Blood’s Veil | CHAPTER ONE Preview
Every night she waited. Silent, still. The limbs of her twelve-year-old body ached with the effort. Her heart hammered in the quiet of the room—drumming, chanting; a cruel, betraying boom that gave her away. Every night she wished for morning, for the light. It always came too late. Sometimes, she wished instead for darkness, wished herself part of it—wisp and smoke and shadow, able to sink into the night and escape. When she held her breath and shut her eyes real tight, she could imagine that escape—imagine she was somewhere else entirely. If she kept still long enough she could pretend this night would be different; that maybe, this night, he wouldn’t come for her—
But he always did.
Seventeen years later…
Ella was rooted to the spot. A scream carved an icy path inside her, from her head through every limb, with no release. Three seconds passed, three minutes—it could have been three hours—an immeasurable streak of sheer panic and hysteria. Then, it was suddenly still, as though a giant hand had reached out and smothered the world in shadow. Her breath caught in her throat, thick and heavy, like smoke. Her hand, foreign and white-knuckled with tension, kept a tight fist on the cordless black phone—the one thing that kept her tied to the centre of it all, to the cataclysmic news from the other side of the equator.
‘Ella?’ It broke Ella’s trance. ‘You still there? Hello?’
Aunt Mandy. Her mama’s sister… her dead mama’s sister.
Ella stared ahead, unseeing. ‘I have to go,’ she said, the words spluttering from her, coarse and splintered. She barely registered her own voice and swallowed repeatedly to soothe the scratchy burn at the back of her throat. ‘I…’
She didn’t know how to end that sentence. It was like everything she was certain of up until this point had disintegrated into dust. She had never felt more unsure or alone than she did right now.
‘That’s okay, my darlin’, I understand. You take care. And let me know about the arrangements… Call me anytime, y’hear?’ Her aunt paused for a long moment, waiting. Eventually, she hung up.
Ella didn’t move. The phone clicked dead then onto dial-tone as she stood there, unwilling, refusing, to process what she’d learnt. Her mind raced. Threads of thought
chased themselves like dead leaves on the wind. Slowly, a single question began to form. It was both simple and complicated at once.
She slumped against the living room wall. It just couldn’t be true. She couldn’t believe it. She wouldn’t. There had to be some kind of a mistake—someone, somewhere, had gotten things horribly wrong.
The phone started to wail, and she hit the end-call button fiercely, returning to the suffocating silence.
Mama… she’s dead…
The three words jarred her. She seemed to fumble around them for a while, feeling her way, searching for a weakness, a gap, a hole in the truth. But there was none, and when her mind wrapped itself around the finality of fact, something inside her broke. Her head filled with pictures and memories, and the crushing torment of knowing it was all she had left.
She shoved the phone back on its cradle with such force it wobbled and fell off, and she stared at it, not daring to touch it; it was contaminated with truth. It had snatched the world from under her feet, and all that remained was a heavy, sickening ache, and yet she felt that somehow, it was the last tie to everything that came before it. Blinking back tears, she slowly picked it up, clutched it like a small child to her chest, and cried.
Lying motionless in the cramped bunk of her cabin, Ella dug deep for the motivation to move. The vessel’s engine grumbled steadily somewhere beneath her, and morning was only just beginning to seep into the room. She eased herself off the top bunk, careful not to step on her sister, Brooke, snoring gently in the bed below.
She parted the heavy curtains. The dawn cast itself over the Atlantic, impossibly beautiful set against the recent tragedy of her mother’s passing; it seemed wrong somehow, that these two extremes could co-exist. She took a deep breath, forcing the raw grief back inside its box, trying not to lose her grip; losing herself instead to the pink-tinted sky tilting and realigning with each dip of the vessel. She’d forgotten how breathtaking it was to watch the day break over the ocean.
There was a lot she’d forgotten, and in just a few hours, stepping back on homeland, she was going to have to face the fact that her voluntary memory lapse was bringing her home just a little too late. She was determined never to forgive herself for that.
Travelling to an island which claimed to be one of the remotest places in the world took time, and there was only one way to reach Saint Helena—by sea, on an old Royal Mail ship. It had cost them two full weeks. Two weeks was a long time to have to sit around and grieve from afar, helpless and isolated. Still, a shorter time would have made no real difference. It was useless to blame an age-old journey plan for her own selfish mistake of not visiting when she’d had the chance. If she’d have kept her word, she would have seen her mama at least one more time. Instead, she’d put it off, time after time, always coming up with a feeble excuse; always accepting her mama’s gentle understanding on the other end of the phone-line, accepting it as approval.
