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Chapter 4

An hour later, we were freshly showered and sitting perilously close to the blazing fire, cradling our cups of cocoa as if they were the most sacred things on earth. It had taken a considerable amount of time for our shivering to subside, and when the realisation dawned that all of Kerry's dry clothes were still in her car, neither of us could muster the courage required to retrieve them. When she emerged from the bathroom, looking undeniably adorable in a pair of my oversized sweatpants, it took all of my willpower not to dissolve into laughter. Even now, in the flickering candlelight, she vaguely resembled an overgrown kid basking in the aftermath of a dressing-up session. Catching me studying her, she offered me a shy smile, which I readily returned.

"Feeling better?" I ventured, and she nodded sheepishly.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have run off like that." Her tone was barely audible in its meekness, and she appeared momentarily transfixed by the contents of her cup.

"It's an instinctive reaction to being in the presence of a complete asshole, don't worry about it," I reassured her, with a limited amount of success.

She regarded me wryly. "Being self-deprecating really doesn't suit you, Alex."

I shrugged. "Well, if we're going to make a fresh start I guess it's about time I acknowledged my flaws." I rolled my eyes. "Which could be a lengthy process, given the amount of people that seem to detest me."

"I don't detest you." She regarded me intently, her eyes shining with sincerity. "Hell, I can't even bring myself to dislike you."

I raised a sceptical eyebrow. "Oh, come on, how can you say that? I certainly wouldn't feel an affinity for someone who was so adept at giving me panic attacks." I studied her earnestly. "Kerry, an hour ago, you were terrified of me. I was trying to help you, and you literally cowered away from my touch." I tried to keep the emotion from my tone, albeit unsuccessfully. "I know that I've been an awkward cunt, and I don't expect you to trust me, but seeing you react like that really hurt me. I mean, what kind-of a monster do you think I am?"

A flicker of pain crossed her features, and once again, she evaded eye contact. "You were pinning me down. I couldn't move, and I panicked. I hate not being able to - to – "

"Fight back?" I offered, realisation dawning. She nodded, clearly struggling to retain her composure.

"Hey, it's OK." Kerry's feet were positioned on the middle section of the three-piece suite, and I rested my hand lightly against her ankle, absently caressing the smooth skin residing there. "You wanna talk about it?"

She laughed bitterly, shaking her head. "I don't think I can." There was a pregnant pause, followed by a heartfelt sigh. "It'd be a pointless exercise anyway. You wouldn't believe me."

"Try me. God knows, I could do with a lesson in humility. I spend so much time festering in self-pity that I tend to forget shit happens to other people, too."

"You're not wrong there." Kerry muttered, shuddering involuntarily. Seeing my attentive concern, she realised that I intended to unleash the skeletons in her closet, and after a moment's contemplation, seemed to recognise the futility in being evasive. Wringing her hands in genuine anguish, she turned to regard me, the torment clouding her captivating eyes almost heart-wrenching in its intensity. "I don't know where to start," she whispered, hugging her knees to her chin as if to comfort herself.

"It doesn't matter. Just relax and take your time. You're safe here." Suddenly feeling like an amateur shrink, I gave her an encouraging smile.

Her eyes darkened as she mustered the courage to confront her past, and I somehow sensed that reliving the memories would be as unbearable as experiencing them in the first place. But true to her invincible nature, she cleared her throat nervously, picking at an invisible piece of lint on her jumper as she haltingly began. "I never really got along with my parents. My mother treated me like some kind-of glorified Barbie doll and my father was unbelievably overprotective. I was an only child, which made matters worse, and I went through high school without having many friends. I was too embarrassed to take them home in case my parents subjected them to one of their notorious inquisitions."

I grimaced empathetically. "Sounds familiar."

"I was sixteen when the Andersons moved into the house opposite us." Kerry rolled her eyes disparagingly. "Mark, the father, was a successful attorney, and my parents couldn't wait to invite him and his family around for dinner, just so they could add another rich fuck-wit to their list of friends."

"Why is it that wealth seems to breed superficiality? I spent my life trying to fathom why all the people in my life were devoid of integrity." I frowned, genuinely perplexed, and then realised somewhat belatedly that I was disrupting Kerry's train of thought. "Sorry. I guess now isn't the appropriate time to unveil myself as an amateur philosopher."

My remark elicited a small smile from my companion, and I silently congratulated myself for dissipating some of the tension infiltrating the room.

"Mark was basically a clone of my father, a traditionalist with Victorian values, and his wife was so submissive it made me sick." Kerry's eyes narrowed with distaste, effectively emphasising her point. "His kids, though, were a little more tolerable. I hit it off with Sarah, his daughter, right away. We were so alike it was almost scary." A bittersweet smile lightened her features. "By the end of our first evening together, we were giggling in the corner of the room and devising fifty ways to quash Conservativism."

