See chapter one for disclaimers

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May I apologise profusely for the two-week wait between updates, I've been busy teaching my writer's block a very painful lesson in acquiescence, among other things. I shall be posting instalments more regularly from here on... at least that's my intention LOL.


Women on the Rebound

Chapter 5

When I awoke the next morning, Kerry was still sprawled across the length of my prone form, her sun kissed hair splayed haphazardly across my chest. Though relatively petite and enviably slender, her awkward position was hindering my ability to breathe, and the untimely pressure on my stomach was making the call of nature ring loud and true. I wasn't comfortable by any means, but I remained reluctant to disentangle myself from the confines of her embrace, enjoying our close proximity more than I was willing to admit. Gently smoothing back her unkempt hair, I marvelled at her almost endearing vulnerability. Soothed by sleep, her placid features seemed to hint at a childlike innocence, yet I now knew how deceptive first impressions could be. As my tender ministrations registered somewhere amid her subconscious, she stirred, her eyelids flickering lightly. "Kerry," I whispered softly, tapping her on the shoulder in the hope of garnering a reaction. Though I could have quite happily resigned myself to being her personal mattress for the morning, my bladder wasn't quite so willing to accept the scenario and so I prodded her again, this time a little more firmly. "C'mon sleepy head, shift your ass." Save an unintelligible grunt, no response was forthcoming, and I rolled my eyes in ever-increasing exasperation. "Kerry, unless you want to wake up in a puddle of piss, I suggest you move. NOW." The note of urgency in my tone must have penetrated through the haze of unconsciousness, because Kerry's emerald eyes promptly shot open, regarding me confusedly. When coupled with her disorientation, it took her several seconds to fathom the rather compromising situation, but when realisation dawned, she blushed to the roots of her tousled hair, scrambling off me with such haste that she nearly collided with the coffee table.

"My God, I'm so sorry. I didn't realise." She regarded me with sheepish mortification, and I gave her a reassuring smile, trying to retain some dignity as I gingerly sat up, raising my arms in a bid to loosen my taut muscles.

"Don't worry about it. At least now I understand how privileged I am to own a bed that buckles under my weight."

"Did I hurt you? You should have said something, I would have moved." She continued to look unnecessarily ashamed, and I began contemplating the merits of using a fire extinguisher to appease the flaming red blush highlighting her features.

"Kerry, it's not a problem." I gently squeezed her forearm, discreetly edging towards the living room door. "If I didn't want you sprawled on top of me, you wouldn't have been there." She raised her eyebrows and I frowned, marvelling at my crude lack of eloquence. It was first thing in the morning, though, so I was willing to allow myself some leeway. "Really, it's OK. Um – " My composure began to falter, and I gestured towards the hallway. "Bathroom," I said, by way of explanation, breaking into an undignified run as soon as I escaped her line of vision.

When I entered the kitchen a few minutes later, the aroma of freshly made coffee tantalised my senses. Better still, Kerry seemed to have recovered from her acute case of embarrassment and regarded me amusedly as I sat at the table. "Better?"

I had the sense to look suitably sheepish. "My early morning wake up call wasn't exactly discreet, huh?"

She grinned. "Not really, but I've already had an insight into your chronic constipation, so I guess I shouldn't really be surprised that you're so open about your other earthly needs."

"Hey, you're making me sound crass. I just speak my mind, that's all."

"Euphemisms, Alex, they seem to be an integral component of your vocabulary." Kerry smiled at my indignant expression, handing me a plateful of buttered toast. I snatched it from her in mock outrage, winking in a bid to convey my gratitude. "You try waking up with eight stones of unresponsive female pressed against your bladder, and see if you can react with any more dignity than I did."

"You present that in the guise of a challenge, but you just want the opportunity to roll around on top of me, don't you?" Kerry teased, her eyes twinkling.

The assertion, though intended to be nothing more than an amiable jibe, was actually extremely accurate. But I wasn't about to confess to my appalling lack of integrity. Instead, I shook my head. "You flatter yourself, Miss Chapman. If you had my body weight pinning you down, your vital organs would probably stop working anyway, which would, in effect, make the experiment a pointless exercise."

"God, all work and no play. Where's your sense of adventure?"

She was flirting with me, that much was obvious. I just found it hard to discern whether she simply relished the banter between us, or if there was an underlying meaning in her attempts to strike up a rapport. Obviously, I was hoping for the latter, but I didn't want to ruin our new-found friendship with the naivety of wishful thinking. "Oh, I have a sense of adventure. It just doesn't extend to testing the capacity of my bladder."

"Well, you've got to admit, it's unconventional, if nothing else." Kerry laughed, shaking her head. "No, you're absolutely right. I can't even believe I'm having this conversation. And whilst I'm eating, too."

"Oh come on, Kerry, I get the distinct impression that nothing could put you off your food."