And now… it was too late.
The guilt had always tugged and niggled, although up until now it had been small enough to shrug off; now, it was a life-sized weight around her neck that she couldn’t cast aside even if she’d wanted to.
She’d been on auto-pilot for the last fortnight, busying herself with anything she could, simply to avoid having to think; it was a little less painful to deal with in robot-mode, even if it was a coward’s way forward. Unfortunately, three days on the ocean gave her plenty of time to correct that; boredom was no friend to grief, or guilt.
Brooke seemed to be coping. Then again, Brooke had never been in the habit of adorning anything with her heart, let alone her sleeve, so Ella’s guess was as good as any. You never could be sure what was there under the surface with Brooke. She was more subdued than usual, and seemed to have agreed to the trip only so Ella wouldn’t have to make it alone, but maybe she knew Ella needed this, and needed her, even if neither of them realised how much. This would be the closest thing to closure either of them could manage, if there was any such simple thing.
Ella jumped as Brooke shifted suddenly in her sleep.
Stuffing her head under one of the pillows, Brooke let out an overly loud groan, more agitated than a premenstrual dragon.
‘Why are you up so early?’ she grumbled, her voice muffled by the pillow. ‘Close the curtains, will you?’
Ella smiled in spite of herself. Her sister made it easier to function; easier to fake normality. If there was anyone in the world that could keep her anchored and sane in all of this, it would be Brooke. Whilst everyone else tiptoed around Ella, magnifying what had happened, treating her like a delicate crystal ornament—she could trust Brooke to be herself. And whether or not Brooke knew this, it was exactly what Ella needed.
Brooke stood at the stern of the vessel and studied the surf trail as the ship slowly cut its path. The ocean was a piercing mid-day-blue mirror to the cloudless sky above, the heat bouncing off the water in a rippled dance. The wooden rails separating her from the inviting depths below were sun-warm and comforting against her bare arms. If she craned her neck at just the right angle, she was able to catch her first glimpse of ‘home’.
At this distance the island was little more than jagged shadow and rock, jutting up out of the water—misshapen teeth in the mouth of a sleeping dragon. Soon, she’d have no choice but to climb into that mouth. For now, it was still shrouded in haze, shimmering against the horizon like a mirage, and Brooke found herself wishing that were all it was; a mirage would have been easier than reality.
Too soon though, the ship pulled into the harbour, and the horn reverberated with finality. The short boat-ride to shore from the larger vessel was a whole lot more fun than Brooke remembered it to be, perhaps because an actual moment of joy had been so unexpected this close to landing. Sea spray and salty air aside, the uneasiness inside her grew. It had been stirring since leaving the airport in England.
She should have stayed. She should have kept herself away from all of this, not agree to come back; should have made her excuses and left it at that. But how could she have done?
She didn’t see the point herself, in coming home this long after Addie’s funeral, but she knew Ella wanted to, maybe needed to. She knew if there was ever a time she needed to step up and be there for someone else, it was now, for Ella.
Now though, as the boatman steered them all toward the harbour, her selfless act was looking really stupid. She wanted to leap overboard and swim all the way back to safety.
‘This is it,’ Ella said suddenly.
She looked smaller and more vulnerable than Brooke had ever seen her. Brooke aborted her wild ideas of escape, and reached for Ella’s hand, squeezing it.
‘We’ll be alright, El.’
Ella nodded, and smiled a weak but obviously grateful smile, and Brooke hoped the simple lifelong mantra of all families everywhere would be enough to console Ella somehow.
We’ll be alright.
It sure as hell didn’t have Brooke convinced.
One of the boatmen at the pier offered a hand as she stepped out onto the wet landing step. She looked around her, waiting for Ella to follow. The wharf was teeming with men in yellow hard-hats and overalls, not hard at work but just as she’d left them—filling the position of laid-back onlookers. A few of them she recognised. Some of them smiled, some ogled, and some weren’t bothered either way. They merely looked glad for a timeout and a smoke.
Ella reached her side and began unzipping the bulky life jacket, following the first boatload of twenty-odd passengers up the wide harbour steps in the direction of transportation to Customs. Brooke followed suit, her fingers fumbling and catching in the zip. They boarded the bus in silence, spoke only when spoken to during the clearance procedure in Customs, and then ventured towards the exit of the building.
