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Understanding Nora

by

Ruby Molloy



Six months ago


CARRED


Before we ever met, when she was simply a name on my sister’s lips, I envisioned a plain, heavy-set girl with pale red hair and copious freckles. Big, fucking mistake! Except for the hair, I got that right, though I was way off on the shade. It’s a deep, dark red and I think if I ever get the chance to touch it, it’ll scorch my fingers.

Three months back, I came face to face with my mistake. I was jet lagged, two bottles into a six-pack of beer, and seeing her was like a kick to the ribs. I remember the swift flare of lust and the acidic burn that chased through my veins. I also remember the icy hatred that shone from her opaque green eyes. And within the passing of a few sluggish seconds, I knew that I’d both found and lost her.

I’d be fine if I didn’t see her almost as often as I see my sister, Tess. I’d be way over her. I wouldn’t be marking off the days until the next time I see her. She’d be a memory. Not even that. She’d be the yellow stain of a once purple bruise, cause unknown, never to be recollected.

“Carred!”

A husky voice claws me back to the present. The timbre of this girl’s voice isn’t smooth and rounded like Nora’s. It’s dry and unnatural, brought on by smoking and drinking and it irritates the fuck out of me. It belongs to the blonde currently straddling my thighs. I realise my fingers are digging into her hips, indenting the flesh beneath her flimsy black dress. She smiles when I ease up, shifts closer, and grinds against a hard-on that has not one thing to do with her and everything to do with Nora Appleby.

She’s the one who’s been at the forefront of my dreams and fantasies for the past few months. She’s also the girl who’s currently standing on the other side of the room, acting like I don’t exist. It’s a fucking shame I can’t do the same, but everything about her demands my attention.

Right now, from this distance, it’s her long red hair, but up close it’s her cold, green eyes. She’s beautiful, more than a little goofy, and she possesses a toughness that stirs something inside me. I want to find out if there’s a pool of softness concealed beneath her tough exterior and I’m curious about what exactly triggered her protective armour. But mostly I just want to fuck her.

Shit, that’s a lie. I want her, full stop.

She’s a student for Christ’s sake. How the hell was I supposed to know a student would turn my world on its side? She doesn’t flirt, doesn’t play with her hair or give me smouldering, pouty looks, so why the hell can’t I get her out of my mind?

Yeah, she’s stunning, but beautiful girls are the norm not the exception in my life. They’re never far away, always waiting for their opportunity, just like the ever-present paparazzi. And it’s not her ‘not interested’ attitude that gets me going, because girls play that game all the time, though Nora gives it a whole new spin the way she blows hot and cold.

One thing I know for sure, she’s got something. And when I say she’s got something I mean she’s got it, because I don’t do this shit―ever. Christ, I’d rather go head to head with Nora, with nothing but a cold shower at the end of the night, than screw any of the girls at this party. For the first time in twenty-four years I’ve met someone who has my brain and dick interested, a girl who has me contemplating more than just a quick fuck, and she doesn’t give a shit about me.

Shoving my near-empty beer bottle into the blonde’s hand, I lift her from my thighs and drop her to the sofa, ignoring her overblown pout. Tess says I’m a dick when it comes to girls; I disagree. If I admit upfront that I don’t do relationships it’s not my problem when they forget every word I’ve said, every damn time.

Clearing a path through the room I fix my gaze on Nora, watching as a cold, hard veneer settles over her features.

“Not interested, Carred!”

I grin, unperturbed. “Babe, I haven’t said a word.”

“Babe?” Her lush mouth twists into a mini-sneer and the flat hardness of her green eyes has me thinking of cold, winter seas.

“Do I look like I respond to ‘babe’? Jeez, do you even remember my name?”

“I remember you, Nora. Been trying to forget you, but it’s not happening.”

“Try harder, McGuire.”

My eyes drop to her mouth, and I know I’m staring, but seriously she has a sexy mouth.

“I’ve been trying, real fucking hard,” I tell her, elongating the word ‘hard’ like a total dickhead.

“Really? You’re sinking that low already? I thought you might at least warm up before letting slip one of your dirty, little innuendos.”

I can’t help the full-on grin that perfectly demonstrates to anyone who sees it that I’m in deep with this girl. “Didn’t come over here to fight with you, Nora.”

“No? Why then? You have a predilection for being knocked back?” She arches an eyebrow, her expression caught between haughty and wicked, and I’m torn between wanting to kiss and ... shit, I just want to kiss her!

I search her eyes, needing to know there’s something more; that beneath her hard shell there’s a spectre of something other than hatred or loathing or whatever the fuck it is she feels for me. She stares right back and when I’m ready to give up, I see it; it’s in the flicker of her eyes, the quirk of her mouth, and the ripple of her throat. I nod and relax, as though she’s given me the answer I’m looking for, the one I’ve been waiting on for months.

“Dance with me.” Not giving her a chance to refuse, I pull her towards the dance floor, ignoring the sting of her nails and the tug of her hand.

“I’m not dancing with you, Carred!”

I turn and she presses a hand to my stomach to prevent her chest from bumping into mine. I want to push into it, to have it leave an impression on my skin. Instead I choose to incite her anger. It’s a safety mechanism, one I only ever use with Nora. “You want to act like a wallflower all night?”

I get what I want. Her eyes don’t look so cold anymore. They’re hot and furious and her green irises are shining bright.

“I am not a wallflower!” she says, carefully enunciating each word between tightly clenched teeth.

“I said ‘act’ like one, Nora. You think I haven’t noticed how most of these pricks have had their eyes on your tits and arse all night?”

“Oh my god! You have a disgusting mouth!”

Everyone has their weakness, guys especially. Coop collects cars like they’re pin badges, and Travis enjoys chilling with a spliff. Riley gambles, but he has a handle on it―the handle being his girlfriend, Fliss. My weakness is cursing. Since I don’t smoke, and I’ve kicked the weed and coke, I figure my cursing can be excused. Besides, I’m not a complete dickhead―I know not to swear in front of kids and old ladies.

