Copyright © Elle Charles 2014
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner or publisher, except in the case of quotations embodied and used in critical reviews and other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission, please contact the publisher at the email address below.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is purely coincidental.
Cover design by Rachelle Gould-Harris of Designs by Rachelle https://www.designsbyrachelle.com
For all enquiries, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sign up to the mailing list to stay up to date on future releases and more:
First publication: 7 May 2014
Today is the second most anticipated day I have been counting down to for as long as I can remember. It’s a day that should bring me great happiness. A day I should be rejoicing in. The start of a new year to define me, another year to bring me that little bit closer to becoming an adult.
The passing of today means I’m only another three hundred and sixty-five days away from my goal.
The ultimate prize.
I should be elated that the foreseeable end is finally within reach. But I’m not. And unknown to me, in my young naivety, this is the day that my real nightmare will begin, with no foreseeable end in sight.
Today should have been the penultimate birthday of my being able to escape.
Today, I should have been out celebrating with friends I don’t actually have.
Instead, I am in my room, curled up in a ball, trying hard not to make a sound as the music flows through the house from downstairs, leaking out loud, and bleeding into my tender eardrums.
This is a party, but it’s not for me.
Clutching my chest, I rush to the door and prop my chair underneath the handle. I bite my lip and stare, wondering if it will be enough this time. Past experience mocks me because it’s another useless act, but I conciliate myself, believing it will save me. Truthfully, I know the only thing that will be my saving grace is death. I embraced that fact a long time ago. One day the Reaper will come calling, and when he does, I will hold my arms out to him, because in death, I will finally find the peace I long for in life. Turning around, I curl back up on my bed and continue to stare straight ahead.
As I tap my foot nervously to the beat, my heart hammers out of control, and my lungs work hard to catch up. My hands bunch tight into the duvet as I continue to stare blankly at my bedroom door. Watching. Waiting. I know that by the end of tonight, someone will open it, and when that moment transpires, a small part of my soul will be destroyed. Come morning; I will have lost yet another part of myself that makes me whole. A part of myself that was once clean.
Tears leak from my eyes as I think back to the last party they held.
Two nights ago, I was left devoid of all emotion in the harsh light of day. My mind is strangely blank, but I understand the level of unknown depravity because my body is still sore, and in the long, painful process of recovery. Not that my broken, malnourished, skinny self was ever whole or unblemished to begin with.
The smell of stale tobacco and alcohol permeates through the air, and I retch, consuming the foul stench hitting the back of my throat. The sound of heavy footsteps plays on the stairs repeatedly, as my parents’ friends come up and down from using the rooms beside mine. I shiver in fear, as the various noises sound out loud and unashamed. Random moans, screams of more, verbal vulgarity, water flushing and running taps in the bathroom. The noises are as often as the pounding on the stairs is.
Picking myself up, I shuffle uncomfortably into my tiny cubbyhole. Curling myself into a ball, I pull my knees tight into my chest in a bid to protect myself.
Except, I know it’s no use. It doesn’t matter where I hide because he finds me.
He always finds me.
Sitting in my usual spot, I throw down my old cushion to provide some extra comfort to my lower body, which still feels fragile from whatever abuse I don’t have a recollection of, even though it was only two days ago. I am still undecided as to whether or not that’s a good thing. The intermittent, subdued pain is yet another stark reminder of the latest incident in a long line of failures at the hands of my parents.
Feeling around the immediate space, the book I was reading the last time I was reduced to hiding in here is thrown haphazardly to the other side of the tiny box. Two nights ago, I had long since abandoned it and the torch I was using to illuminate the darkness surrounding me. It was just another indicator of where I was hiding.
But it didn’t matter, because he found me, the same way he always does. The nameless, faceless man of my nightmares. The silhouette of doom, the harbinger of death. The man who haunts my dreams and pulls me into a bottomless pit of despair.
He found me.
Loud, heavy footsteps stop abruptly outside my bedroom door. The voices are hushed, and I hear the tell-tale squeak of the knob turning slowly. The sound of the lock twisting is my impending doom. It is the noise that keeps me awake at night, and the noise I fear more than anything else in the world.
“She’s locked the fucking door! Get it open!” The sound of brute force being levied on my door from the outside is deafening. My hands clench tight over my ears as each body blow hits it. Eventually – predictably – the structure weakens, and the sound of splintering wood and twisting metal resounds loudly, echoing my fate.
My breath quickens as the sound of feet enter the room, drowning out everything else happening around me. I tense up and force myself to remain quiet, as the door creaks open and the owner of the voice, one that should be protecting me, calls me out with fake compassion.
I don’t answer, and I don’t dare move. This has been my life for years, and I am counting down the remaining days until I can either finally run free or rest easy for eternity. Until I can sleep at night and not dream of nightmares that psychologically slay me each time I close my eyes.
“She’s not fucking here! You promised me, and you know I always collect. You find her or suffer the fucking consequences!”
The door slams shut, and I let out the breath that I’m holding so ardently, so fearfully. My lungs constrict and release. Reaching my hand out to the cubbyhole door, I rattle the handle. Thank God I remembered to lock it this time.
The footsteps retreat from outside my bedroom, and are drowned out effortlessly by the volume of the music drifting up from downstairs, and a couple moaning relentlessly in the room next door.
I slap my hand on the floor, feeling for the torch and switch it on to see what time it is. Brilliant, I sigh at my watch. I have been hiding up here for hours. I flick the switch off again and rest my head back, counting the invisible sheep under a shroud of darkness in the tiny space.
My eyes feel heavy, and I make myself as comfortable as possible for the long night ahead. The party doesn’t sound like it is dying down anytime soon, as a matter of fact, it sounds like it’s getting louder. Surely it can’t be going on for much longer? My only consolation is that my father will most likely be stinking drunk, or high, or both, by the time he is ordered to find me again.
I can only hope.
Holding myself tight in the darkness, my mind wanders through all the things I should be doing right now. How I wish I’d had a normal life and not the one given to me. How I wish I had parents who actually cared.
Regardless of what occurs inside this house of horrors, my main priority is school and homework – which I stupidly left downstairs. If I’d have known I was going to be in this godforsaken room for hours, I would have brought it up with me, rather than wasting precious time. The only way I am escaping this shithole of an existence is with good marks. My life might not be my own inside these four walls, but I don’t let what happens in this house dictate how well I perform in school. Naturally, it dictates my ability to make friends and to interact. I have been hauled into the head teacher’s office on more than one occasion for fighting and back chatting, but attitude is the only way I can protect myself. I know the other girls at school look at me like I’m shit they walked in, while the boys speak loud and clear that they think I’m some cheap slut. Judging by the way my body survives broken and bruised on a daily basis, they are probably right. I am a self-inflicted loner with only one friend to my name, but that’s how I prefer it. The less anyone knows about me, the safer I am.
A tired sigh escapes my throat, and my eyes are unquestionably heavy. Groaning, I realise that if I make it through tonight – undiscovered and unscathed – I am going to look exhausted tomorrow. Some of my teachers have already started to ask questions, tentatively testing the proverbial waters as such. It would just be the icing on the cake for them if I arrived tomorrow looking half-dead. It would prove their suspicions are not just unfounded fantasies.
My eyelids begin to droop as sleep beckons me, but I can’t let it tempt me. I have to stay awake. I have to fight. And I do. I fight so hard not to let it take me away with it, but I lose the battle when an almighty yawn ripples from deep inside, and stupidly, I allow it to.
The cubbyhole door flies open at speed. The sound of wood and metal cracking snap me out of subconsciousness. Rubbing my eyes as I come to, the frame of a large man fills the doorway. The light of the room floods in behind him. Ironically, I might have mistaken him for an angel, if I couldn’t already see he has the face of the devil. His mouth contorts into a wry grin, and his arm reaches inside towards me. I push myself back against the wall, but there is nowhere left to hide in this six by three space. His hand grabs me, and I fight with all I’ve got for him not to touch me. Unforgiving fingers tighten around my wrists, and with one swift pull, I’m up on my feet, and he drags me to him. I tilt my head to the side, as far back as I can manage, while he sneers at me and licks his lips.
“We’re gonna have some fun, sweets!” He hauls me out of the cubbyhole and throws me on the bed. I turn just in time to see a familiar figure closing the door behind him, leaving me to my fate. I scream at the top of my lungs, praying he will come back.
But he won’t.
He never does.
Tears form in my eyes, realising my safe haven is no longer safe, and I have just been sold to repay his debt.
I crawl back into the bed until my spine hits the wall, and the pain reverberates up and down each vertebrate.
There is nowhere for me to run.
The man standing in front of me, still with a grin on his face, shrugs off his jacket and begins unfastening his belt. A strange sense of déjà-vu overcomes me, and I know, somewhere deep inside, this is not the first time I have met him.
“Please, don’t!” I cry at him. “Please, I’m begging you!” I scream out as my tears fall like a river, burning everything in their path. I reach my hands up to try and push him away, but it’s pointless. I already know what the outcome will be tonight.
I silently pray not to see daybreak.
The man reaches over and yanks the back of my neck, and my body turns limp. He’s holding me prone by my ponytail, as he looks me up and down. The burn developing at the back of my head, from my hair stretching at their follicles, is agonising.
“Don’t struggle you little bitch; you’ll only make it worse. Or maybe you fucking like it rough?” he says, a little too satisfied.
An eternity seems to pass by, but finally, my instincts kick in like a wrecking ball, and I slap him hard across the face. My hand burns in the aftershock of the action. My arms flail out, and I scratch him repeatedly, clawing like a dog, trying to escape him. Beyond angry, he tosses me back down like a rag doll. Bringing his hand to his mouth to inspect the damage, he spits the watery blood onto the carpet and turns back to me enraged.
“You little fucking bitch! What did I tell you?” he screams at me.
I scramble off the bed, not knowing where to turn. I spy the open window, knowing it’s my only escape. But before I can put my plan into action, a large, unforgiving hand restrains my ankle and jerks me back. Flipping me over, I am now underneath him. Trapped.