Brooke cast a side glance at Ella; she was pale. Facing the crowd at the seaside during passenger arrivals was never easy on the passengers. The other side of seven years, they had been a part of the waiting crowd. Brooke had been, at least. Ella never had time for ‘that sort of rubbish’—watching people return home just so you could scrutinise them; judging how much they’d changed during their time away, by the clothes they wore, or the way they greeted someone—that was not Ella’s idea of leisure. It was a bit of an island tradition though, and true to form, when they left the cool, safe darkness of the building, and the sunlight hit them once more, so did the gaping assembly of people.
There were so many of them. Some were caught up in their own reunions, oblivious to two more passengers arriving. The rest, they were all eyes.
Brooke’s gaze automatically swooped to the spot where she’d sat as a teenager: a ‘front-row’ spot near a large, out-of-use storage building. She half-expected the same group of people to be perched there, stuck in a time loop of some sort. Instead, there were nameless faces, all along the building front and the half-walls, all the way up toward a flight of stone steps leading to one of the many hillside paths in the valley capital. To the right, yet more bystanders, spanning the width of the street. They had, as had always been the practice, formed a semi-circle around the gate of the Customs building, dotting themselves between parked vehicles, eagerly waiting like paparazzi for celebrities, or wild animals with barely-curbed appetites.
Ella grabbed the back of Brooke’s sleeve as they walked on toward the masses. Uncomfortable didn’t cover it; the watchful, hawkish eyes and intrigued half-smiles from faces that should have been familiar—it was just the tip of the iceberg. These people… and the uneasiness rising in Brooke’s gut so fast she could almost taste it, had all been forgotten—until now. Time had made her forget to remember, or maybe she’d buried it deep enough to be able to dismiss it. Either way, it was as though she’d well and truly stepped back into the past, and it did not for a minute, feel anything like the nostalgia she’d heard other people speak about.
‘Ella! Brooke! Over here!’
To Brooke, the voice could have belonged to anybody, coming from a million possible directions, but Ella immediately stepped forward and broke into a run, through the crowd, into the open arms of a grey-haired woman.
Ella had dismissed the staring and the whispering the minute she’d spotted her slightly-stooping maternal aunt. Brooke, following a little less steadily in Ella’s footsteps, took in the wrinkled, smiling face and approached her nervously.
Her aunt reached out to her and pulled her into a warm, tight hug, then stepped back and took Brooke’s face in both her hands.
‘Brooke, sweetheart. You’re more beautiful than when you left. How are you?’ Aunt Mandy’s face creased into a bittersweet, teary-eyed smile.
Brooke took her aunt’s hand in her own.
‘I’m okay,’ she smiled, noticing Ella at her side, blinking back tears. ‘How have you been?’
‘Oh, you know, my darlin’. I’m getting by. This month hasn’t been easy… Well, y’know… with the—’ She broke off mid-sentence and squeezed Brooke’s hand fiercely. ‘Let’s not talk of that just yet. You girls need to tell me ’bout your trip! Tell me all ’bout the big, bad world. You’ve been gone so long!’
‘Aunt Mandy?’ Ella interrupted her. ‘Where’s Dad? Is he working?’
The old woman looked stricken for a moment.
‘No, my darlin’… He… couldn’t make it here to see you.’
‘Is he alright? I’ve been worrying about him since you called me,’ Ella said. ‘I mean, he was all alone. I can’t imagine how he must be taking this.’
‘Oh, Ella, darlin’. Now I don’t want you to get upset, okay…’
‘Why? Is he okay? Where is he?’ Ella urged.
Brooke looked from one of them to the other, swallowing her private fear.
‘He’s… in prison.’
Brooke let out an audible gasp. Of all the possible scenarios she’d come up with in the last seven seconds, that had definitely not made the cut. Ella opened her mouth to say something and shut it again, no sound having passed her lips.
‘What did he do?’ Brooke blurted. She wanted to eat the words back up the moment she’d said them. ‘I mean—why? What happened?’
‘Girls, now don’t go upsetting yourselves…’
Ella was close to tears.
‘I don’t know what to say…’ Aunt Mandy shook her head, reaching out and patting Ella’s shoulder. ‘They’ve… accused him of murdering your mama.’
Ella’s breath caught in her throat as the man walked towards her, cuffed and led by one of the prison wardens. She’d expected the unsightly orange she’d grown used to seeing on TV, but her father wore his own clothes. In any other scenario he would have looked just like the man she remembered, only he didn’t seem as tall, and his hair had greyed a little. As he drew closer, she noticed his face had a lot more lines than before. The dark brown eyes were as warm as ever, but the new dark circles underneath them stubbed out their familiar sparkle.