I register her scathing expression and I can’t resist the need to shock her further. “You’re not wrong, Appleby. And you know what? You’d fucking love it if you gave me a chance to use it on you.”

Her gaze burns brittle and hard. “You’re a dick.”

I position my mouth against the perfect swirl of her ear, almost losing focus when I catch the scent of her perfume. “Can we just fucking dance? I get that you don’t like me. Jesus, anyone watching us can see that you can’t stand me, but would it kill you to dance with me for ten minutes?”

She doesn’t answer, but she also doesn’t move away. I take that as a yes and lift her hands to my shoulders. It doesn’t take long before I’m half-crazy with wanting her. The way she moves, the way she slowly relaxes against me. Jesus, who knew she’d feel like this? I pull her in closer, the light pressure of her hands on my shoulders a torturous tease. Her warmth seeps through my t-shirt, bringing about a stream of dirty thoughts that has my blood flowing straight to my dick. If she had the vaguest idea where my mind’s at, her knee would be embedded in my balls right about now.

Two songs in, she relaxes enough to rest her head against my chest. Her fingers curl around my nape, and my private, x-rated fantasies step up a notch. It’s fucking amazing. Right up until the wanting drains a little too much blood from my brain and I screw up. “Let’s go upstairs,” I need to see her, to touch her. To find out if the reality of being with Nora is as fierce as my dreams. She tenses beneath my hands and I almost groan, prepping for the inevitable knock-back.

“Not gonna happen, McGuire,” she says.

There it is; the fucking phrase that I want to douse in petrol and burn to nothing. I glare down at her and she returns it in full―bold and bolshy as hell.

“It’s gonna happen, Nora. You think I don’t know that you’re feeling it too?” My gaze lowers to where her nipples are stiff and swollen beneath the fabric of her t-shirt. “You think I don’t know you want me? That I can’t see your nipples poking through your t-shirt? Shit, I bet your panties are damp right now.”

Up close as I am, I don’t see the slap coming. It stings like a bitch and I feed off the pain, pushing against her, following when she retreats. Breathing hard, we lock eyes, both angry enough to do something stupid.

Her hands smack into my chest. “Back off, McGuire!”

“Quit playing games, Appleby!”

“Bloody hell, could your ego get any bigger? I am not playing games! Do me a favour―leave me the hell alone and go screw blondie over there! She looked like she was begging for it before you struck out with me.”

Fucking hell, she drives me crazy! I want to kiss her. I want to back her up against the wall and spread her legs with my knee. I want to have her wanting me the way I fucking want her.

I dig deep and find the self-control I need before I push too far. “Are you done?” My tone is menacing as hell, but she doesn’t bat an eyelid. She glares up at me, her small hands curled into fists, her green eyes flashing angry fire.

“Are you hearing me?”

I smirk. “Yeah, Appleby. Doesn’t mean I’m listening though.”


Two months ago


NORA


Day four of my flu virus and I’ve finally escaped my bedroom. Feeling weak and woozy, I descend the stairs on my backside one miserable step at a time. When I eventually flop face down on the sofa, my heart is racing and my skin is coated with perspiration. Ella – my friend, fellow student and house-mate – shoves a pillow beneath my face and arranges a duvet across my prone body, ensuring that everything I could possibly need is within arm’s reach.

I have a flu survival kit that includes tissues, cough medicine, two kinds of painkillers, a glass of water and a bin that is already half-filled with crumpled tissues.

The downside of being sick (like there’s an upside) is daytime TV, but it beats staring at the walls. My arms are too weak to hold a book for more than two minutes and, truthfully, the family from hell that’s currently arguing and screaming kind of takes my mind off how rotten I’m feeling.

I’ve had a seriously crap week. The kind that lurches from one shitty day to the next, with no let up. Saturday, Tess and I had an argument about her brother, Carred, which for several, tense minutes had me believing our friendship might be over. She berated me for knocking him back whenever he asks me out, which honestly isn’t all that often since he seems to be constantly on tour with DMGD. I got defensive and angry, and started listing all the reasons why I’d never go out with her stupid, jerk of a brother. I said some pretty nasty things, partly because I needed her to stop trying to get us together, but mostly because I needed to convince myself that’s how I really felt.

Tess, having been my closest friend for the past year, should have known when to call a halt. Thankfully, we got through it and made a pact to never again discuss the possibility of there being anything between me and Carred.

Sunday, I had my laptop stolen while me and my housemates, Frankie and Ella, were having brunch in Joe’s Place, a cheap diner that’s a student hang-out. I had my laptop in a bag on the floor and some creep stole it without me or anyone else noticing, until after the event. Stupidly, it wasn’t insured, which means Sunday was my second shitty day.

Monday was a B-A-A-A-D day.

I’d felt rotten, but hadn’t yet realised I was coming down with flu. I overslept and rushed to get ready for my first tutorial, dressing in a rocking outfit of white t-shirt with black logo, and a men’s grey blazer that had heaps of style, but zero warmth. It also wasn’t waterproof. And yes it was October, but it hadn’t gotten cold yet. Walking to uni, the weather had taken a turn for the worse and the dark grey clouds burst, releasing big fat drops of rain that had me drenched in seconds.

By lunchtime I started to burn up and by mid-afternoon I was getting woozy. I decided to call it a day and was walking past the Tech and Design block when my head became extra fuzzy. I leant against the wall for support and ended up sliding into a faint, grazing my cheek and temple on way down. So, yeah, Monday was definitely a bad day!

And now, today, I’m crashed out on the sofa, snuggled beneath my duvet and dressed in my shabbiest PJs. My hair hasn’t seen a brush in days, and the upper right side of my face is covered in hideous scabs, so not only do I feel like shit, I look like it too.