"You make it sound as though I'm some kind-of glutton," Kerry retorted, whilst pouring out a large bowl of cereal to compliment her four slices of toast.

"Oh no, that would be entirely unjustified." I grinned as she shoved a desert spoon heaped with mini shredded wheat into her mouth, regarding me with mock innocence. I rolled my eyes, resigning myself to humouring her. "The only reason why we need to re-stock on groceries for the third time this week is because there are two of us, as opposed to one, right?"

"Absolutely." Kerry nodded vigorously, and knowing I was watching her attentively, lifted up her bowl to drink the remainder of the milk. "You wanna come with me?"

"No. I'm presuming watching you choose food will be an even lengthier process than watching you eat it."

"Oh, come on, that's not true." She flashed an engaging smile, and my heart rate immediately amplified. "I'd let you have some say in the matter. And besides, I don't pick and choose, I accumulate."

I snorted. "Yeah, everything in sight, judging from the contents of our cupboards."

Kerry's eyes gradually lost their twinkle, and she suddenly seemed self-conscious. "Do you really think that I eat too much?"

I closed my eyes, my own smile fading as I fought the instinctive urge to be blunt. "No. I'm just teasing you, that's all." Regarding her intently, and seeing that my reassurance had done little to appease her insecurity, I felt a twinge of remorse. "Kerry, you're gorgeous, all right? You're sickeningly slender, and you can afford to eat whatever you want. I just don't know where you put it all." I looked sufficiently awed in my attempt to nurture her ego, willing her adorable smile to re-emerge.

Kerry shrugged disparagingly "Isn't it obvious? There's a gaping void where my soul should be." She spoke the words lightly, but continued to look depressed, and I sighed in exasperation.

"No, there's a gaping void where your self-confidence should be. For fuck's sake, Kerry, do you have to be so self-depreciating? I was JOKING, all right? There's nothing wrong with you. You're witty, you're intelligent and you're probably the most attractive woman I've ever laid eyes on. And if you're fishing for compliments, your methods are proving highly effective." I smiled in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere, but Kerry's previous good mood was proving irretrievable. I thus decided to continue with my tirade, never having been the type of person to let sleeping dogs lie. "The only downfall is that you're so bloody sensitive. Am I going to have to pussyfoot around you all of the time for fear of stepping out of line?"

Kerry, as was her trademark when things became a little heated, evaded eye contact. "I'm sorry."

I cursed under my breath. "God damn it, Kerry, I don't want you to be sorry. I want to be able to tease you, and share a joke with you, without worrying about the consequences." I shook my head. "I really don't know what to make of you sometimes. The atmosphere around here changes so quickly. One minute you're laughing, the next you're crying." I cupped her chin, forcing her to look at me, and sure enough, tears were pooling in vulnerable emerald eyes. Caressing her cheek in a bid to alleviate the harshness of my home truths, I regarded her intently. "You've been through so much, and you're still here to tell the tale. I know things aren't easy, but I also believe that you're strong enough to put the past behind you."

Tears were streaming down her face now, and she wiped them away furiously. "I haven't shed so much as a tear for years, and now I can't stop fucking crying. I don't know what's wrong with me. I guess reliving everything last night opened up the floodgates. And they say that time is supposed to heal." She laughed derisively, and in a gesture reminiscent of the previous evening, dug blunt fingernails into her bare forearms. "I mean, look at the state of me. You must think I'm so pathetic."

"I just told you what I think of you. What part of witty, intelligent and gorgeous don't you understand? And will you stop doing that?" I grasped her hands, prising them away from her arms, using my thumbs to lightly caress her palms. For a moment, she seemed to succumb to the sensation, but after a period of brief contemplation, abruptly pulled away.

"I don't want your pity, Alex, this is embarrassing enough as it is."

"I don't pity you, Kerry. I just care, that's all." The sincerity in my tone was so intense that Kerry was forced to choke back a heart-rending sob.

"God, I think I preferred it when you were yelling at me. I wish you'd stop being so goddamn nice, you're making me blubber even more." She laughed through her sobs, using the sleeve of my sweatshirt to wipe away the remainder of her tears. Turning away in a bid to regain my faltering composure, I swallowed the lump in my own throat, blinking back the moisture clouding my eyes whilst wondering how the hell I'd allowed one woman to have such a profound effect upon me. My emotions became even more tumultuous when I was engulfed in an awkward hug, and I was momentarily too shocked to respond. By the time I'd laced a belated arm around Kerry's waist, she was pulling away again, and turning apologetic eyes in my direction.

"I'm sorry, I've been on an emotional roller-coaster this week. I don't know what's wrong with me." On seeing my warning look, she sighed. "OK, there's nothing wrong with me. At least nothing that a premature dose of HRT and a little retail therapy wouldn't cure." She regarded me beseechingly. "Will you come shopping with me?"