He smashes his fist over my face, and I feel my jaw dislodge. Screaming out in agony, he leans over and drags my arms over my head, securing them in one hand. I kick my legs out, and he shakes his head as a sudden, white-hot searing pain engulfs the top of my thigh. Looking down the length of my body, my eyes widen when I see the knife, its tip coated with my blood. He brings it up to my face and then presses it into my neck until I can feel the sharp edge begging to penetrate the surface of my skin. I quiet down instantly, sobbing at the inevitable that will come to pass before tonight is through.
Defeated, I close my eyes, struggling in vain to try and shut him out. His hands rub over my middle and bile seeps into my throat. The acid burns and vomit enters my mouth. I swallow it back down, blocking out the putrid taste of my own stomach. If only I could block out the feeling of him touching me, violating me.
I whimper, as he starts to drag my jeans down my legs and rips the t-shirt from my torso. The ringing in my ears is loud, but all I can hear is the flimsy, cheap fabric being shredded under his hands. They then roam over my body again. I feel sick – not that it went away in the first place – and I dry heave, as his hands touch me in places they shouldn’t. I want nothing more than to die this instant.
My breaths come out in long, fear-infused pants, while my heart beats out of control, thundering hard and painful against my chest. I fear I’m going to have a heart attack, and I pray that if I do, it takes me quickly.
My eyes are still closed in the final minutes before the last remaining items of my clothes are forcibly removed, and another set of footsteps enter the room. And somewhere between the second heavy punch to my face – which annihilates my sight completely – and his hand getting higher and higher on my thigh, my ankles and wrists are being restrained by another set of hands that I cannot see.
Something then pricks sharply at my neck, and I pass out.
“You son of a bitch!”
“Say what you want, pussy! I’m fucking done here!”
My body feels broken and ravaged. This pain is far worse than anything else I have ever felt before. It seeps through my limbs at an excruciating rate, and I scream out in agony, trying in vain to position my arm underneath myself to lift up. The weight is too much to bear, and I drop back down with a soft thud. My body feels incapacitated and unresponsive.
Two nights ago was tame in comparison to this.
This feels like torture.
The sound of sobbing and whimpering in the room sobers me instantly. It’s too easy to identify the pitiful, mournful sounds of my own broken voice, laced with the tears of a freshly fractured and abused girl. I want to speak and beg him not to hurt me again, but I’m unable to make a sound. My mouth refuses to open; my jaw is heavy and sore.
I wince under the soft, caring touch of a stranger I can barely see. My eyes are partially closed – and it’s not because I am squeezing them shut. The pain coming from every nerve ending and muscle tells me I have not only been raped, but beaten beyond comprehension.
“Easy, don’t move. I’ve got you. I’ve got you.” The stranger’s arms hold me gently, but firmly, as he lifts me up. My body stings with every step he takes. Even the smallest jolt is a complete shock to my system. I’m trapped in a dark place of never-ending pain.
The cold air of early spring whips around my body, chilling me to the bone. The indicative signs of my skin breaking out in goosebumps implies that I am completely naked now. The scattered memories of what the man did start to break out clearly inside my head. I replay them over and over in order to block them aside. It’s the first step in my mission not to remember.
“Hey, man, get the door! Get those blankets and layer them over the back.” I cry harder at his words and turn my head slowly towards the sound of his voice. His familiar dark hair causes me to panic. I know it isn’t over; he is giving me a cruel reprieve before he starts all over again.
Please, God, no, not again. Not again.
“No, baby, we’re not going to hurt you,” he speaks again, as I feel something being wrapped around my abused body. “We’re going to get you to a doctor. Just sleep, okay?” He places me down, and the hard surface beneath my back is too painful. I feel a big hand stroke over my cheek, and it is the most tender anyone has ever been with me, from what I can remember of the montage of childhood memories currently flooding my brain.
The car roars to life and moves off. Each jolt or brake feels like I am going to shatter, and the blankets do little to protect my broken body. It is too reminiscent of being punched and repeatedly kicked, as the vehicle lurches forward, faster and faster. I have no idea what time it is, nor where I am. I hear nothing except the sound of an engine rumbling, hushed voices of various different men, and the tears of my own heartbreak.
As someone begins to touch my limbs, my eyes close under the swelling. I grow numb and block out the way he touches me. I can’t fight him off a second time; I couldn’t even do it the first. Only this time I pray that I will never have to wake again.
Shifting under the hands of an unknown man, I finally concede that I can never trust anyone from this day forward. Making a promise to myself, I vow to never weaken my resolve again, or to rely on anyone to get me through life. Provided I survive this torture, I know I can never learn to love again because my heart is now dead. It died the moment my father closed the door and left me with a monster.
A truth I have known for so long, but never dared to fully acknowledge, seeps to the surface of my damaged and permanently scarred soul – my own parents have failed me. They have failed to keep me safe in every way a parent should. They have failed more times than I can even begin to count. It is their mistakes that have led me to this place of unimaginable pain and suffering.
With a slow, heavy beating heart, the first brick of an invisible wall drops into place. Each one thereafter falls in line, forming an impenetrable structure around me. Standing on the edge of no return, the darkness in my mind is heavenly. With open arms, I finally give myself over to it, and it takes me under.
Happy fifteenth birthday.
“YOU’VE GOT A foul fucking mouth, Petersen!”
“Screw you, arsehole!”
“You better have it by the end of the week, or I’ll get it my own way!” Danny says suggestively, leaning his full weight on either side of the architrave.
“Fuck you!” I throw back, watching him finally retreat from my front door. I have listened to him bitch about late rent payments all week, and I’ve had enough. Slamming the door shut behind my irate landlord, the wood creaks ominously under the unnecessary force imposed upon it.
Marching down the small hallway with determination, I stand in the doorway of the living room with my hands on my hips. My foot taps wildly, vexed and out of control. Sam moves slowly, bringing her forearm over her face and rubbing the sleep from her eyes. Picking up the cushion from the chair beside me, I throw it at her with as much force as I can muster. She shoots up the instant it bounces off her stomach and gives me a look of pure annoyance. My hands ball into tight fists. She’s so goddamn lucky it isn’t something harder!
“What?” she asks, bleary-eyed, and as innocently as she can in her current condition. She’s pushing her luck. And, by acting like she doesn’t know what I am so angry about, she’s insulting my intelligence as well as her own.
“Where the fuck is the rent money, Samantha!?” I glower at my roommate. She lifts up and stares at me, glassy-eyed and vacant. She has undoubtedly been high all night – on our rent money.
“For God sake, Kara, I will get the fucking money. Stop complaining,” she grumbles into the pillow, repositioning herself for the impending sleep that her body is most likely screaming for.
I have lived with Samantha Jones for over three years. We first met in nursery nearly twenty years ago. She was the little girl who lit up the room, all long blonde hair, and sparkling, blue eyes. But all that changed as we grew. Over the last few years, I have witnessed her slow decline into oblivion. I’ve known for a while that she has been using more regularly, but I choose to turn a blind eye for far too long.
Now, it was paying me back tenfold.
After not seeing her for days on end, she finally resurfaced and came home around three this morning. I didn’t need to see her to know she was coming down from being high all weekend. I heard it loud and clear when she fell into every piece of second-hand furniture we owned, before finally passing out on the sofa.
“You said that five days ago! You know, this may come as a surprise to you, but if we don’t pay the rent, we get evicted! Remember it was your idea to move into this privately let shithole together, so I suggest you get whatever is going on sorted because I’m tired of financially bailing you out, Sam. It’s not fair!”
“So, what the hell are you going to do? Walk out and not come back? It may come as a surprise to you that we are jointly and severally liable!” she spouts out the tenancy wording sarcastically, raising her head up to look me in the eye.
“Well, we are going to have some serious issues, if you don’t get off your arse and sort out the shit you have put us smack bang in the middle of!”
Unable to control my frustration any longer, I throw my hands in the air. I am thoroughly pissed off, not just with the money situation – which seems to be escalating deeper with each passing month – but the fact that she has a reckless, devil-may-care attitude regarding it.
Leaving her where she lies, I stride into my bedroom, drag my coat and bag off the bed and storm back into the living room. Passing her by, I grip the handles of my bag tightly, because the urge to wrap them around her throat is too strong to ignore.
“I’m going to work. I suggest you use the time to figure out how to pay our rent arrears. And you better be sober by the time I come home, or I swear I will do fucking time for you, Samantha Jones!” I scream back at her while stomping down the hallway and out of the flat.
Taking the stairs two at a time, my blood is hovering at boiling point. I’m so fucking fed up of her lies. Two weeks. Two weeks of listening to her lie about the whereabouts of our missing rent money. Except, we both know it isn’t missing – it has long been snorted up her nose.
Her penchant for the old blow was more than a weekend jolly folly these days. She was dependent. When faced with the truth that I choose to ignore, it is crystal clear she has been addicted for far longer than even she realises. It is also an addiction that I’m not sure I can live through with her. Drugs had inadvertently destroyed me, and it’s a path I fear to tread again. Yet I have no one to blame for this but myself. I had trusted her to hand over the payments on time, even when I knew she was a certified addict. I knew the signs; I had seen them growing up.
And I had paid for them growing up, too.
The morning chill of the mid-March air feels good against my overheated skin as I try to calm down. I lean against the outside door and let out a resigned huff. Unlocking my piece of shit car, I plop myself into the driver’s seat and smash my hand against the steering wheel in frustration. I press my back into the seat and look up, needing to find a way out of this mess with her.
All our money was currently being spent on keeping her lows high, and now I’m running out of options. I earn a decent living for myself, and have worked hard to get where I am. If it wasn’t for my wayward friend and the constant need to bail her out financially, I would have more saved. But sadly, I didn’t, and what little I did have was diminishing alarmingly.
Turning the ignition, the car refuses to start. “Oh, come on! Don’t fucking do this, you bitch!” I curse at her. After threatening her with the scrap yard, she finally garners some life after three attempts. I pull out of the car park and join the rush hour traffic.