“I’m heading into town. You want me to get you anything?” Ella shouts from the hallway.

“Uh-uh. I’m good thanks.” My nose is blocked, my throat is sore, and my voice sounds as though it’s being funnelled through my nose.

“Was that a no?”

“Uh-ha.”

She must have gotten that because I hear the front door open and the mumbled sound of conversation.

“Visitor coming through!”

I twist my head, expecting Tess. My headache ratchets up a notch when I see Carred McGuire is standing in the doorway, looking hot and sexy, and far too happy for my current mood.

“If you’re looking for Tess, she’s not here,” I say, swinging my gaze back to the TV. I don’t want to be round him right now. Actually, scrap that! I never want to be round him, but most especially today, when I look like something the cat has swallowed and regurgitated.

He ignores my snarky comment and moves into the living room, not stopping until he’s standing directly in front of me, his blue eyes scanning me from head to toe.

The most beautiful guy I have ever laid eyes on is looking down at me and all I can do is lay there – a horrible, snotty, scabby mess – knowing he isn’t going to let that slide.

“You look like shit, babe.”

Yeah, there it is! Like I don’t already know this and I need him to point it out for me. “Thanks for your observation, McGuire. Now that you’ve succeeded in pissing me off, feel free to leave.”

“Nah, think I’ll stay a while.”

He grins, sparking my temper because that grin is sexy and he’s gorgeous as hell with his dark blond hair tucked behind his ears, and darker stubble shading his jaw. His black t-shirt hugs his body, making me restless for something I don’t want to be wanting.

“There’s no-one here besides me,” I tell him, hoping that piece of information will have him changing his mind, but he shrugs as if it’s irrelevant.

“Didn’t come to see anyone ’cept you, but thanks for the info.”

Shit! Why does my heart have to pump harder at that piece of news?

“Got you something,” he says, holding out a box and tilting it so that I can see the front. I stare, and then I stare some more, until my throat tightens and I forget to breathe.

It’s a top of the range laptop and for a tech-geek like me, who had their bottom-of-the-range laptop stolen only a few days ago, it’s nirvana. It’s like all my birthdays and Christmases rolled into one, and being as low and vulnerable as I am right now, I get a little choked. “Tess told you,” I say, my voice real quiet.

“That you got your laptop stolen? Yeah.”

“She asked you to replace it?” I don’t need him treating me like a charity case.

He frowns at my snarky tone and, damn it, it makes him look sexier. “No, she didn’t ask me to replace it.”

“Oh.” I can’t figure out why he’d go out of his way to buy me a top of the range laptop, but then I get to thinking there could only be one possible reason. “If this is some kind of bribe to get me to sleep with you, forget it.”

His face grows tight and his jaw flexes. “Jesus, Nora, why do you have to assume the worst? You need a fucking laptop, so I bought you one. I have more money than I know what to do with, so me buying you a laptop means next to nothing. And before you make some piss-smart comment about me boasting about how rich I am, that’s not what I meant.”

“Gee, McGuire. Thanks for going all out and buying me a laptop. Knowing it means next to nothing makes it all the more special.”

“Fuck me, even when you’re sick you’re still a pain in the arse. You want the sodding thing or not?”

I shoot him a sickly sweet smile. “If you think I’d turn this down you’re even more stupid than you look.”

“Jesus, you’re such a fucking charmer. It’s a good thing you’re covered in scabs and snot or I’d be jumping your bones right now.”

“One track mind, McGuire,” I taunt, pushing my hand through my hair and wincing when it catches in a chunky knot.

His gaze lingers for a few seconds, eyes intense, looking like he’s on the verge of saying something. Maybe he thinks better of it because he lays the laptop on the quilt above my stomach and turns to the TV just as a chorus of cheers erupts from its speakers. Two men are being restrained by security guys, the host taunting the struggling men from a safe distance: pure TV trash.

“You like this shit?” he asks, his expression incredulous.

“Hey, don’t judge. I’ve been stuck in bed for days. This is major entertainment compared to staring at the walls.”

“You really are sick if you think this shit is entertainment. There’s got to be something better to watch than this crap.”

”You are not changing channels, McGuire!”

His eyebrows rise in disbelief. “You can’t seriously want to watch this shit?”

“It just so happens I’m in the mood to watch shit!”

“Where’s the remote?” His gaze travels along the duvet, as though he’s seconds away from giving me a strip search.

“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” I snap, holding it out to him.

“Got a couple of free hours, which means today is your lucky day, Appleby.” He shoots me a cocky grin. I roll my eyes, watching him flick through channel after channel, surprised when he stops on an old detective series. “Really?” I ask, injecting the word with scorn.

His brows arch. “What? It’s good.”

I’m all set to belittle his choice when he continues. “We used to watch this when I was a kid.”

I catch the tinge of nostalgia that weaves through his words. I know it was just him and Tess. I know their parents were killed in an avalanche some years back and Carred took on the responsibility of looking after Tess when she was still in school. I secretly admire him for that, and for once I do the right thing―I keep my mouth shut. That is, right up until he lifts my feet, sinks down onto the sofa, and lowers my calves across his thighs.

Startled by the intimacy, I forget all about going easy on him. “Make yourself comfortable, McGuire!”

He raises an eyebrow, the one with the twin bar bells, and gives me a sideways glance. “Really? Coz I’m thinking I’d be more comfortable stretched out beside you.”

“Yeah, not gonna happen.”

“Nora?”

“What?”

“Shut up and watch the fucking TV.”

“Carred?”

“What?” His eyes flash with a mixture of temper and frustration.

“Thank you for my MacBook.”

He grunts and swings his gaze back to the TV, his mouth curving into a ghost of a smile.


Chapter One


Tess


CARRED


It hurts to breathe.

Pain lacerates my chest, has me doubling over. My breathing is sharp and jagged. I release a groan and a wave of nausea follows on its heels, my mind a black hole that threatens to swallow my sanity.