"She sounds like a nice girl," I offered, somewhat lamely.

Kerry's smiled softly. "She was. From that moment on, we were virtually inseparable. It was quite ironic, really." On seeing my puzzled expression, she decided to elaborate. "My parents had always condemned my choice of friends, but they were practically gushing over Sarah. It almost made me wonder whether I was missing something, you know? I'd spent my life attempting to befriend people who I knew my parents would disapprove of, that way I wouldn't feel stifled by my social life, too. But every second with Sarah was so invigorating, so liberating. It was only when she went on a week's vacation, and I was left on my own, that I realised just how much I missed her. More so than was probably natural, actually." Kerry suddenly seemed riveted by the faded pattern on her sweatshirt, but mustered the courage to continue nonetheless. "When she came back, we grew even closer, and I realised that, much to my horror, I was developing one hell of a crush on her." She glanced at me in a cursory manner, attempting to garner my reaction to this supposed revelation. I smiled reassuringly, non-judgmental.

"It's OK, go on."

Kerry nodded, relieved. "I had no idea that she felt the same way, and I spent a year dealing with what I thought was unrequited love, until one day, when we were both pissed out of our heads, she took it upon herself to kiss me." Her eyes took on a glazed quality as she recalled this life-changing experience, and I was forced to wonder how the hell Sarah had quelled the urge to engage Kerry in a game of tonsil tennis for so long. Attributing her restraint to a pitiful lack of libido, I re-focused my attention on the beautiful woman before me, whose countenance was becoming increasingly agitated.

"We knew our parents would go berserk if they ever found out about our relationship, so we kept it under wraps for as long as we could. Unfortunately, we weren't able to live a lie for long." Kerry swallowed audibly, wringing her hands in anxiety. "Her brother, Michael, caught us at it one night and went running straight to her father, who promptly forced Sarah to cease all contact with me. He was convinced that I'd corrupted his oh-so-impressionable daughter and even made her change colleges to escape my influence. Of-course, we were love's young dream, and we weren't about to let a little thing like parental disapproval come between us." Kerry's eyes clouded with tears, and she blinked them back angrily. "We were already connoisseurs when it came to being covert, and we didn't think it'd be that difficult to continue with our relationship. Then again, we didn't bank on her family becoming virtual vigilantes, either. They locked Sarah in her room at night, and seeing her was becoming impossible." Kerry took a sip of her cocoa, and for the first time, I noticed how much her hands were shaking. I wanted to comfort her, but she was lost in the realms of her own personal nightmare, and disrupting her simply wasn't an option. So, with a morbid sense of fascination, I continued to listen to the poignant tale unfold.

"One evening, a new restaurant was opening in town, and Mark couldn't resist taking his family along for the photo opportunities. Sarah got left at home, because no amount of make-up could conceal the bruises he'd inflicted on her after our little indiscretion." Kerry virtually spat the word out, resentment marring her tone. "As usual, Michael had drunk too much and was becoming something of a liability, so Mark had to bring him home earlier than we'd expected." She brought her hand up to her mouth, stifling a heaving sob. "He found us within minutes. God, I don't think I've ever been so scared. I tried to dodge past him, but he was so angry, I didn't have a hope in hell of escaping. He dragged me downstairs, into the kitchen. That's when - " She struggled to maintain her composure – "That's when he held the knife to my throat. I was so scared, Alex, I didn't know what to do. There was nothing I could do, he was just too strong. It hurt so much, and all the while Sarah was just watching. She just sat there, crying in the corner, watching her beloved brother destroy me. She was supposed to love me, Alex, how could she do that to me?"

"Oh, sweetheart…." I couldn't stand it any longer; the pain in her eyes and the sheer helplessness in her tone were simply too much for me to bear. Kerry clearly needed to tell her story, but from then on, she would have to do it from within the safe haven of my arms. Pulling her to me for the second time that night, I allowed her to sob into my chest, soothing her with a gentle rocking motion. Feeling the tremors of repulsion chorusing through her body, I silently vowed to murder anyone who had so much as harmed a hair on her head. Naturally, Michael Anderson was first on my hit list, and the image of stiletto heels and a well-oiled vice came unbidden to my mind. As her sobs died down into the occasional sniffle, Kerry regarded me with a sad smile.

"I should probably forewarn you that things get worse from here, so you might want to consider a change of shirt."

I ran a hand gently through her hair, shaking my head. "Nope, I'm here for the duration, ready and willing to be used as a personal handkerchief."