The drive into the city is a nightmare, not that it’s different from any other day, but Monday’s always seem to be the worst. Why there is consistently more traffic on the roads on one particular day of the week and not on the others, is anyone’s guess. I watch the scenery change from the partially rundown area of East London that Sam and I live in, to the built-up, sophisticated, metropolitan towers of the city.
It takes me ten, profanity-laced minutes to find a free space – one which I’ve had to pay for – since someone has so kindly parked in my reserved bay. Thank you very much.
Flashing my security card at the automatic door lock, I make my way up the stairs. Unlocking the door that is home to Dawson’s Catering, I hang my coat on the rack and make my way into the tiny box kitchen. Filling the kettle to boil, I walk back out, switch on the two computers and wait for them to boot up. I fish out my mobile to let Marie know that I’m in and to call me back.
Marie Dawson is the owner, my boss, and my aunt, for all intent and purposes. She was the first person who had taken a chance on me eight years ago when I had turned my back on my old life at the tender age of fifteen.
Waiting for the computers to load up, my mind drifts back to those dark, lonely days.
I had been offered a ride from Manchester to London. I arrived with nothing, except the clothes on my back, and what I had managed to salvage in those last desperate minutes, after running away from the hospital, the Social Services, and the Manchester Metropolitan Police. I had no idea what I was going to do. My first plan of action was to find a women’s shelter and take it from there. I knew they would call the authorities once they discovered I was underage, but at least I would have a warm, safe, bed for the night.
Needless to say, that didn’t quite work out as well as I had originally planned.
After roaming around the city for long, lonely hours, I had run into some other teenagers who were squatting together in an old, derelict house, which was definitely not fit for human habitation. As in any normal situation, I had been wary at first and tried running from them. One of the girls, Sarah, took me under her wing, and she became my friend. The others warmed to me slowly. I was grateful when they shared their food and gave me a place to sleep. Even though I was off the streets, it wasn’t safe. I saw things that were no different from the council estate I had grown up on. Most nights, I slept fully clothed with a knife clutched to my chest in fear that I might be raped.
Every day was a struggle, a battle to stay safe and whole, and to ensure there was enough to eat. The other teens I lived with managed to steal enough food on a daily basis, and somehow, kept the water at the house flowing – albeit it was cold. They had also hacked into the electricity supply from the street level, I don’t know how, but we never went overboard with it. A surge in electricity at a condemned house would’ve had the authorities crawling all over us, and we all knew what that would result in. Regardless, it still couldn’t compare to a proper hot meal and constant warmth.
Then one night, my life changed completely. I met Marie.
I was waiting with intent in an alleyway at the back of a plush hotel. There was some function going on that night. According to the sign on the placard outside the main entrance, it was a gala for the rich and famous to get wasted while emptying their pockets of any excess change. I waited for ages in the cold night, watching the kitchen staff regularly come and go for a quick fag or a drink. The grand plan of execution was to sneak in and sneak out with my pockets full of food, preferably without them noticing. It didn’t quite play out that way, and fortunately for me – or unfortunately, depending on your point of view – Marie caught me in the act before the hotel manager did. Although I didn’t come across as it, I was terrified. She was observant enough to notice that I was homeless, cold and starving. After ordering me to stay put, she kindly gave me my first proper meal in months, followed by a stiff talking to. She made it clear she would call the police unless I gave her a good reason not to. My reason was damn good. Softening towards a teenage girl with a painful past and little to no future, she gave me a place to stay. She made me go back to school to get my GCSE’s and then to college.
She gave me a chance to live, and I will always be grateful and indebted to her for it.
Now, eight years later, I’m her assistant, except she always introduces me as her office manager, which is actually a more accurate description, considering these four walls are pretty much my domain.
Reaching my small, but perfectly coordinated desk with a fresh coffee in hand, I glance at my effects. My flat might be messy at times, with various levels of clean and dirty, but my desk is immaculate.
Opening my calendar, I trawl through my diary to see what is scheduled for today. There is a meeting at eleven at the Emerson Hotel for a function being held there in a few months’ time. Digging into the filing cabinet, I shake my head when I see she has forgotten to take the bloody file with her. This is so typical of Marie – always disorganised.
I remember the day I first walked into the office. It was the day after I left college, and the sheer dread that I was faced with was insurmountable. Initially, I was pleased when she told me she had a nice job for me over the summer since I was still undecided whether or not I was going to university. I thought I would just be sitting around, answering the phone, ordering sandwiches and reading magazines. My heart sank when she dropped a two-foot stack of paperwork at my feet and told me to organise it. I thought I was doing very well by day four, seeing as I had miraculously managed to clear it all and categorise it correctly. You can imagine my horror when she pointed into another room, and I saw more of where it came from.
It still makes me smile to this day.
Quickly scanning through the Emerson file, I let out a frustrated breath. She always manages to mix up my bloody files. I have a system in place, it’s not hard, but it’s one she still fails to abide by. She forgets it’s me who has to book and pay for all the stuff that gets ordered. Reorganising the folder to my liking, complete with my colour coordinated wallets, I elastic band it and put it back in the filing cabinet.
I quickly type up a text to let her know I still have the working file here, and, in bold, shouting capitals, I admonish her for the state of it, and also for thinking she could sway my resolve in such a deceitful way. The truth is, she was actually hoping I would go with her. By leaving the file behind, she probably expected I would hot-foot it over to the hotel, but we both knew that wouldn’t happen, considering my preference of existing under a cloak of invisibility.
As far as I was concerned, I answered the phones, dealt with any queries, and God forbid, any complaints. I booked the five-course dinners, and made sure the free champagne was delectable and supplied on tap – she did all the leg work!
Opening the monthly accounts spreadsheet, I quickly start to input the figures from the last two functions. My fingers glide over the keys furiously, and I bite the inside of my cheek, praying to all that is holy the numbers add up. If they don’t, I will be paying a grovelling trip downstairs to our friendly accountant, who seems to avoid everyone in the small building at all costs.
“That’s not right!” I mutter to myself, dropping my head in my hands. I swear if she messes up the formulas on my spreadsheets again, there will be some matricide being committed in this office.
Glancing at the clock, it has gone ten, and the numbers are still not adding up. Frustrated, I throw my pen on the desk and pick up my mobile. I ponder to myself if it is too late in the morning to be arranging lunch in a few hours’ time?
What the hell, it can’t hurt to ask.
I send a text to Sophie to see if she wants to meet. Her response is almost immediate:
Yes! Ned 2 tel u sumting. 12 x
Re-reading the message again, I consider myself lucky that I can actually decrypt and understand it. I flaming hate text talk and she is the worst offender for it! She knows how much I despise it, and thus, she makes it all the more cryptic at times. But I do love her, so I allow her the indiscretion of forgetting every now and again.
Sophie Morgan was the first girl I met when Marie made me go back to school to finish my final year. She had taken me under her wing, much the same way Sarah once had, and we became inseparable. I’m glad that we have remained close friends ever since and not drifted apart. She now works for a large firm of solicitors in the city. She is the personal assistant to, in her words, the biggest arsehole walking, but she tolerates it because there is nothing else out there at the moment. Far too many in her sector are unemployed, and as much as she dreads going to work each morning, she also has to keep a roof over her head. Many nights have been spent debating the pros and cons of being unemployed over a bottle of wine or two.
Putting the phone back down, I slouch in my seat, thinking about what she is so desperate to tell me. I’m more than aware of the rumours circulating lately, and they all come back to the same person: Samantha. Shaking the thoughts of her from my head, I bury myself in work.
Time flies by, and the next time I glance at the clock, it’s nearly midday. I can feel a tension headache starting to build due to staring at the screen for long periods, and my coffee has long since turned cold and stale. This morning has actually been quite productive after I finally managed to balance the books and reinstate my well-formatted spreadsheets to being golden again.
Stretching in my chair, I feel the pressure building uncomfortably in my lower body. I pad down to the shared ladies’ toilets and lock the door behind me. After doing what I need to, I stare at my reflection in the mirror while washing my hands, noting that my appearance is very lacklustre as of late. Not that it has ever sparkled in the past.
My long, medium brown hair is in need of a trim and maybe even some colour. My skin is still dry looking and chapped, from the long winter that has finally come to an end. And my green eyes look dull, even under the harsh fluorescent lights. I remember back to the time they used to glow, and were more emerald than the drab moss shade staring back at me.
I smile at my pathetic reflection and feel satisfied. My aim to achieve invisibility in life has succeeded.
This is exactly as it should be, and exactly as I want it to be. I’m nothing special. I don’t stand out in a crowd. I rarely attract anyone, and in equal measure, I’ve never really been attracted to anyone. Not to mention, the fact that I avoid physical contact like the plague. These are also the reasons why I have rarely dated, and the few times I have, well, they proved to be disasters of epic proportions. I guess it doesn’t help my cause that I can’t stand to have anyone within a few feet of me, or to some I come across as asexual, and not worth the time or effort. The only thing the past, mentally demeaning, disastrous dates had afforded me was the ability to still feel something, even if it did hurt to let someone try and touch me. I roll my eyes, thinking back to the many times I’ve been called a tease or a slut. The few times arseholes thought no really meant yes when I was unable to give them more than I physically or emotionally could.
I’m consciously aware this isn’t the best way to exist, but it is another layer of the wall that blocks out everything and everyone. I’ve been told on more than one occasion I have underlying issues. Each time I would wave it off because I knew exactly what those issues were. I live with them every second of every single day. They defined me, they shaped me, and they have made me what I am. I didn’t need some overworked, underpaid NHS funded shrink to spell it out to me. I’ve frequented more one-on-one therapy sessions than I care to admit to. Some might think I need sectioning, and God knows there have times when I’ve felt the need to sign myself over, but truthfully, I just want to be left alone.
I stare down at my wrist, and the light catches my scar.
It hasn’t been easy.
Life, that is.