Head bent, I watch my tears hit the fake-marble floor. This is the second time my life has come to a shattering standstill. First it was my parents; this time it’s Tess.

“I should have been there for her. She shouldn’t have died alone.” Guilt burns like acid in my stomach.

“I’m so very sorry, Carred. I hope it will be of some comfort to know that Tess didn’t suffer. She wasn’t aware of what was happening.”

She continues to talk but her voice is muffled by the guilt that swaddles me. This is my fault. If I’d been there for her ... Christ, what did Tess ever do to deserve this?

It should have been me. I’m the fuck-up, the one who used to pop drugs like they were the only thing keeping me alive. I’m the one who got kicked out of school at sixteen. I was my parents’ disappointment. Tess ... Tess was perfect.

“The end was peaceful ...” she continues in hushed tones, intending her well chosen words to be soothing, but they’re wasted on me because I know I’m to blame. I should have been in the UK instead of in fucking New York.

“Is there anyone you’d like to be here with you? Someone you’d like to call?”

I shake my head. This is my own personal hell and I’m not about to inflict this on anyone else; at least not yet. I feel myself withdrawing, sheltering from the reality of Tess’s death and the black misery that lies in wait. I’ve been here before. I know what to expect.

The doctor pauses, crossing her plump legs before hesitantly explaining the procedure for registering a death. She speaks slowly, her smooth voice allowing my numb brain to absorb her words, and when she finishes we rise from our chairs. For a moment I think she’s going to shake my hand.

I give her a nod and I’m out of there, treading through the maze of corridors, slowly at first, gradually picking up speed until I’m full on running. When I hit the exit, the automatic doors roll back with a judder and I escape into the stale darkness, breathing heavily, the icy-cold air stinging my skin, making everything sharper, more real.

I make it to the edge of the car park before I vomit, heaving repeatedly as my legs shake, threatening to give out on me. I almost fall into the mess I’ve just spewed onto the tarmac.

I think about the hours that have lapsed since I heard about Tess, hours spent praying and hoping, focused solely on reaching her. Fucking wasted hours that mean nothing because Tess is gone.

Slumping behind the wheel of my car, I wait for the trembling to subside. It’s more than twenty-four hours since I’ve slept; I’m wired, mentally and physically exhausted, and I’m barely holding it together.

Jesus Christ, my sweet, beautiful sister is dead.

We were always polar opposites; Tess calm and stable as the sea at low tide, me wild and driven as a flood, always surging to reach the next goal. But we were close and I loved her―more than anything or anyone. She had more faith in me than I ever had in myself; it was Tess who urged me to keep going when our parents suggested I quit the band. She was my world―my haven from the madness of the music business.

My stomach roils with guilt and self-hatred. I can’t get my head round the fact that she’s gone. I smack the back of my head against the headrest and a new, sharper thought bursts forth. I miss her. I miss her so fucking much, I’m not sure I can bear it. A low, keening sound rises from my throat. It’s unrelenting, and when it finally passes, I’m empty.

I sit there for hours, until my hands are white, and my fingers are stiff and numb from the cold. A band of silver frost has splintered its way across the edges of the windscreen, creating an icy frame for the vast amber moon. Its colour stirs a memory of Tess’s house, of windows glowing tawny through thin curtains. It jolts me from my daze.

I need to feel a connection with Tess. I need to be amongst her things. I start the engine and drive into town, through streets that become increasingly narrow, stop signs never more than a few feet ahead. I find a space outside her small terraced house. There’s no flowered garden or white picket fence; only a strip of pavement divides her house from the street. The windows are black voids; no amber lights filter through the curtains, no sounds penetrate the timber-framed, sash-windows. Its soul has gone.

I fumble my key into the lock and step into the living room, reeling as the sweet, floral smell that was pure Tess hits me. Though it’s pitch black, I know exactly how the room looks, and when I flick the light switch I’m engulfed by girly chintz and chaotic colouring. An open book lies on the sofa, its spine bent back on itself. Nearby, discarded on the floor, her knitted boot-slippers lie bent out of shape, their pale soles worn and scuffed. On the oak mantelpiece, above the cast iron fireplace, there’s a photo of Tess, smiling at the camera, encircled by friends. I think of her zest for life, of the countless adventures she’ll never get to experience, and I lose it.

Forehead to the wall, I power my fist against the brick, pounding out the pain, landing punch after punch until my blood stains the yellow paint a sickly orange. I don’t stop, at least not until the physical pain outweighs the agony within. Lurching on numb legs, I pass her small oak table and its matching spindly chairs, moving into the long, narrow kitchen at the very back of the house. It’s pink, and there’s girly shit on shelves that were intended for something else, but I like it. I just never told Tess I liked it. I played the macho card and told her it was like being inside a candyfloss machine.

Searching the cupboards, I locate the bottle of Jack Daniels I left here at Christmas. Spinning the cap free, I curse a blue streak when pain slices through my hand. With the first swallow comes the welcome burn and I take several mouthfuls in quick succession, knowing it isn’t about getting pissed―I just need to feel numb.


Chapter Two


Two Souls


NORA


“Swear to god, I put my keys on the hall table.”

“Yeah, not heard that one before,” Ella shouts from the living room.

“Shit! Where are my bloody keys? Tess is gonna kick my arse if I’m late again!”

“Have you checked your bag?” Frankie asks, her tone condescending as hell.

“Do you think I’m stupid? Yeah, I’ve checked ...” My fingers curl around a metal ball of keys at the bottom of my bag. “Found them!”

A chorus of groans echoes down the hall. “Let me guess, they were in your bag,” Ella says.

“I swear I checked it. Damn bag must have a secret compartment!” I hurry through the front door, happy to shut out their derisive laughter.