Kerry smiled weakly. "Thanks." Resting her head against my shoulder and wrapping an arm loosely around my waist, summoning strength from my presence, she continued. "I couldn't tell my parents about Michael's bid to make me a real woman, because at best, they'd accuse me of being a compulsive liar. So I was left with two options – go to the police and press charges, or get on with my life as though nothing had happened. It hurt to realise that Sarah was more concerned about her family's reputation than she was about me, but I'd lost all sense of loyalty to her the night Michael raped me. When she begged me not to say anything, it made me all the more determined to defy her, and before I knew it, I was in court testifying against her brother."

"That's my girl," I murmured appreciatively, giving her an affectionate squeeze. Kerry shook her head vehemently, tears clouding her eyes.

"I thought I was doing the right thing, but when I look back and see all the heartache I caused, I'm not sure whether it was worth it. The case was a nightmare. The press were practically desecrating my character and it seemed like no one was willing to believe my story. I've never felt so alone in my life, but I managed to hang in there, somehow. When Michael got sent down, I was numb with relief. I thought that because the jury had sympathised with me, everyone else would, too." She laughed self-deprecatingly. "How naïve can you be?"

As she took a steadying breath, I seized the opportunity to grasp her trembling hands. She had been subconsciously digging her nails into her thighs, in what looked to be a bizarre from of self-punishment. "It's what the bastard deserved, Kerry. You did the right thing."

"Did I?" She whispered, her tone embodying anguish. "All I cared about was ensuring Michael's comeuppance; I never considered the effects it would have on his family. Mark's reputation was destroyed, he lost his tenancy with a top firm, and Sarah…"

"Realised what a stupid bitch she'd been?"

Kerry shrugged as I wiped away the lone tear trickling down her cheek. "Maybe. I never got to ask her. She took an overdose the day after the verdict."

"Oh God, Kerry. I'm so sorry." I bit my lip, trying to imagine how one person could survive so much heartache. Realising that my thoughtless behaviour over the past week had probably made matters worse, I was rendered gutted with shame.

"No wait, it gets better." Kerry turned to me, her eyes haunted with baseless remorse. "Michael decided to follow suit and on the day of Sarah's funeral, hung himself from the prison rafters. Sarah's mother, the woman who wouldn't so much as speak without her husband's permission, thereby tried to strangle me - entirely of her own volition. And to top it all off, I made one man so hell bent on revenge that he travels around the country hoping to deprive me of my existence. Which is kind-of understandable, really." She regarded me intently. "You met him today."

I gazed at her in utter shock, my mouth nearly hitting the floor. "You should've told me earlier, we'd have been burying him by now." Recalling the man's youthful visage, I suddenly realised that he couldn't have been Sarah's father. "Wait a minute. That wasn't Mark, was it?"

Kerry smiled bitterly. "No, that was Steven, Sarah's younger brother. You're probably wondering why I haven't mentioned him before, but he was always prone to just fading into the background." She sighed dejectedly. "I mean, who knows? He might've turned out to be a reasonably sound guy if I hadn't killed off his siblings when he was fifteen years old."

"Kerry, you can't blame yourself for what happened." I kissed the top of her head, willing her to believe me. "None of this is your fault, surely you can see that?"

"Try telling that to my parents." She stood up abruptly, her anguish evolving into full-blown hysteria. "Try telling that to Steven. In fact, try telling that to anyone who's ever fucking laid eyes on me, and they'll be more than happy to fill you in on a different side of the story. So you see, Alex, you're not the monster around here." She jabbed herself forcefully in the chest. "I am. I'm just a glorified fuck-up destined to rot in the fiery pits of hell. And you know what?" She gazed at me, the wild look in her eyes both terrifying and heart-rending. "I'm looking forward to it. Being condemned to eternal suffering actually appeals to me, because it's no better than what I deserve. My parents and what's left of Steven's family can rest in peace, while I pay for wrecking their lives. I'd say that was poetic justice, wouldn't you?" She fingered one of Richard's prized ornaments, hurling it against the wall with a ferocity that made me flinch. The effort seemed to sap her of energy, though, and suddenly meek, she sank down against the wall, sobbing softly. "I just want it to go away, Alex. I just want to live my life like a normal person. I'm so tired of feeling alone."

"You're not alone." Now feeling safe enough to approach her without being unduly attacked, I lifted a hand to caress a tear-streaked cheek. "I'm your pseudo psychiatrist for the evening, and I think I've found the solution to all of your problems."

"Suicide?" She ventured, her tone devoid of mirth.

"No, I was thinking more along the lines of excessive alcohol, a bucket load of chocolate ice-cream and a nice old-fashioned hug. Not necessarily in that order." She rolled her eyes indulgently as I scooped her up in my arms, carrying her effortlessly back to the couch, where I proceeded to dump her unceremoniously. "Right. What can I do you for?"