Everyone thinks I’ve finally achieved peace, and therein found my place in the world. But it’s all lies. No one knows; not Marie, not Sophie, and definitely not Sam. They don’t realise that the darkness of my life is still so deeply ingrained in me, that some days I fear I won’t make it through if I allow the truth to consume me. They don’t know the truth. They don’t know what I lived through, and the worst part of it all, I don’t either.
I made sure I would never remember.
Over the last eight years, I have carefully constructed invisible walls to keep myself safe inside, and to keep everyone else out. I can still remember it like it was yesterday when the first brick fell into place – the second the foundation became set in stone. There is no going back now – I couldn’t even if I wanted to. It’s beyond the ridiculous and extreme, and I’m well aware that I’m setting myself up for a fall later in life, but I can’t go back there again. I can’t.
I won’t be that girl I desperately want to forget.
The one crying in pain in the darkness.
The one begging for God to take her because surely death has to be better than living.
Quickly and harshly, I brush away the stray tear and the memory that accompanies it. I hate myself for having such a moment of weakness. Weakness equals pain in my book. My father’s weakness brought about my pain.
Straightening up and taking a few deep breaths, I collect my things from the office and pull my coat on. I swing my bag over my shoulder and grab my umbrella – since the heavens have opened heavily outside – and make my way downstairs for a social lunch.
The five minute walk to meet Sophie is an effort in itself. The rain is unforgiving against my face, and I can already feel the burn of the cold against my cheeks. My hair is now more than a little damp, due to the long queue at the cash machine, and the fact that my brolly wouldn’t stop blowing inside out. Needless to say, it now resides in a bin since it was about as useful as a chocolate fireguard. Then again, you do get what you pay for, and a one-pound umbrella was never going to stand the test of time against the English wind and rain.
I finally hustle into the café, looking like a drowned rat, with my hair now soaked and plastered to my face. Sophie is already sat down, twirling her highlighted, light brown locks in her fingers and flicking through a magazine, wearing a bored expression.
“Hey chick!” she calls me over, pointing down at the table where lunch is sat ready and waiting. My stomach growls when my eyes register the food. Stripping out of my wet coat, she smiles brightly and hands me a few napkins. Patting my face dry, I grab the mug and take a sip, relishing the heat the drink is providing.
“So, how was your weekend?” She’s all light and optimism. Always. Unlike me, her glass is always half full.
“Interesting,” I answer nonchalantly. She spies me curiously, and I know she is dying to talk about whatever she was so desperate to convey this morning.
Taking a bite of my ham and cheese, I really don’t want to talk in any great detail about the tragedy currently comatose on my sofa. I’m positive by the time I get home this evening, rigor mortis might have even set in. I avert my eyes, knowing full well Sophie can read me like a book – everyone who knows me can. I’m aware that I am facially expressive, but I didn’t think I was that clear-cut.
Sophie’s eyes sadden a little at me. “That’s what I wanted to talk about. Some of the girls had seen her out with a few scary-looking guys the other night, and they said she looked high. Is she still using?” she asks in a hushed tone, glancing around to make sure we’re not overheard. I nod, swallowing hard.
There’s no point in speaking of it, trying to find a way to evaluate and justify it, the truth hurts too much. I have spent my entire adult life trying to escape the pitfalls of addiction and pain. Just when I thought I was finally arriving at a good place in life, another obstacle would be thrown my way. Looking around the café, the few people who were in here have now gone, and only a few customers are waiting to be served.
“I hadn’t seen her since the last time we spoke. She finally resurfaced around three this morning. She looks awful, but I don’t know what to do anymore. I can’t turn my back on her, but at the same time, I don’t want to help her. I know that sounds really cruel, and I’m not being a bitch, but I just can’t do it any longer,” I say, my hand shaking softly on the tabletop. Sophie’s fingers come over mine, and my breath catches in my throat, as the slow burn starts to envelop my hand.
“It’s not cruel, Kara. I would feel the same. I know you want to help her, but if she doesn’t want it, you can’t force it. Look, if you need somewhere to stay, give us a ring.”
“Thanks, but I don’t want to put you out.”
“Don’t be stupid. It’d be nice to have some company, instead of going home to an empty house and a cat that uses me for food.” I chuckle. Like I said, always on the bright side.
Sophie doesn’t push any further after imparting her views, and I sit and stare out of the window. The sky has darkened considerably, and I’m mesmerised by the way the rain pelts against the glass. Glancing back at her, seeing her lips move, my own thoughts run rampant through my brain like wild horses. And for the second time today, my mind drifts back to the terrified girl that used to hide in her cubbyhole. The one who used to lock her bedroom door in fear every night.
I drain the contents of my mug, ask Sophie if she wants another – she doesn’t – and move to the counter for a second coffee. My mind is still awash with emotions, as I attempt to dam the torrent of unwelcome memories and horrors I can recall a little clearer because I have finally let a handful resurface.
Fresh coffee in hand, I head back to the table and sit. I give Sophie a weak smile. “How much do I owe you?” I ask, needing something other than the train wreck at home to speak about.
She waves her hand very blasé. “You can pay next time. Or maybe we’ll call it your birthday lunch since you skipped out on drinks last week,” she says, clucking her tongue at me.
“Soph, in the years you have known me, how many times have I skipped out on drinks with you? Hmm?”
“Last week!” She smiles broadly. I groan when I realise what she’s doing.
“No. N. O. No!”
“Fine, I’ll just drag you out!” I roll my eyes at her; we both know she wouldn’t dream of it. She sits opposite, giving me a pouty, innocent look, knowing full well I will eventually break under the guilt trip.
“Fine! Birthday drinks it is, then! I’m guessing the usual suspects will be making an appearance?”
“Of course! Don’t worry, I’ll make sure they don’t hire you a stripper or anything!”
My mouth falls open in shock. “Sophie,” I say in warning.
“Seriously, just a few quiet drinks with friends, belated birthday girl!” she says, clapping her hands together.
We eventually finish lunch and start to go our separate ways. Sophie makes me promise to call her if anything happens when I get home, and also not to cry off on my birthday drinks. After yielding that I will, and also that I won’t, she lets me go. I walk steadily back to the office in the rain, my mind a blur with an abundance of emotions and feelings consuming it.
It is far too easy to become lost in life.
The only trouble is, I have never been found.
A little after two, my phone starts vibrating across the desk. I eye it suspiciously. The only people who know my number are my parents, Sophie, Marie, and Sam.
I have no internet accounts and only my work email address. I’m also not registered with any social media network sites. The fewer people know about me, the better. It’s my safeguard, the way I keep people out and myself safe inside. My only real friends are Sam – if I can still call her that at the moment – Sophie, and a few girls that we both went to college with.
Picking up my mobile, I groan when I see the name on the screen. “Yes?” I snap out, tapping my finger, waiting for the latest round of lies to leave his lips.
Pleasantries are not something that will ever pass between us, no matter how hard he tries to come across as caring. Even as a child, his presence stirred something inside me that I could never explain. Now I know better. Yet I just don’t seem to know when to sever all ties completely.
“Kara, don’t be like that. I just want to talk,” his voice slurs on the other end of the phone. “I thought that maybe you could come up and see us, your mum has been asking about you for days.”
My mum! How dare he use her as an excuse! I scoff at his audacity, and his obvious, but failed attempt at hiding behind the true nature of his call.
“Really? The only time you want to see me is when you need something. So how much is it this time, Ian?” I’m beyond irritated, and I half-listen while he rattles on about getting a new job, saying he will pay me back. He’s been paying me backfor years. As much as I despise him, and what he allowed to be done to me all those years ago, I still love my mother. How could I not, knowing her life isn’t much better than mine had been back then?
“I don’t need much, just a few hundred quid will do,” he says, a little more perceptive this time.
“A few hundred quid? Where do you think I’m getting that kind of money? Look, whatever mess you’re in, you better find your own way out. I’m done with you. If Mum needs anything, tell her to call me herself.” I wait for him to hang up.
“Come on, Kara, I’m in trouble up here. I owe some money to Franklin, and he’s coming to collect. Soon.”
Rigidly, I stand, and walk away from my desk and into the kitchen, with the phone still nestled against my ear. Even as an adult, the mere mention of that man still makes my skin crawl. I lean against the worktop, listening to the silence thicken between us. Hundreds of miles might separate us now, but it doesn’t make me feel any more relaxed.
“No, I can’t help you, Ian,” I say with conviction, my resolve final.
“They’re gonna kill me, sweets.”
I say nothing.
“Please, I’m begging you!”
He’s begging the wrong person.
The silence is deafening as he waits for me to cave. He’ll be waiting for a very long time. Realising I am not wavering, he starts swearing at me and calling me by that name. I despise it more than anything else in my life.
“Don’t call me that!” I hiss.
“You just fucking killed me! You’ve fucking killed me, Kara.” The line goes dead.
I brace my hands on the sink, fearing my legs might give out from under me. I gulp in a few deep cleansing breaths; only nothing will ever be able to clean out the shit from my past. I lean forward and splash some cold water on my face, then pat it dry with some paper towels.
A rustling in the entranceway tells me Marie is back. I straighten and leave the kitchen, just in time to see her bluster in. She looks fantastic in her black tailored skirt suit, with her short blonde, bobbed hair perfectly in place. I know I look a complete mess in comparison. One simple, fleeting glance my way will easily tell her of my newly formed distress.
“I have to tell you all about the man I met today at the Emerson. He was so bloody rude! An arrogant little bastard! Didn’t seem bothered in the slightest at what I was offering! Just wait until I tell-” She quietens immediately when she notices me lingering in the doorway. A frown of concern replaces her welcoming smile. “Oh, no, what has she done now?”
I don’t even bother trying to hide the anguish I know is written all over my face, clear for her to see. Disappointment slices through my insides. It has taken me years to try and perfect the false façade that screams I don’t give a damn, but lately, that guise is disintegrating fast.