“Must get organised” I chant, running down the street towards Tess’s house. It’s only five minutes from my house to hers, and from there another ten to the High Street. Today, for once, I have some spare cash and we’re going clothes shopping. I send her a text saying ‘almost there’ as I turn the corner of my street and five minutes later I’m knocking at her shiny red door. I wait. And wait some more.

Where is the girl?

I hammer once more, glancing at my phone and debating whether to call her. Before I can make that decision, the door swings open. “Hey, about time ...”

I trail off when my view is filled with a black t-shirt and its familiar whiskey-logo. Carred takes up the space in the doorway, his layered, dirty-blond hair tucked behind his ears, his blazing blue eyes red-rimmed and swollen. His appearance, coupled with the strong odour of whiskey, means that he’s been on the mother of all benders.

I wait for his face to twist into its usual, mocking expression – the one he reserves especially for me – but he simply stands there with one hand in his pocket, the other holding the door, looking half crazy with god-knows-what. This isn’t the Carred I know, the guy with the attitude who glories in getting a rise out of me, the guy whose direct, unflinching gaze always makes me feel like he knows exactly what I’m thinking.

At six feet three he towers over my five feet six inches, and physically at least, he’s as intimidating as ever. Muscled upper arms taper down to strong forearms and hands that are as tough and beautiful as the rest of him. The tips of the fingers on his right hand are shoved into the front pocket of his low-riding jeans, revealing knuckles that are bloodied and swollen. His arm is angled, giving me the perfect view of his dense tattoos. I can see soft swirls of grey intermingling with darker, solid black shapes, their lines curving along his skin, emphasizing the masculine shape of his arm.

Glancing up, I see that he looks wild and unapproachable. His brows have snapped together and the twin bar bells above his left eye glisten in the low winter sun. He lifts a hand to the back of his neck and backs up a step, opening the door a little wider.

“Nora.” His whiskey-roughened voice is infused with anguish and it takes me several long seconds to fully comprehend what I’m hearing. When he sways on his feet I hesitantly reach out, somehow finding the courage to curl my hand around his forearm.

“Are you okay?” Terrified, and not fully understanding why, I look beyond him for Tess, knowing he needs help and that she’ll know what to do.

He shakes his head, gazing at me beneath lowered brows; the pain that dulls his eyes is shocking.

“Carred? What’s going on? Where’s Tess?”

He withdraws further into the room, his movements awkward and uncoordinated, allowing me just enough space to enter and swing the door closed behind me. He draws in a sharp, pained breath that sounds like a muted sob, except guys like Carred don’t cry.

When it comes again I begin to freak out. “What’s wrong? What’s happened?”

His expression is one of desolation and despair and the air in my lungs freezes when his reddened eyes pool with shimmering water that slowly bleeds over and trails down his face.

That’s when I know. It’s the only thing that could make Carred lose it like this. I stare at him helplessly, dreading the moment he’ll confirm my worst fears.

“Tess died,” he says.

My heart rips apart and I can see that his is doing the exact same thing, most probably for the hundredth time. And as much as I believe him, as much as I know he is telling the absolute truth, I shake my head. “No. No, no, no!”

He watches me helplessly, caged by his own grief, unable to help me with mine. A fireball of pressure builds in my chest and a sob rises up my throat. “It’s not true … Please tell me it’s not true.” I shake my head. “Not Tess,” I say, my fingers clenching and unclenching at my sides. “Not Tess,” I plead, covering my mouth with the back of my hand, thinking of Tess, beautiful, vibrant Tess, always smiling, always with the big attitude. My mind flips to images of her lying cold and still, and my heart fractures into tiny little shards.

Submerged in my own despair, too distraught to consider that my pain might serve to magnify Carred’s, I spin round, blindly reaching for the handle. I want out of here, away from Carred, away from the reality of Tess’s death, but his strong arms wrap around my middle, pressing against my stomach, trapping my arms against my sides.

“Don’t.” His voice is heavy and slow, a plea that he follows up with the silent press of his damp, warm cheek against my temple.

He holds me tight, almost curling himself around me, the jarring of his chest and shoulders evidence of his silent sobs. I begin to shake; uncontrollable shudders that weaken my legs and have me falling. Carred follows me down and we hit the wooden floor. He twists so that his back hits the wall, and he pulls me into him until my head is resting against his chest and my legs are curled against his thighs. Cocooned in his embrace, I grip his t-shirt and sob.

My thoughts flash back to Tom, to his attack and his quiet, slow death. I recollect the hope that shrivelled and died long before Tom passed away, the months sat beside a hospital bed that was occupied by Tom ... and yet not.

I miss him.

Clawing myself back from the brink, I ride out the pain with Carred. Connected by our mutual grief, oblivious to the passage of time and the shifting of shadows, we sit in our clumsy huddle, two souls melded by the loss of another.

Long after our tears have dried to salty trails, I ask him the question that needs asking. “What happened?”

He doesn’t reply right away. I think I hear him swallow and when he eventually speaks, his voice is bleak. “Black ice. Her car left the road and smashed into a tree. She died in hospital, alone.”

My throat clogs with fresh tears. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. If I’d known ...” I pause and try again. “I would have been there with her. You know that, right?”

“I know,” he says.

“Do you know if she ... did she suffer?”

“No. She was unconscious.”

I squeeze my eyes closed and I can’t help but play out the collision, my eyes flickering open when the sound of a faint vibration intrudes on the silence. Carred reaches into his back pocket and retrieves his phone, balancing it awkwardly in his left hand, stroking his thumb across the screen until the buzzing stops.

I notice again the dark swelling and broken skin along the knuckles of his right hand and watch as he twists and turns it, as though he isn’t quite sure how he sustained the injury.

I can’t resist asking, “What happened to your hand?”

He meets my eyes. His are filled with surprise, almost as though he’d forgotten I was with him. “I punched a wall.”

I wince, knowing the pain must have been intolerable for him to have inflicted that kind of damage on himself.

