Just as my fingers reached the spot, her legs decided to wrap themselves around me. God. I was between her legs. I was touching her skin … kissing her neck … devouring her, and the best bit was there was still so much to experience. The only obstacle I could perceive would be that I wouldn't survive it - that I would keel over and die before I had my fill of her. Funnily enough, as that thought whizzed through my head, another one chased it. However long I knew this woman, or made love to her, it would never be enough.

'Steph.' Her voice, God … that voice. 'Steph.' The way she said my name, the way she made me feel. 'Steph.' I could listen to her saying it forever …

And it wasn't until my hand was firmly around her breast, and my lips were on the curve of her neck, did I realise she had been trying to get my attention. Pop. There it was - in my head, and throbbing the announcement like a supermarket speaker. 'Steph …we need to …' I know we do … otherwise I think I will explode. '… talk.' Talk? Talk! Why now? Then it hit me. I had been rushing her … I mean, women like Erin Mason don't just kiss and make out on the first instance. That was more my style, as it appeared.

I shot back from her and nearly fell backwards off the sofa, but she caught my arms before I made the final leap into the land of shame, and pulled me back towards her, where I landed with an oof on her chest. Her arms wrapped around me and pulled me into what I believe to be the best hug I have ever received in my life. My head was cushioned on her breasts and it seemed as if we just clicked together. Erin's heart was racing so much; I could hear it hammering on her ribcage in the attempt to break out. It never entered my head that it was more than exertion … never thought it was because she was nervous or disturbed about anything we had experienced, which for me was a first, as I always seemed to think of the worse case scenario.

'Steph … I … really like you.' I felt the smile I was sporting turn into one of those dippy dreamy ones, and I nuzzled my face deeper into her. 'I have done since I first saw you.' This was getting better and better. I moved my head and lazily peeked up at her face, which was turned down towards mine. Her expression was so serious, as if she was expecting me to say something in return … shit, she was …

'Same here.' A flicker of relief passed across her face. 'This isn't just a fling for me, Erin. Believe me.' I lifted my hand and touched her mouth, which by this stage was looking less swollen, but redder than I had ever seen it before. The gesture was to try to signify that what I had said was the truth. This was not a fling … never could be a fling. I knew at that precise moment that I wanted her in my life for as long as she would have me.

'Good.' But as she said it, there was no smile. Just a solitary word, that almost appeared like a warning of sorts. I am not sure whether the warning was actually in the word, or something that lay beyond it, but I didn't have time to deliberate over it, as she crushed me to her once again. 'I don't want to rush us … rush into this. You mean too much to me, Steph.' And that final sentence made me feel as if I could take on the world and come out victorious. This woman wanted me … I meant something, more than just something to her, and there was no way I would do anything to mess this up, even if it meant lying by her side without touching her for the rest of my life.

Lifting up on one hand, I leaned above her. Making sure I had her undivided attention, I spoke slowly and surely. 'And you mean more than the world to me, Erin Mason.' Eyes locked and held, and I am definite the world stood still for the briefest of time. I didn't care. The blueness of her eyes transfixed me, and nothing mattered apart from falling deeply into her and staying there for the rest of my life. Her hand came around my neck and tangled itself into my hair. Slowly, she pulled me towards her, stopping briefly to examine the honesty I had pouring from within me, before claiming my lips as hers. It was slow and sure … and seemed to have so much more than any kiss I had ever experienced before. Then it slowed down, and I was left breathless and fulfilled. This woman … God … this woman … and I don't know how to express it more than that. This woman. Or I could say, my woman, as much as she could say the same about me. I was definitely hers for the taking.

Gently, I eased myself back into position on her chest, my head sinking into her breasts, and my heart rate gradually slowing down until it became a form of normal when around her. Then it went quiet. No talking, just quiet. And it felt like the most natural thing in the world, to be lying on my sofa with the most beautiful woman in the world.

It must have been the fire … the sound of absolute silence, apart for the crackling of the flames and the breathing of four bodies, or maybe the fact I hadn't been sleeping very well, but I could feel my eyelids begin to close. The rhythm of Erin's chest was luring me into the land of nod, and all the desire I had felt surging through me seemed to evolve into some kind of security blanket. The last thing I remember was her voice saying that we still needed to talk, but it didn't worry me … if the talking she wanted to do was anything like the one before I was more than happy to oblige.

In retrospect, it's a pity I didn't bolt upright and have the talk there and then. But that is another story. Hers, to be exact.


Continued in Part 2…

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