“No, it’s not her. My dad just called,” I say quietly, allowing my hatred for the man to devour me. I bring my hand to my eyes, trying to hide the despair I am currently feeling for myself, and the life I have been bestowed with. The sham of an existence I have to live with.
“Want to talk about it?” she asks sympathetically.
“No.” What’s the point? It wouldn’t change anything. It wouldn’t remove the bad elements. Talking just makes it more destructive.
Putting one hand on her hip, she starts to shake her head. “Look, go home. You’ve done more than enough this morning,” she says warmly, putting her bag on the desk. “I suggest you have a chat with Sam, too. I’ve heard some stuff lately, but I’m not quite sure how true it is.” She gives me the same sad eyes that Sophie had only a few hours ago.
I nod knowingly. I’d also heard the rumours swirling around regarding Sam’s current lifestyle, and it wasn’t just the mention of over-consumption of illegal drugs that were being tossed out there. The small group of friends I occasionally went out with had mentioned her in passing a few weeks back, and as usual, I brushed them off. At the time, I prayed it wasn’t true, but judging by the way she was this morning, and the fact she had disappeared for the whole weekend, I can’t deny it anymore.
“I know; I’ve heard the same. I spoke to Sophie at lunch, and I… I don’t know what to do anymore,” I whisper. Watching as she rounds the desk, her arm stretched out to me. I quickly get up and make my way to the door, and she sighs in defeat.
Touching makes me uncomfortable. Seriously, physical touch feels like I’m being slowly eviscerated. For me, it’s parallel to a small burning sensation that starts on the surface and burrows itself deep into my soul. It doesn’t matter who it is; it always drags me back to a place that I never want to go back to again. Normally, Marie is the only one I can tolerate touching me, but lately, my condition was becoming worse.
“Promise me you’ll call if you need anything, honey.”
“I will, thanks,” I murmur softly, grabbing my bag and coat as I head out of the door.
IT’S STILL EARLY afternoon, and the rain has finally eased off. Luckily, traffic is relatively light, apart from the bus drivers who honestly thought they owned the roads, and the irate Hackney cabbies, who fisted their horns at whatever annoyance irked them – usually the bus drivers.
As I sit in traffic, contemplating, riding the biting point, I wonder if it would be advantageous to get the Tube or the bus home. If I did, at least I wouldn’t be sat burning money on petrol and moving at a snail’s pace for miles. The bus in front of me pulls up to its stop, and I wait further back, seeing the mass exodus of bodies alighting and boarding. My skin feels itchy just watching them.
No, I definitely wouldn’t do well with public transport.
My condition isn’t just becoming worse; it has already exceeded that stage. It is now bordering on the line of clinical expertise. I’m not ignorant to it, but it will be a cold day in hell when I openly offer to find help. The only reason I have a long list of numbers pertaining to London shrinks, albeit the NHS ones, was because Marie would put me in the car and spring it on me as late as she could, namely when we were already in the building, and I was speculating. It would take something, or someone, amazing and exceptional, to get me to seek help of my own free will in an attempt to finally cure myself of this self-loathing.
I make it home ten minutes earlier than I usual. Slowly pulling into my parking space, I notice a very expensive black Mercedes in the space next to mine. I can’t ever recall seeing it before, and naturally, I’m curious. This isn’t the kind of area you leave a beautiful machine like that. I carefully open my door, ensuring I don’t scrape the side of it. I stare at it for a few more moments, knowing I will probably never own anything as stunning in my pathetic life.
Pushing open the main door to the dilapidated building, I boycott the lift and start to take the stairs up to the flat. A few months back, the owner – Danny’s father – decided the staircases needed to be freshened up in order to procure himself some new tenants. Under duress, I was resigned to get in the bastard thing. As my luck would have it, my reasons for avoiding them were strengthened when it suddenly stopped. Given my fear of confined spaces anyway, it’s not an experience I want to relive anytime soon, if ever again.
Approaching my flat, I hear voices coming from the other side of the door. I turn the handle, and it opens in my palm. She didn’t even lock the fucking door! My patience for her is wearing thin as the day goes on.
Marching into the living room with purpose, I’m stopped short by its occupants. My eyes expand in shock at what she has done.
She has broken rule number one: no men in our home. Ever.
I look over the two men sat on our sofa and tilt my head up in acknowledgement to them. These could easily be the two scary guys Sophie had spoken of at lunch. Both large in stature, they are dressed head to toe in black. They each have dark hair and dark eyes, and I have to admit, they are very easy on the eye. The bigger one is grinning at me, and fear starts to course through my body under his relatively attractive, but watchful glare. His companion’s eyes are trained on the floor, never abandoning the spot they are fixated on.
A strong feeling cuts through me, and a bizarre sense of familiarity is too intense to brush aside. Except, I am absolutely positive I’ve never laid eyes on these two prior to today.
“Hey! My friends came by. Hope you don’t mind,” Sam says cheerily, literally bouncing into the room, obviously forgetting our unfinished argument from this morning. It’s more than likely she probably doesn’t even remember.
Drugs will do that to you.
She’s all big smiles and optimism now, whereas I’m as angry as hell, balancing precariously on the edge of sanity and reason. She knows she isn’t allowed to bring anyone back here, and I sure as hell don’t want these friends thinking we have an open-door policy and dropping by whenever they see fit.
“Sam, can I talk to you for a minute?” I calmly walk down the hallway and into the bathroom, with her following a few steps behind. She closes the door, and I quickly spin on my heels.
“What the fuck?!”
“I’m sorry, they just came by,” she says, her pleading tone laced with guilt, which is corroborated when her eyes widen, and she starts to wring her hands together.
“Sam, nobody just comes by! Nobody knows where we live, not even my parents! You gave them our address, didn’t you?” I ask, feeling the pressure of the day finally spilling over the surface. Her head drops down in confirmation that she most certainly did. I bring my hand to my forehead and rub it firmly.
“Get them out now! I can’t take any more of your shit today!” She reaches out to me, but I flinch at her action and quickly move away. “Don’t.”
“What’s happened now?” she asks, apparently forgetting she is what happened this morning. She crosses her arms over her chest, clearly pissed off.
Well, that makes two of us, because I feel ready to commit murder!
“The bastard called. He owes money to Franklin. Again!” I answer, turning to the sink to stare at my pathetic reflection in the mirror above it.
“Oh, shit! What does he want now? You to bail him out? Fuck him, you’ve been doing it for years. He needs to learn to deal with his shit himself. He’s not down here, is he?” It’s times like these I could almost forget the rumours I’ve heard about Sam. The same way I could almost forget that my father isn’t the only person in my life who is a financial drain on my resources.
“No, he’s still in Manchester. Well, at least I think he is.” I turn to look at her, hesitant to ask my next question, but the time for ignorance has been and gone given the men currently sitting in our living room. “Sam, I’ve heard some stuff recently, and I want you to tell me the truth-”
“Leave it, Kara!” she says defiantly, twisting her head towards the living room. “Look, I’m going out. I’ll see you when I get back.”
“And will that be tonight, next week, or next month? I don’t know, next year, maybe, if I’m lucky?” I mutter sarcastically. She doesn’t respond. Instead, she just glares at me and shakes her head. She walks out of the bathroom, and I follow.
I hang back in the living room doorway, watching as she collects her things. I cross my arms over my chest and look at the men on the sofa again, their eyes trail me from head to toe while I wait impatiently for them to get out. Their perusal makes me shiver. Something just doesn’t feel right.
“Hey, I’m Deacon,” the larger of the two says. He stands and moves a little closer, and his body casts a shadow from the sunlight penetrating the room. I inch back discreetly under his evident curiosity. His eyes are judging me closely. He licks his lips, and his pupils dilate, pinning my body with invisible barbs. I feel nauseous. The look is all-knowing and all-seeing.
“And this is Jeremy.” He jerks his hand towards his companion, who is a little smaller, but no less intimidating. He merely looks into my eyes once, then drops them back down. Very strange.
I tilt my head a little but don’t say a word; they don’t deserve anything from me. I look at Sam, her eyes appear weary, old before their time. She walks over to me, and I stiffen when she grabs me and kisses my cheek hesitantly.
“Don’t wait up.”
A few moments later, the door closes behind them, and I put my ear to it, listening to their collective footsteps retreating further down the hallway until the lift pings faintly. I quickly lock the door and rest my head against it. At last, I’m finally left alone, with nothing but the hum of the refrigerator, and the burning sensation slowly dissipating on my skin.
I kick the wood in frustration.
This is bad.
This is very, very bad.
A buzzing resounds in my head, and I shift in bed. Slowly registering the noise, my eyes feel heavy, and my mouth is dry as I fumble for my vibrating phone. Disorientated and tired, I look at the screen wearily.
“Sam?” Still half asleep, I roll over to see it is two o’clock in the damn morning.
“Kara, please come and get me, I’m scared! Please come!” Oh shit, she doesn’t sound good. Her voice is shaky, interspersed with tears.
I am instantly on high alert, wondering what the hell she has been doing for the last ten hours or so. I hate to say I told you so, but I knew it would end badly.
“Sam, where are you?”
Cradling the phone between my head and shoulder, I dash across my small room, throwing on my battered, old jeans and a t-shirt, listening to her mumble incoherently the name of the hotel. I grab my keys and wallet, lock the door behind me and bolt down the stairs.
I turn the key in the ignition and will my Fiesta not to be a bitch, and thankfully, she cooperates. I reverse out of the space at speed, quickly checking my blind spots and mirrors to make sure no police are about, then plough out of the car park faster than I usually do.
Turning onto the main road, I run red lights where I can, well aware I’m breaking a dozen traffic laws and at risk of getting caught by the cameras, but all I can think about is Sam. As much as she made me want to do time for her earlier today – yesterday – I couldn’t care less, because right now, she’s all that matters. She’s in trouble, and I know I should turn and walk the other way, but something inside won’t let me.
I won’t let her down the way that others have done to me. It just isn’t an option.