“Listen, I need you to do me a favour,” he says, lifting us from the floor, leveraging his shoulders against the wall. “I need you to drive me to the hospital.”

My eyes drop to his hand. “Is it broken?”

He frowns in confusion. “What?” He catches on when he sees where my gaze is fixed. “Uh, no, it’s fine,” he says, as if his bloodied hand is irrelevant. “I have to pick up some documents and collect Tess’s things.” His ashen face signifies just how much of an ordeal this will be for him.

I wipe my damp face with the back of my sleeve, feeling useless, knowing there is nothing I can do or say to make this okay. “You want to leave now?” I ask.

He rubs the heels of his hands against his sore eyes. “Sure. Yeah. Just give me a minute.” I wait while he uses the bathroom and locates his keys, my mind and body becoming more sluggish and lethargic with each passing minute. Carred opens the front door for me and drops his keys into my hand as he leads the way to a black Range Rover parked out front. The air is biting cold and I notice the raised goose bumps along his forearms. Watching him struggle with the seatbelt, his damaged hand next to useless, I take the belt from his fingers and click it into place. He doesn’t thank me.

He sinks down low in his seat, his shoulder pressed against the glass, his face obscured by his hair.

I drive in silence, trying to adapt to the alien-feel of the car, when all my mind wants to do is drift off to thoughts of Tess and how much I miss her already. I think about Ella and Frankie at home, oblivious, and I wonder how I’m going to find the strength to tell them.

Carred doesn’t move or make a sound during the journey. His demeanour is a stark statement of loss and pain that sends my thoughts spinning once again to bleak memories of Tom. For a few seconds the pain hollows me out, leaves me bruised and aching until I smother it down, just like I always do.

I follow the signposts for the hospital, exiting a mini-roundabout and turning right into a car park. It’s rammed; seems like the whole town’s here. I complete a full circuit before finding a spot within sight of the entrance with just enough space for a Range Rover.

My gaze drops to where Carred’s knee is jumping up and down in small, jerky movements. “Do you want me to come in with you?”

“No. I’m good” he says, sounding anything but. He opens the door with his left hand, swings it shut behind him, and I watch as he walks away. His shoulders are rigid and his head hangs low. His long legs carry him into the enormous white building and I wonder how he has the strength to go in there alone.

An hour passes; enough time for my melancholy to sink deep and for me to begin accepting the new reality of life without Tess. I’m leaning back against the seat, my eyes closed, when the sound of the door opening rouses me from my thoughts. Dusk has been and gone and in its place is a dense darkness, the kind that only winter can bring.

A soft glow emanates from the light above the rear view mirror, illuminating the leather interior. Carred holds a manila envelope and a cheap, thin plastic-bag―Tess’s belongings. As he climbs into the car and shuts the door, I search his profile. His skin is a sickly shade of pale and he’s staring straight ahead. His jaw is clenched and his skin is beaded with droplets of sweat.

“Drive somewhere—anywhere,” he says, closing his eyes as his head hits the headrest.

I drive back through town and out the other side, heading nowhere in particular, simply killing time. I stop for petrol when it gets low and Carred hands me his credit card. I buy us two large coffees and a couple of miles down the road I pull into a supermarket car park, finding a space in the darkest corner.

I can’t take the silence anymore and ask the question that’s been on my mind me for the last five miles. “Do you have anyone you could stay with? If you don’t want to go back to Tess’s, I mean.”

“I don’t want to be with anyone right now.”

I guess that means I’m a ‘no-one’; that our brief encounters and hot kisses don’t mean a thing, but then why would they to someone like Carred McGuire?

“Do you have any other family?” I ask, hoping he’ll say yes, because it’s horrific that one of the most famous guys on the planet, a guy with millions of fans worldwide, should be so alone.

“None.”

I frown, absorbing the wealth of meaning in that single word, while he gazes sightlessly through the windscreen, taking occasional sips from his coffee.

“I’m sorry, Carred.”

“Don’t!” he says. “Fucking don’t!” His teeth clench and he breathes deeply through his nostrils, fighting to regain his composure.

“I’m sorry. Shit, not sorry.” The words freefall from my mouth. “I get that you don’t want the whole sympathy thing—at least not now, not from me.”

His lips curl into a smirk and for a second it reminds me of the first time we met, when he gave me the exact same smile. He pushes his hair back from his face and looks around, only just registering where we are.

“Why are we in a fucking supermarket car park, Appleby? You could have parked anywhere and you chose a fucking supermarket? What the hell?”

“It’s dark, and convenient, McGuire. Plus no-one can see us and I like to people-watch. That a good enough reason for you?”

“You know you’re fucking weird, right?”

“Maybe,” I say, shrugging. “You know you’re a jerk, right?”

He smiles; a fleeting, sexy, heart-stopping smile, and even though it’s beautiful – the best thing I’ve ever seen – I wish I hadn’t been a witness to it, because I won’t ever forget that smile, tinged as it was with the weight of his grief.

A lanky guy comes into view and I gesture to where he’s struggling to control his half-empty trolley. “See that guy there? He’s just moved out of his parents’ place and this is his first time grocery shopping.”

Lanky guy stops at the car in front of us and begins emptying his trolley, item by item. I turn on the headlights, startling him for a second before he reverts to loading his goodies. “See all those meals for one—a dead giveaway.”

“That what you did with me?” Carred’s voice sounds harsh and remote in the darkness. “Took one look, sized me up, and made your decision before you even got to know me?”

“No! I never ...” I freeze as the icy ball in my stomach grows, spreading its chill through my veins.

“Yeah, I think you did. I remember your eyes the first time we met—they were cold as fuck.”

“You’re wrong―”

“No. You think I’d forget that? You chose to hate me without knowing me. Why’d you do that, Nora?”

“I didn’t. Jeez, Carred, I don’t want to be having this conversation; not now, not today.”

He sighs and the sound is bone-weary and empty. I don’t linger on how much this bothers me.