"Well, for someone who exercises such emotional restraint, you're actually an extremely good hugger," she teased, her mood elevating before my very eyes. "But I wouldn't want to become overly dependant, so I'll settle for a glass of whisky."

"Spoil all my fun, why don't you?" I muttered good-naturedly, returning a few minutes later with two double measures. Handing one glass to Kerry, I gave her a companionable wink. "This is the first and the last time that I cater to your every whim. Now get that down you."

"Shouldn't we make a toast first? To new-found friendship or something?" She looked at me hopefully, and I sighed in concession.

"All right, if you want to be so bloody clichéd. A prayer for a renewed patience threshold would probably be more appropriate, though."

Kerry laughed, swatting me playfully on the arm, and I was so relieved to see the smile on her face that I found myself biting back tears.

"To new beginnings," Kerry murmured, gently clinking her glass against my own.

"Whatever," I echoed, the sincerity in my eyes belying my nonchalant tone. To my great surprise Kerry leant forward, brushing my lips with her own in a fleeting gesture of gratitude, before taking a healthy swig of her drink.

"Do you realise that you've managed to be tactful for a whole evening?"

"Hey, the night is still young," I reminded her, smiling.

She shrugged, her emerald eyes twinkling impishly. "Well, I guess your appalling lack of propriety doesn't matter anymore, now that we're even."

I regarded her suspiciously. "Excuse me?"

"Well, you seem to think that you're so adept when it comes to making me wet..." She fingered my shirt - which was still damp from her tears - almost sensuously, "So I thought I'd give you a taste of your own medicine."

The unexpected comment came just as I was taking a swig of my whisky, and I nearly choked on the pungent liquid as a result. Kerry patted me consolingly on the back, trying unsuccessfully to conceal her smirk. Upon regaining my composure, I prised the glass of liqueur from her clasped hands. "All right Kerry, I think we've established that alcohol is pretty effective at lowering your inhibitions."

"What, so you're allowed to be lewd and I'm not?" Kerry retorted, eyebrows raising in an unspoken challenge.

"Look, you're a picture of purity and I'm a walking advertisement for debauchery. It's only logical that I should be the smart ass in this… purely platonic relationship."

"No, let's be honest Alex, you just have an aversion to blushing." Kerry regarded me defiantly and I shrugged sheepishly.

"It does kind-of undermine the stoic façade."

"Ah, so you admit it's a façade, then!" Kerry exclaimed, tweaking my chin triumphantly.

"I didn't say that!" I glared at my companion in mock outrage, realising with a sense of petulance that I was on the verge of losing an argument for the first time in my life. "You might have semantics on your side, Kerry Chapman, but you'll have to find some admissible evidence if you want prove that I'm anything other than a cold-hearted bitch."

To my great surprise, Kerry launched herself at me, pinning me to the couch and tickling me ruthlessly. Within seconds I was squealing like a pig, tears streaming down my cheeks as I begged plaintively for mercy.

"OK, now, where do you keep the camcorder?" Kerry teased, sitting astride me, her face flushed with exertion. I folded my arms across my chest, my demeanour that of a chastised child as I stuck a petulant tongue out at her. As soon as Kerry let her guard down, I flipped her onto her back, straddling her petite frame with effortless ease.

"Now, Miss Chapman, give me one good reason why I shouldn't teach you a lesson in acquiescence?" I demanded, trying to ignore my body's natural reaction to having an extremely desirable woman between my thighs. Seeing the mirth fade from Kerry's eyes, I realised what a mistake I'd made. "Hey." I gently stoked her cheek, alleviating some of the weight I was applying to her stomach. "It's OK. I'm not going to hurt you." Leaning forward, my breasts unintentionally brushing against hers, I placed a chaste kiss against her forehead. "You trust me, don't you?"

She nodded vehemently, and I gently pulled her into a sitting position, allowing her to rest her head against my shoulder. After a few moments of comfortable quietude, she turned to regard me intently. "I guess a problem shared really is a problem halved. I just wish I'd realised that sooner, then I could have lumbered a shrink with my predicament instead of falling apart on you."

"Hey, you can fall apart on me anytime," I reassured her, resting my chin against her shoulder and marvelling at how wonderful it felt to be tactile with someone again. She snuggled closer to me in response, and a prolonged silence settled over the room. Feeling an unusual sense of tranquillity, I allowed my eyelids to flutter closed, and involuntarily fell into one of the most peaceful sleeps I've ever experienced. As I lapsed into unconsciousness, I instinctively wrapped my arms around a softly snoring Kerry, pulling her protectively to my chest as I sank back into the softness of my plush leather couch. For the first time in my life, I was genuinely content.

To be continued...

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