Driving into the city, I ease down on the accelerator slightly and maintain a speed just above the limit. My hand grips the steering wheel tightly, as I wonder what situation might face me when I eventually find her. I want to scream out in frustration that she keeps getting herself into these shit predicaments. That, no sooner does she have a good thing going on, she screws it up disastrously. Nearly three years of living together have taken their toll on me. I have witnessed her drift through life without a care in the world, going from job to job, and man to man, while I was left running behind her, picking up the pieces each time the shit hit the fan and blew up in her face.
My head is on the verge of exploding with thoughts of what state she might be in as I get closer and closer to the hotel. And more importantly, what she has got herself involved in this time.
Except, in my heart of hearts, I already know.
I PULL UP outside the Emerson Hotel and run inside, leaving the car engine running and effectively blocking the entrance. I wouldn’t do it under any other circumstance, but it is very early morning, and no one would want to steal my piece of shit anyway. Or at least I hope not.
Sprinting through the lobby, there are only a couple of people milling around and a few night staff working. I halt abruptly at the grand reception desk and wait for the smart, suited man behind it to slowly make his way over to me.
“Hi, I’m looking for my friend. She said she was here.”
“Name?” he asks rudely, while he eyes me with undisguised revulsion.
“Your friend’s name!” he counters sharply.
“S-Samantha J-Jones,” I say, suddenly developing a stutter that I’ve never had before.
The man looks me up and down questionably, taking in my dishevelled appearance and cheap clothes before he picks up the phone. He turns his back to me, and I hear him whispering something to whoever is on the other end. After a few moments, he hangs up and turns to face me, assessing me from head to toe yet again from behind the safety of the marble reception desk. My skin prickles under his unnerving, critical scrutiny, but my shame, in this grand and opulent setting, is battened down in light of why I am here.
“Take the lift to the tenth floor, Miss.” Taken aback by his rude and judgemental attitude, I nod and turn to where he is pointing.
I jog quickly to the lifts, prodding the up buttons until one arrives. My fear of confined spaces has taken a back seat as my thoughts fix purely on finding Samantha, and getting the hell away from these snotty, ungrateful people. Pressing the button to the tenth floor, my stomach lurches as the box moves, and I brace my hands on the highly polished brass railing running around the perimeter.
This is one of the three things I hate most in life: the word sweets, touching and confined spaces. In that order.
“One, breathe, two, breathe,” I say to my reflection in the mirror encasing all four sides. I grip the bar tighter, while my stomach does somersaults and threatens to empty itself all over the pristine, black granite floor.
The doors open and I find myself in a private foyer. It is beautifully presented in warm shades of cream, with red accents. I look around in admiration at the grandeur, wondering what on earth the stupid cow has gotten mixed up in this time. And more worryingly, what might meet me on the other side. Even I know this isn’t the kind of place you tout for personal services and peddle drugs in.
My stomach recoils noticing the floor holds two suites. My eyes shift between the two doors in front of me, and I press the first doorbell with determination. Straightening my shoulders, I aim to appear confident, yet I feel anything but. There is only one thing filling my head right now: please don’t let that sneering, dirty bastard from earlier today be inside this suite. Please…
I’m in luck when the door opens, and I just walk straight on in. I don’t even stop to see who has opened it, or if I am even in the right room. The first thing I see is Sam, curled up in a ball on an expensive-looking leather sofa. She appears to be sleeping, and I breathe out a sigh of relief until I notice my surroundings.
I slowly take in the room; clean lines of glass and dark wood, expensive fabrics and leather. Opulence seems to be a running theme here from what I can see. Rich shades of cream and brown finish the room beautifully. The whole place screams money and success, and it’s absolutely stunning. Suddenly, I realise why the man downstairs eyed me like shit; I don’t belong here, and neither does Sam. I bite down on my lip to suppress the panic rising up from the confines of my stomach.
Then the door clicks shut behind me.
I spin around, and my mouth dries out almost instantly, as I prepare myself to come face to face with the sneering, dirty bastard again.
Oh. Holy. Fuck!
It’s not the sneering, dirty bastard.
I wilt where I stand. My lungs actually stop operating momentarily, and my heart shudders like it has been finally shocked from a long, deep slumber. My whole body currently feels on fire for some unknown, inexplicable reason.
“I have already had my doctor take a look at her. She seems to be fine, just, well…she’s high.”
He folds his impressive, muscular arms over his equally impressive, muscular chest, and he leans back against the closed door. My eyes drop to his feet, and ever so slowly, work their way up his body. Tanned bare feet, long muscular legs and thick thighs, wrapped up in worn, faded blue jeans. The fitted white t-shirt encasing his torso does nothing to hide the perfectly defined ridges of his stomach, chest and shoulders. The outlines are more than visible underneath the stretched fabric. I gulp excessively, open-mouthed and speechless, at the faultless specimen of male perfection towering over me.
I stare up at him, my lips part and my eyes widen. His face is heavenly; beautiful, naturally bronzed skin, a strong, chiselled jaw, set under perfect cheekbones. His nose is straight and flawlessly proportioned. He has the darkest, yet clearest midnight blue eyes I have ever seen. In fact, I’m positive I have never seen such a colour before. He seems piqued by my stare, and there is nothing I can do to stop it.
My hands clench at my sides in desperation, and my tongue slides over my bottom lip. All I can think about is running my hands over his sexy, slightly too long dark locks, while his tongue…
Oh my God! What the hell?
A nervous feeling wells up in my stomach, twisting into knots deep in my gut. I place a hand over my belly, but the feeling shifts south and suddenly, I can feel heat pooling in my core profusely. His eyes remain locked on mine, and I’m dying to rub my thighs together to alleviate the tension that is building immensely.
I chew my lip timidly. Is he aware of what I am doing and that he’s instigating it? He smirks a little. Of course, he’s aware! Look at him! Any woman would be brain dead not to want him. Even my asexual self is not immune, judging by the way my body is reacting to him.
He arches up an eyebrow over his stunning dark blue, now virtually black eyes. He is fully aware that I am shamelessly checking him out, amongst other things, while my poor friend is lying in pain only a few feet away. I mentally scold myself for such uncharacteristic behaviour. Yet I can’t help it, this man has ignited something in me. I can’t even begin to fathom where it is coming from.
I need to get out of here.
I need to get away from him.
Feeling painfully aware, I wrap my arms around my middle and shift from one foot to the other, desperate to eradicate these alien sensations bubbling copiously inside my body. He remains motionless watching me, leaving me feeling exposed and vulnerable under his roving eye. The way he’s studying me makes me want to run for cover. I don’t know what it is, but there is a familiarity in his eyes that is unmistakable. I also don’t misinterpret the ghost of a smile forming on his lips.
Somewhere, I think I have seen him before.
“Thank you,” I whisper, averting my eyes, desperately trying to control the heat my body is emanating. I don’t know what else to say. All words have left me, and for the first time in my life, I actually feel something I can definitely say I’ve not experienced previously.
It’s something that no man has ever elicited in me, not even come close to.
Well, maybe once, many years ago.
He moves towards Sam, bends down and puts his hand on her forehead. “She just needs to sleep. I found her wandering around on the floor below…”
I listen to his voice rumble from his chest. It’s like velvet and chocolate mixed together. Baritone, smooth and hypnotic. I am having a hard time placing what part of the country he is actually from. He doesn’t sound particularly southern or cockney. He’s definitely not northern, I should know. There is a lilt of an accent there, possibly American or Canadian. Might even be Australian. But what do I know, I’ve never set foot outside of England.
He stands suddenly, and marches into the open plan kitchen which adjoins the living room. I blatantly stare at the muscles in his back, which flex deliciously with each movement under his t-shirt. His denim-covered arse is tight and mesmerising. I avert my eyes away for a second time, fearing he will see me again, and the way my body is fighting a battle not to wrap itself around him. He pulls out two mugs and puts on some coffee.
“I think she should stay here, she’s not in a fit state to be moved.” His tone is firm and commanding. He turns to me with a cautious, yet confident stare. It penetrates deep inside me and awakens the dormant, feminine parts of myself I was sure had died long ago.
God help me he really is beautiful. But why is this happening to me? Why now? I mentally whine.
The ache deepening in my body adds further justification to the affect he is genuinely having on me. My thighs clench tight, while my hormone levels begin to rocket off the scale. I have no idea what is going on underneath my skin, but I do know I need to leave, so I use the only defence mechanism I possess – anger.
“Sorry, but who the hell are you?” I ask, hot and flustered.
“Sloan Foster,” he replies, a little too confident, holding out one of the full mugs. I shake my head, refusing his offering. He stares at me with intent, and I wring my hands together apprehensively.
“Right, Mr Foster. Tell me, is it common practice for you to invite drugged up, half-naked women into your hotel room and beat them?” He looks shocked at my outburst. And so am I.
Oh shit, did that really just come out? I could slap myself for it, but in my shame, I don’t stand around to await his response.
Walking over to Sam with determination, I delicately place my hand on her forehead, satisfied she is still breathing and sleeping peacefully. Her make-up is smudged, and the purple bruises forming rapidly are evident under her heavily applied, and now ruined, face. Her clothes are bloodied and torn, and she has bandages around her knees and hands.
“No, it isn’t, Miss?” his voice speaks up hoarsely from behind me.
“Petersen. Kara Petersen,” I answer, standing to face him. He is now only a few inches away from me. I feel lightheaded and uncomfortable being this close to him, being able to identify his unique scent so easily. His brow furrows slightly, then he gives out a small sigh. I have no idea what is going through his head, but all I want is to get the hell away from this hotel room. Now.
“Miss Petersen, I will have my driver take you and your friend home.”
Amazed at his nerve, I’m unable to conceal my abhorrence for what he has done and the nonchalant demeanour in which he can dismiss her so easily, without taking any responsibility for his actions.
“What, so you just fuck and beat defenceless women and send them on their way. Use her and then discard her?!” My eyes burn holes into him, and it’s not because of what he has done to Sam, it’s because I can’t control the heat flaring inside me for a man who equals my father. It’s masochistic to want a man who has done such a degrading thing to my friend, my sister. Usually, it would make me recoil and lash out.