“This was a shit idea,” he says. “We should go back.”

I shake my head, reaching out to touch his forearm. Our eyes meet and I try not to flinch when I see his are nothing but dark pools of pain.

“Not yet,” I plead. “I’m going to get some things and I’ll be right back, okay?”

I wait to catch his nod before jumping from the car. Racing to the store, I run up and down the generic aisles, piling items as I go. I hit the cash register in a whirl, scanning the items at the self-service checkout like a seasoned pro. When I return to the Range Rover I’m breathing hard. I close the door, drop the shopping bag into the well between the back and front seats and start the engine, all without a hint of reaction from Carred.

Fifteen minutes later I pull into a small, sparsely lit car park. Retrieving the bag, I turn to Carred, my hand already on the handle. “Coming?” I ask.

“Where are we?”

“Bloxden Park. It’s a student hang-out in the summer.”

“Nora, I don’t –”

“Trust me. Please?”

Maybe he recognises the plea in my voice because he sighs, sets his coffee cup in the holder and releases his seatbelt with his good hand. He walks beside me as I lead the way along a tarmac path where patches of darkness fall between lamplights. Ignoring the ‘don’t step on the grass’ signs I steer him across the cold, crunchy blades and through a wide gap between curved, evergreen hedges. Inside there’s a grassy circle with a small, ornamental pond at its centre. In daylight the pond shines with copper pennies, but right now it’s so dark it could be a black pool of tar.

I kneel down, carefully emptying the contents of the plastic bag onto the stiff grass, while Carred stands beside me, motionless. Tearing open the first package, small tea lights tumble to the ground and I begin lighting one after another, hissing when the flame flickers and burns my thumb. Gently easing the candles onto the water, I give each one a small nudge, until they’re scattered along the edge; tiny, shining beacons drifting on black water.

I take in the scene before me, and maybe it’s losing Tess that makes it look so pure and magical, but I swear I’ve never seen anything so artlessly beautiful.

Lowering myself to the near-frozen ground, I cross my legs and gesture for Carred to join me. He hesitates before he hunkers down in front of me, his expression tortured.

“What are you doing, Nora?” he asks, and I wonder if this is a colossal mistake, if I’m only adding to his pain.

“This is for Tess,” I say, hoping he gets it―that he understands. “She loved it here. I thought it might be a good place for us to remember her and to say goodbye.”

I guess maybe he does understand, because he lowers himself to the ground, and rests his forearms against his bent legs. I open the cans of pop – Tess’s favourite – and pass one to Carred. “To Tess,” I say, in a voice that’s high and tight with emotion.

Carred taps his can against mine. “Tess,” he says, and her name sounds like a soft, sibilant emission of pain.

We sip in silence for a while, the silver flames of the candles holding our attention as we struggle to make sense of a world tipped into darkness. Tilting my head to the sky, I take in the faint spark of stars visible between the expanses of black. Carred does the same and when he speaks his voice is thick. “You believe there’s something out there? After death, I mean.”

I shake my head. “No, I think that when we die, that’s it, game over. What about you?”

“The same,” he says. He takes another sip from his can and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “Part of me wants to believe Tess is reunited with my parents, but I can’t become a believer just because she’s gone.”

“We were going shopping today. If I knew ...” I halt, knowing it sounds self-centred and trivial. Tess is gone—the end.

“If you knew?” Carred prompts. “What would you have done?”

“I would have said goodbye. I would have clung onto her until the very last minute. I wouldn’t have let her drive in the shitty, icy weather... I would have done something―anything.”

“I would never have let her go,” Carred says, his voice barely audible. “And she would have hated me for it. She said I was too controlling, that I worried too much because of what happened to our parents. All that fucking worrying and what did it achieve? Fuck-all, that’s what.”

“She loved you, I know that much. She gave me hell for not hooking up with you.”

The corner of Carred’s mouth tips up. “She fought my corner, huh?”

“You better believe it. She was like a Rottweiler defending its owner.”

“Don’t have any sympathy for you on that one,” he says. “Should’ve taken Tess’s advice.”

“How about we agree to disagree?”

He gives a shrug that deviates into a shiver and I notice the hairs on his forearms are standing to attention. The temperature isn’t far off freezing and though he’s holding himself rigid, trying not to shake from the cold, his body has other ideas.

“We should go. It’s cold.”

“In a minute,” he says, his gaze returning to the candles.


*****


Parking close to Tess’s house, I step down onto the pavement and wrap my arms around my middle. Carred is already waiting by the door, his breath visible as pale, smoky eruptions. I unlock the door and wait while he flicks on the lights and drops the plastic bag and envelope onto the coffee table. When he turns, I give him back his keys. “Can I give you my number?” I ask.

He blinks and I know he’s misunderstood.

“So you can let me know about Tess’s funeral arrangements,” I explain.

He pales at my words. “Shit, yeah. Here,” he says, pulling his phone from his pocket. He taps in the code and holds it out for me. I enter my number, press ‘save’ and hand it back. “Will you be okay?” I ask. “On your own, I mean.”

He lifts his head and there it is; the mocking, insolent smile I instantly recognise.

“You offering to spend the night, Appleby?”


Chapter Three


Colour


NORA


Frankie shuffles into the living room, her shoulders wrapped in a pink, silky-soft blanket. It clashes with her red tartan pyjamas, though somehow she still manages to look cute. With her fluffy blonde curls piled on top of her head, and her grey eyes cloudy from sleep, she looks vulnerable and child-like.

Since Tess’s death, Frankie and I have remained at home, succumbing to a lethargy that refuses to shift. Ella, on the other hand, has dealt with things in her own way, filling every spare moment with classes, athletics training, and cleaning. And Ella doesn’t do cleaning—ever.

“Hey, Nor, you don’t mind sharing do you? I need to get out of my room for a while. I’m beginning to feel like a fricking hermit.”