I sighed. "Well, I've got to admit, you bring a whole new dimension to the concept of emotional blackmail. You really know how to soften a girl up, don't you?"

"Well, Richard seems to think that tolerating you is worthy of a rather large wage packet and as you've been so good over the past twenty four hours, I think it's only fair that you should help me spend it." Kerry batted her eyelids innocently, and I somehow sensed that her powers of persuasion were boundless.

"He'd probably sack you if he found out that you were helping to alleviate my boredom. The patterns on the wallpaper are supposed to be my sole method of stimulation. Let's just hope he never stumbles across the contents of my top drawer." On seeing Kerry's amusement, I feigned mortification. "Did I just say that aloud?"

"Why sound so surprised? I thought you were party to the fact that you're utterly shameless?"

I grinned. "Well, life's too short to be inhibited."

"Alex, stop inundating me with your warped philosophies and give me an answer." Kerry regarded me amusedly, awaiting my response.

"Do I have to?" I asked, emulating the whining drone of a five year old.

"Well, you never know, you might actually enjoy it. And I'd really like your company."

Unfortunately, I wasn't remotely susceptible to flattery. "Well, you're probably being a little too idealistic there. So far, you've only encountered me in my moderately difficult mode. Stick me in a shopping mall or a supermarket and my redeemable features begin to disintegrate. Rapidly."

"Well, I like to take a risk every now and again. It gets the adrenaline pumping."

"There are far more enjoyable ways of doing that, you know?" I ventured, wiggling my eyebrows suggestively.

"Such as?" Kerry retorted with feigned innocence, as if daring me to elaborate.

I grinned unceremoniously, shaking my head. "I wouldn't want to reveal the secrets of my trade now, would I?" Being evasive was one of my many skills, and an enigmatic smile tugged at the corners of my lips. "I'll tell you what, we'll compromise. I'll come shopping with you, if you agree to spend the afternoon doing what I want to do."

"Which is?" Kerry regarded me with intrigue, and faintly-veiled suspicion.

"You'll just have to wait and see." Seeing her dubious expression, I grinned. "But I promise it's nothing sinister."

"Alex, you and I have far different views as to what constitutes 'sinister.' I'm having visions of being manacled and flogged in public here. Please tell me they're entirely inaccurate."

"They're entirely inaccurate." I struggled to keep a straight face. "Don't hold me accountable for your twisted imagination. So, have we got a deal?"

Kerry hesitated, before clasping my outstretched hand. "Why do I get the distinct impression that I'm going to regret every minute of this?"

"O ye of little faith," I retorted, treating her to a dazzling smile before reluctantly releasing her hand. "Right, we'll leave in about an hour, OK? The mall itself is bad enough, but I don't handle crowds well. At all. And you do realise that it isn't exactly chic to be seen with a mental patient on your arm?"

Kerry grinned, gesturing to the oversized sweatshirt and pants I had lent her the night before. "Do I look like a dedicated follower of fashion?"

I surveyed her appreciatively, relishing how her eyes sparkled with barely suppressed mischief. In a word, she was beautiful. She had endured so much, but giving up seemingly hadn't been an option. She was evidently determined to enjoy the life she had barely begun to live and her boundless levels of tolerance and compassion were humbling to say the least. When compared to the ordeals she had somehow survived, my life had been a stroll in the park, and I now realised that spending so many wasted years festering in resentment had left me devoid of the capacity to care about anyone save my bitter and twisted self. I silently vowed to stop being so selfish, and share what was left of my ailing soul with the one woman who seemed worthy of my trust. Obviously, it wouldn't be easy, and disabling my built-in defence mechanisms would no doubt be a painful and lengthy process. Ditto for grasping the concept of consideration, but at least, for now, I was willing to try. Aware of my prolonged silence, I cleared my throat, offering Kerry an almost shy smile. "You look stunning, as always."

Kerry blushed, and caught up in her own learning curve, decided to accept a compliment for the first time in her life. "Thank you."

There was an awkward silence, in which we simply stared at each other with shamelessly goofy grins. Slightly daunted by the absurdity of my behaviour, I was the first to break eye contact, but the smile lingered and I found myself craving the saviour of all celibate women; the power shower. "I guess we'd better start getting ready if we're going to avoid the influx of eager shoppers."

Kerry nodded vehemently in a bid to shake of her dreamlike state. "Yeah. Do you want to use the bathroom first?"

"Uh-huh." I found myself laughing for no apparent reason, and Kerry eyed me suspiciously.

"I'd love to know what goes on inside your head."

"You'd probably be appalled. I wouldn't want to corrupt you." I grinned, edging towards the kitchen door as Kerry swatted me playfully with the morning paper.

"I think you already have."

To be continued.....

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