I start to move away from him, but his fingers cut into my wrist, halting my escape. A shock of something sends a powerful surge down my arm and deep into my body. Not possessing the wisdom to understand what I am feeling, I look up at him, mouth open and eyes wide. Captured in his gaze and hold, I wait impatiently for the prickly burn to come, but it doesn’t materialise. Whenever anyone touches me, I feel it. Yet with him – setting aside the static shock from my cheap top – it feels natural to have his hand on me. It feels like it belongs there. It’s a calm feeling I have only felt once before.
“Now, let’s get one thing clear in your head, Miss Petersen,” he says, his tone dripping with anger. “I did not fuck her, and I did not beat her,” he responds, levying his resentment on me. “I was told there was a woman pounding on the doors of the guests. This is not the kind of place that has an hourly charge, regardless of what ridiculous and twisted ideas you may have filling your head right now.” His eyes flick to Sam, then back to me. They soften slightly, and I now feel something else that has also been alien to me for many years.
I haven’t experienced that particular emotion in a long time, but damn, do I feel it now. I’m so confused at his ability to make me feel. I hate these emotions that are welling up inside, and he is the bloody cause of them.
I look down at my friend and then back to him. Shame washes over me in abundance. “Sorry,” I apologise a little too quietly, trying to avoid his gaze.
He doesn’t say anything further, and I don’t expect him to. He merely nods and hands the coffee back to me. Feeling self-conscious, I accept it while he continues to watch me closely, seemingly satisfied with himself. The tension in the room is thick, and I shift nervously under his penetrating stare. Sam murmurs in her drug-induced state, and I love her for the brief reprieve she has just afforded me. Holding his hand out to take the mug from me, his finger brushes against mine softly. The electricity piques and surges once again. The pleasurable heat flaring from such an innocent touch feels like I am being burnt alive from the outside. The intensity of it is indescribable, and I have to hold in the gasp that I am dying to let out.
“I’ll call my driver and have him take you both home.” His eyes linger on mine for far too long until I break the connection. Maybe I’m imagining it, but I could have sworn I heard a disappointing huff coming from his direction.
“You don’t have to do that. My car is outside. We’ll be fine,” I reply, training my eyes on the floor – anywhere – to avoid his piercing and smouldering gaze, which is figuratively burning me alive, and causing all kinds of things to awaken inside my dormant body.
“Please, don’t fight me on this. I will have your car put into the secure car park, and you can pick it up later.” He is firm and commanding again. His eyes continue to search my face, and I wonder what it is he is actually searching for. He seems to want to say something, but the words don’t come out, and I don’t dare press him for more.
He leaves the room, presumably to call his driver, while I pace the living room, my attention divided between my friend and him disappearing upstairs. Do hotel suites have an upstairs? Apparently so. I mentally muse to myself while I look around his lavish suite until he appears in front of me again and he hands me a card.
His business card.
“What’s this for?” I ask suspiciously, but not completely unaware. My eyes flick towards the door, praying that his driver arrives soon and stops whatever madness is about to materialise.
“I feel awful that this has happened here. I would really like to make it up to you. Dinner…maybe?” I let out a nervous laugh, and he steps back slightly, frowning.
Is he serious? He can’t be serious!
“You’re joking, right? My friend is lying there broken, in your hotel room no less, and you want a date?” I shake my head for emphasis, but I know I am in trouble.
I knew it the first moment my eyes met his, and the moment he touched me. The moment I felt an attraction that I have never felt before. I had made it my life’s mission not to depend on anyone but myself. I had become disjointed from reality and felt safe in my absolution. I know if I agree to this, my walls will be penetrated, and there will be no coming back from it.
“Sorry, no. I just want to get my friend home safe.” I hand his card back to him, praying he will take it without issue.
He looks at me like I have just spoken a foreign language. Something tells me that this man is not used to being told no. I take another glance around the room and realise the world’s successful and wealthy are most likely never refused anything they want or desire.
Well, tough shit!
The doorbell pierces through the tension hanging thickly between us. The door opens, and we are still standing in a face-off, staring at each other, neither of us wanting to back down. His driver; tall, stocky built and appearing to be in his fifties, walks over to the sofa and gently picks Sam up. Sloan gives him a look, and he leaves the room, carrying her without so much as a second glance my way.
“Please keep my card.” His eyes are full of determination, and the sharp, chiselled lines of his face are taut.
He isn’t asking me; he’s telling me.
I shake my head again because his intentions are clear, and I want no part of whatever he is promising. What I wanted, wouldn’t be what he wanted, and I could never lower myself to be a rich man’s plaything. My dignity might have been stripped from me forever, but I’ll be damned if I allow someone to take my pride.
“Why are you doing this? Why do you even care?”
Without answering, he ushers me towards the door. Placing his hand on the small of my back, the heat spreads through me again like liquid fire, eviscerating everything in its tracks. His brow raises, and he eyes me up and down, deep in thought, before picking a jacket off the rack, then following me out too close for comfort.
We approach the lift, and my blood runs cold, as though a bucket of water has just been thrown over me. A cold sweat overcomes me as we stand in silence waiting for it to arrive. The bell dings and the doors open, relief and sheer dread fill me simultaneously. As uncomfortable as lifts make me, it’s nowhere near as uncomfortable as being in his haughty sight. Still, I’m safe in the knowledge that within minutes, I will never have to lay eyes on him again.
The doors open and I enter cautiously. I practically jump for joy when he appears to remain outside the box. The doors then start to close, and with a sigh, he shakes his head. Reaching his arm out to stop the doors, he steps in, filling the small space in front of me. I stare at his back, pretending not to be affected by this new turn of events. I only hope he doesn’t notice my skin starting to perspire alarmingly.
“To answer your question, Miss Petersen, I care because I don’t like to see women hurt.” The words are blunt, honest and straightforward, but they cut right to the heart of my soul.
Old memories bounce to the surface, while we ride down all ten floors. I can’t bring myself to look at him, and the feeling is mutual apparently since he is staring straight ahead. It’s disturbing, even to myself, that I want him to catch my desirous gaze in the mirrors, but his eyes never deviate.
When the doors open at the lobby, he gently places his hand on the small of my back, and yet again, the powerful current runs through me as soon as his skin connects with mine. I want to run and hide, but he keeps his hand firmly in place, leaving me with nowhere to turn. A small shiver runs through my limbs, and I bite down on my lip. I can’t let him see how much he affects me, so I endeavour to compose myself the best I can and hold my head high.
Proceeding through the lobby in silence, there are more people down here now. I glance over to the rude man on reception, noting the look of shock on his face when he sees Sloan’s hand on my back.
Who the hell is this guy?
Chancing a peek at him, he exudes confidence like I have never seen before. His demeanour could even be classed as bordering on arrogance. I stare, captivated until his eyes lock with mine. I quickly turn, knowing I have been well and truly caught.
The front doors are opened for us, and the doorman tilts his head at Sloan in acknowledgement. The cold, icy night air assaults my senses, and I shiver as the wind chill picks up, and an unforgiving breeze wraps around my uncovered, naked arms. Sloan drops his head down to me with a knowing smirk. Clearly seeing my aversion to the cold, he removes his jacket and wraps it around me.
“Thanks,” I say, holding it over my shoulders, acutely embarrassed that I am silly enough not to bring a coat and that he feels obliged to take care of me. I have no right to ask him to care, and I sure as hell don’t want him to. I already made my thoughts on that subject known to him upstairs.
Walking towards Sloan’s driver, I notice a porter getting into my car, which is still parked at the front entrance – with my keys still in the ignition. The porter then comes over, takes the car key off the ring and hands the rest back to Sloan. I watch the man walk back to my car as Sloan folds my flat keys into my palm, clamping his over mine for longer than necessary. Thanking him, I climb into the limo, and he bends down to eye level. His face is now softer looking, and he even appears to be smiling a little.
“Your car will be here for you when you come to collect it.” He reaches out his hand and lightly brushes my cheek. A shiver ripples through me again, and I can no longer deny that I feel something. He closes his eyes slowly, appearing to absorb the moment, but when he opens them again, his expression is back to firm and stoic, and his jaw is tight. He closes the limo door, still looking past the darkened windows and straight into me.
The car pulls out onto the street, and I’m compelled to look back. I stare at him, in all his beautiful, masculine perfection, as he stands tall and proud outside the entrance, watching as we drift further away.
I let out a long overdue sigh and lean over to Sam, placing a soft kiss on her forehead. She fucks up – a lot – but I love her like a sister. She lets out a content sigh, and I stare into the privacy screen numbly. Pulling the jacket around my body, I sniff the exquisite fabric longingly. He does smell good, but this feels far from good.
I know from the horrors of my past the only person I can rely on in this world is myself, and this, whatever it might have been, would only lead to pain and destruction.
Or maybe it would have been something else entirely? Something amazing, something I deserve, perhaps?
What on earth am I thinking? I have nothing to compare anything to! But what I wouldn’t give to feel his hands on me, just once more…
Or his lips on mine…
I slowly close my eyes and savour the image. My brain is bombarded with visions of Mr Foster, his beautiful blue eyes, and strong, muscular body. My imagination is now running away with me, as I think of all the things I really want to do to him. I don’t even know where half of this is originating from, considering my self-imposed celibacy. All I know is that I shouldn’t be having these kinds of thoughts, yet I’m unable to rein in the sensations that he has helped to restore life to inside me.
Leaning back into the supple leather seat, I put my hands in the pockets to warm them. My fingers connect with something stiff and square. I tentatively pull it out and realise he has discreetly given me back his business card. I chortle; the arrogant swine knew exactly what he was doing when he brought his jacket with him.
Years and years of building myself up, and hardening my emotions, have just wilted spectacularly in the space of less than an hour. All because a man, a beautiful, mercurial man, has just entered my stratosphere. I flip the small card through my fingers, tracing my thumb across the black embossed letters and numbers.