I scoot towards the back of the sofa, giving her space to lie down beside me. Her feet land near my shoulders as we top and tail.

“I think my imprint has sunk into the cushions, I’ve been lying here so long.”

She smiles, wriggling until she’s comfortable.

“I’ve been thinking about Tess’s funeral,” I say, picking at the fuzz balls on her woolly socks. “I think we should wear bright colours―for Tess. What do you think?”

Frankie’s eyes warm. “I think that’s a great idea. Maybe we could let everyone at uni know: we could organise a sea of colour for Tess.”

“I’ll check with Carred first, if that’s ok?” He called earlier to tell me Tess’s funeral is on Monday. The conversation was brief and he sounded tired and low.

“Of course. No problem.”

We lay in silence for a beat.

“Nora?”

“Hmmm?”

“You know he has a thing for you, don’t you? I mean, I know I only met him that one time, but it was pretty obvious.”

“He has kind of mentioned it, yeah.”

Frankie pushes up on her elbows, her face etched with shock. “He has?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“What did he say, exactly?”

“Err, let’s see. The first time he offered me a one night stand. I told him he could stick his offer where the sun doesn’t shine. The, uh, second time he upped his offer to a weekend. Again, I told him I wasn’t interested. Since then, it’s been a kind of game with him. He switches between coming on to me and insulting or ignoring me.”

“Oh my god! Seriously? Are you crazy?! This is Carred McGuire we’re talking about. There are thousands of girls out there who’d sell their mother just to get a shot with him. Shit, I can’t believe you did that. You did look at him, right? Coz I’m telling you now, they don’t make them better looking than Carred, even with his piercings and tattoos.”

I shrug. “I don’t have a problem with his tattoos and piercings. I just have a problem with him,” I tell her. “And, Frankie, this is between you and me, okay? It’s not that I don’t want Ella or anyone finding out, it’s just that I don’t want it made into something it isn’t. Does that make sense?”

“Not exactly, but I won’t say a word if that’s what you want.”

“Cheers, Frankie.”

We squander the afternoon watching movies and when darkness falls I head into the kitchen to prep dinner. Tonight’s speciality is chilli, my absolute favourite. I hook-up my phone to the mini-amp and listen to rock music while I slice and dice. About to dish up, I hear the slam of the front door followed by the tap of Ella’s boots against the hall tiles. She comes to a stop in the doorway, looking stunning as always, her short, platinum-blonde hair a perfect contrast to her flawless cocoa complexion.

“Something smells good,” she says. Her voice is rich and smooth. It’s the kind of voice that grabs your attention and holds it, which is a good thing because whatever Ella says, you better listen. She’s strong and opinionated, and most of the time she’s right. Or at least she thinks she is. This might have been a problem – some might say I’m not the most easy-going person – but beneath Ella’s tell-it-like-it-is exterior there’s a kind soul.

“How’d it go?” I ask.

She shrugs, the movement causing her thin cream jumper to slip off one shoulder. “It was okay. Josephine wouldn’t quit talking about Tess, as if they‘d been best friends. I had to tell it like it was to get her to shut up. Apart from that, it was good. Beeney gave me your assignments, by the way. I left them on the hall table.”

“He did? Wow that was thoughtful of him.”

“Ha! The only thing Beeney’s thinking of is himself. He wants a piece of Nora and he’s willing to do whatever it takes.”

“Not interested,” I say, scooping chilli into three lime-green terracotta bowls.

“Half the girls at uni are after him ...”

“Yeah, but he’s not my type and he wears way too much aftershave.”

“He does not! Anyone ever tell you you’re too fussy?”

“Yeah you.” I grin at her expression of mock surprise and hand her a bowl.

We join Frankie in the living room and sit cross-legged on the sofas, our bowls balanced in our laps as we catch up on gossip and soaps.


*****


Sometime after eight-thirty I head out to see Carred. I realise I’m taking it for granted that he’ll still be at Tess’s, but somehow I know he’s there.

I need to know he’s okay. I guess I feel I owe it to Tess. Yeah, that’s it. I’m doing this for Tess! I stumble on a paving slab when I imagine her replying ‘yeah, right’ in a voice that’s rich with sarcasm.

Carred McGuire is a tough guy. It’s not only the girls who idolise him, but guys too, and not as a gay icon. Guys want to be him, to emulate his hard-guy persona. Christ, the guy is a rock god, a hero to millions. But I know sometimes it’s the tough ones who fall hardest.

Tess’s door opens within seconds of my knock. Carred’s on the phone and his eyes flare with surprise before he opens the door wider and gestures for me to come in. His hair is tucked behind his ears again, and the stubble along his jaw line is darker, making him appear dangerous—more so than normal. He’s half-concentrating on the phone call and half-focused on me and I feel awkward, not sure whether to stand or take a seat. The call takes a while and my unease creeps up a notch with each passing minute. When he finally finishes, he places the phone in his back pocket and crosses his arms, his height and stance intimidating―maybe deliberately so.

“What do you want, Nora?”

Okay, obviously not happy to see me.

“I was wondering how you’d feel about us not wearing black to Tess’s funeral? I thought I should check with you ...” He remains silent and my palms grow damp as I suffer his piercing, direct gaze. “In case it’s not what you want,” I finish lamely. God, why do I let this guy get to me?

He shrugs, “Sure, why not?” He sounds bored and impatient, like he has more important things on his mind.

“That’s all I needed to know,” I say, rushing my words and moving towards the door, thinking it was a stupid idea to come here and why the hell was I worrying about Carred? Idiot!

My nose is in the air when my foot hits something solid. I trip and Carred steps into my space. He tries to steady me, but momentum dictates that I’m still going to hit the floor. I land hard and the wind puffs out of my lungs as I lie face down in shock.

“Shit, Nora. You okay?” He squats down beside me, close to where my cheek is mashed against the floorboard. My palms and knees sting, but I think I’m okay.


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