I can feel my world tilting into the unknown already.
I knew tonight was going to be bad.
I’m definitely in trouble.
THE LAST THREE days have proved uneventful, and I’ve never been so thankful in my life. My world has reverted back to some degree of normality, and work is the only thing that is keeping me sane at the moment, in between worrying about Sam and thinking about him.
Him, who has, unfortunately, plagued my dreams, or possibly my nightmares, whichever way you want to look at it. He is all I have thought about since collecting Sam on Tuesday morning. Every time I close my eyes, he’s there, staring at me with that slight smirk and those deep blue pools. There has also been more than one occasion when I have woken up in desperate need of…something!
Sitting at the old wooden table in my kitchen, I am lost in thought, fixated on last night’s dream and his business card, when Sam walks in.
“Good morning, sunshine,” she says with bright enthusiasm.
“Is it?” I reply with a little too much cynicism. She narrows her eyes at me in disbelief.
I acquiesce. “Sorry.” A forced smile tugs at my lips.
Since Monday, I’ve seen more of her than I have in weeks, maybe even months. She hasn’t been out transgressing, and curiously, she’s even picked up a few more shifts at work. Just like me, she also works for Marie. Whereas I don’t wait hand and foot on the rich and ungrateful anymore, Sam is quite happy to be one of Marie’s girls on the ground.
“Isn’t it the Emerson function tonight? Why are you up so early?”
“Yep, it is,” she says cheerily, grabbing a bowl and a box of cereal from the cupboard. She sits opposite me, and her eyes instantly fix on that business card, which I’ve intentionally left on the middle of the table for the last three days.
She nudges her head in its direction. “Are you ever going to call him?” I shrug my shoulders. I know the answer should be no. I know that is the right decision. But why does it feel that maybe I am wrong? Everything has felt different since Tuesday morning.
I feel different.
“I think you should,” she replies, in between mouthfuls of Cheerios. I roll my eyes.
Words have long since been abandoned on the subject of Sloan Foster. He is all she has talked about since finally regaining consciousness late Tuesday afternoon. After hearing his name mentioned for the thousandth time, I snapped. Needless to say, for the last twenty-four hours she has skirted around the subject, just barely, but she doesn’t fail to get a dig in whenever she can.
“Don’t roll your eyes at me! I know you, remember. You can’t let every guy you meet go because you’re frightened they will be like him. He’s a bastard. You might think you left it all behind up north, but you haven’t, because he’s still there at the back of your mind, controlling everything and still poisoning your future.”
God, how I wish she was wrong, but she never is. Truthfully, I would always be running from my father, and my other demons, while we still lived and breathed the same air. My thoughts take me back to the last conversation we’d had. I haven’t heard from him since Monday afternoon, and although I couldn’t give a shit about what mess he has landed himself in this time, it will be my mum that is on the receiving end of his hatred.
“So, anyway,” I begin, blatantly changing the subject. “Why are you up so early?”
“Well, actually, I wanted to ask you about that.” She smiles far too sweetly, and the girl I grew up with begins to shine through. I move my head slowly from side to side because as hard as she may try, she could never fool me before, and she still can’t do it now.
“No, I’m not doing it for you!”
“Please, just tonight. I have something that I need to do. This gig tonight was so last minute; I don’t even know why she accepted it on such short notice. Seriously, two days warning? I didn’t want to refuse Marie, it’s such a coup for her reputation.”
“Where are you going tonight?” I don’t even want to think about it, but I have to ask. The thought of picking her up beaten again is too much to comprehend. She obviously recognises the look of concern on my face.
“I have a date.” She peers at me, her eyes huge and pleading.
She is also lying.
“A date? You?” She nods her head quickly.
We are both more than aware she’s not telling the truth. She is just like me; keeps everyone at arm’s length. But unlike me, she will play ball if they can give her something she needs. I huff. She must think I was born yesterday.
“Yep. One of the guys at work has been asking me out for some time, and I think, after what happened-”
“Stop, just stop! I’m not stupid, Sam. Look, just promise me you’ll be safe, okay? That’s all I ask.”
“I will; I promise. But it’s not what you think, though.”
“Really? I don’t want to know.” She jumps up from the table, coming around to hug me and every muscle instantly tightens. “All right, you know how I feel about personal space and…hugging.” She steps back, cooing how much she loves me and repositions herself in the seat opposite me again.
“So, the Emerson is pretty plush, isn’t it?” she says, grinning knowingly. I shrug my shoulders. I don’t want the conversation to go there again. Not now, not ever. The man was already making a nightly appearance in my subconsciousness. There is no way on this God’s green earth I was going to call him, or at least that’s what I told Sam, not that she took any notice, of course.
“I guess so,” I mumble. Sam’s spoon clatters against her bowl, and her mouth falls open.
“You guess so? I suppose you think the owner is just okay too, huh?” She folds her arms over her chest and raises an eyebrow.
“Well, it looked okay from what I saw at silly o’clock on Tuesday morning.” I level a look at her, making her remember it was her fault I ended up there prematurely in the first place.
“Right. Well, the function there tonight is for abused women-” She stops instantly, no doubt realising that three days ago, she had become a new member of that particular club. Looking at me sadly, her face drops all emotion, clearly remembering I had been initiated many years ago.
While we both had shit parents and equally shit childhoods, she never suffered the way I did. It’s a sad fact that her father battered her around a lot when he wanted a drink, but he never did what my dad did. Well, at least the little I can remember of what he did.
“Okay,” I agree, knowing I can’t get out of it. I get up from the table and head into the bathroom.
“I have a spare uniform in my wardrobe, or just wear a black skirt and white shirt if mine are too short!” she shouts after me.
I finish up in the bathroom, deciding since it is going to be a long night, I’ll try to get a few hours’ sleep. It has been a couple of years since I’ve worked for Marie Dawson in a non-clerical capacity, but I remember how exhausting covering these events truly was.
Sam is nowhere in the flat when I wake a few hours later. It is late afternoon and my phone chimes with a text from Marie telling me not to be late. I shake my head, that’s rich coming from her. She hasn’t managed to make it into the office on time a single day this week.
I pad into the bathroom to start the long prep to look relatively normal. Standing under the hot spray, I attempt to gather my thoughts. I wrap myself in a towel as I examine my reflection. I am about to willingly spend six hours plus at a function that will, without a doubt, take me back to my childhood. I might not be that child anymore, but my future will always be influenced by it. I let out a long, controlled breath, then pick up my foundation.
An hour or so later, I look presentable. The black, knee-length, pencil skirt I’m wearing hugs me in all the right places, while the plain white, fitted shirt fits like a glove. I slide my feet into my black four-inch heels and wince. I had forgotten how much they pinch my toes, and I still had a long night of being on my feet ahead of me. I style my unruly mass of hair into a bun, it’s kind of messy, in a fairly professional way. Sort of. As per usual, I’ve kept my make-up natural and barely noticeable. Overall the look is presentable and utterly forgettable.
Walking back into the living room, I gather up my bag, black jacket and my old Converse trainers – I will definitely be needing them later tonight.
Crossing the distance to my car, I admire her fondly. She has never looked so good. In the forty-eight hours it had been at the hotel, it has been cleaned and valeted, both inside and out, and drives better than the first time I’d ever set foot inside it. And again, I feel guilty that Sloan felt the need to look after me. I also still had to thank him for it. I just didn’t know if I could. He conjures up feelings in me that are borderline dangerous. I couldn’t face going to collect it on Tuesday, and instead, ended up begging one of the admin staff who worked in one of the other serviced offices in the building into going for me. He drove a hard bargain, and even though he had bartered morning coffee and lunch every day for a week, it really was worth my sanity and solitude.
Sliding into the seat, the ignition turns on the first attempt – something it hasn’t done in a long time. Cruising through the late afternoon traffic, I blast the radio on my way into the city. The traffic, thankfully, isn’t too heavy, yet I’m still cut up by other overzealous drivers. Taking exactly the same roads I did three days ago, my stomach twitches with both anticipation and nerves.
Arriving at the hotel, I pull up into the public car park adjacent to it. I glance in awe at the chic, beautiful nineteen-twenties style exterior brickwork and ornate features, finally getting a chance to see them properly for the first time. My eyes catch the doorman, who happens to be the same one from the other night. I halt in sheer dread. I pray he doesn’t remember me. With my head down, I quickly march around to the side towards the staff entrance, avoiding him completely. As I show my ID to security, I see the rude sod from reception, laughing with a couple of female staff down the corridor. I turn inconspicuously, hoping he doesn’t recognise me. How would I ever explain it to Marie if he did?
With my mind conjuring up every worst-case scenario, the next thought pops into my head. Oh, shit, what if he’s here? No, he was a guest, it was the penthouse! I try to convince myself. With any luck, he’s checked out already and won’t be here tonight – I’m sure of it.
Exhaling steadily, trying to dispel my vivid imagination, I smooth down my skirt and head inside. My paranoia is working overtime, as my thoughts continue to run amok. I’m too busy remembering the man who had provoked a torrent of emotions in me on the tenth floor only a few nights ago, when Marie comes into view.
“Well, look at you!” Marie sings the instant she lays eyes on me. “I couldn’t believe it when Sam called to say you were covering for her.” I turn slowly to give her the full show, with a genuine smile on my face.
“Good evening, Marie! I bet you didn’t think you’d get me back into the penguin outfit anytime soon, did you?” I respond with a curtsy, standing as far away as I can, intentionally evading her impending touch. It has gradually gotten worse over the years, but it’s never been as prominent as this. It is obvious she can identify it because when I lived with her, she was the only one I could stand being this close to me. Since I’d moved out, it was mutating to epic levels as the years passed by.
Ignoring my attempt to keep some distance, she puts her arm on mine, guiding us through the labyrinth of corridors and into the staff locker room. All the while I feel a dull prickle run down my spine.
“Right, you can put your things in here,” she says, handing me a key. “Let’s get started.”