Hank Roberts, the man she’d held high above any man she’d ever known, sat humbly in front of her. His gaze flitted between her and the surface of the table separating them. Within the first minute of awkwardness, he reached out to her, taking her smaller hand in his.
Ella tried to smile, unsure how to act, not knowing quite what to do—or say. She didn’t want to admit it, but her initial reaction was to snatch her hand out of his grasp.
‘Look at you,’ Hank said, smiling. His eyes glistened, and his voice was coarse, the words tumbling out onto the table. ‘It’s been so long.’
Ella’s throat was dry. She tried swallowing a few times before she spoke.
‘How have you been?’ she managed at last.
Hank released her hand and sat back in his chair.
‘Well, you know how it is…’
Ella was certain she didn’t.
‘It’s been hard,’ he said. ‘Losing your mama. Now, this…’ Hank’s deep voice drifted off, leaving them in silence.
Ella nodded and diverted her gaze. She felt him watching her.
‘El, I know this is difficult…’
Facing him made her feel just as she did at six years old; she studied his face, wanting to cry, wanting his comfort. She wanted to give in, and let him make it all better.
But how could he? Not now.
She said nothing. She didn’t know what to say, and even if she did, she wouldn’t know where to begin. It was hard enough to return home after so long, to a life where so much had changed—she was here to say goodbye to her mama, even though she could barely digest the fact that she was really gone… Even so, the guilt, the grief, she could just about handle it, but this—
This was… crazy. How could she possibly know how to deal with this?
This man sitting before her, the same man who had taught her to tell time; kissed her knee better when she’d fallen off her bike the first time they took the stabilisers off; snuck out for burgers with her when her mama went on a year-long vegetarian craze; held her as she cried over the loss of her first boyfriend… That same man committed murder?
No! It was absurd. It was out of the question.
She wanted to scream at him.
Why? Why are you being accused of murder? What happened? How did it happen? What in hell could you have possibly done to make them think that you’re the reason Mama’s dead?
The questions bounced off each other, fighting to break free. But she couldn’t let them. Thinking about it was one thing; getting them out, preparing herself for the answers… that was something else entirely.
She covered her face with her hands.
There was really only one big question she needed to ask. One that would answer everything she needed to know all at once. But what if she didn’t get the answer she was searching for? The answer she was hoping for?
She still had to know.
How did Mama die?
Ella peeked at him to be sure she hadn’t said it aloud, but his face was blank, and she sighed.
‘I want to know that you still trust me, Ella.’
Ella’s whole body jerked as he said it. She didn’t answer.
Of all the things he could have asked of her…
For a long time she stared at the table, concentrating on it so hard she could have counted the scratch marks there if she’d wanted to.
‘I need you to,’ he said. ‘Please.’
The pleading was genuine; she could hear it in his voice. And it tugged on every fibre within her. But she had to keep her grip on things. She didn’t have a clue what to do, what to trust, but… this was her family under the microscope. She grew up embedded in that family. There was no better judge of how solid they’d been.
No-one capable of as much love as her parents had provided her with could ever be a true part of this nightmare. It was impossible.
‘I loved her, Ella,’ Hank said. ‘You know I did. I would never ever have hurt her. You know that.’
Ella nodded, the motion shaking tears loose.
Her own curiosity, her need for the truth—it plagued her, but she couldn’t bring herself to question her own father. Asking him everything she wanted to know would be as good as throwing the prison key in the ocean.
She couldn’t do that to him.
He had given her years of unconditional love. She would not alienate him, not now, when he was all alone in this. Not now, when he needed her.
‘Do you believe me?’ he asked. ‘Can you?’
The question hung between them like a storm cloud.
Finally, she nodded, smiling feebly. She reached across the table and put her hand on his, and looked up at him, her face wet with tears.
‘I believe you.’
Brooke let her suitcases fall to the hall floor with a thud.
‘It’s smaller than I remember.’
‘Looks the same to me,’ Ella said from the kitchen, dropping the keys she’d picked up from her aunt on the nearest counter.
The house they’d grown up in was actually pretty large, at least in comparison with the small flat Ella had grown used to. It had been left for Ella’s mother by her mother before her, and it was one of the things that had been passed down to Ella now they both were gone. Traditional though it was, she had still been surprised to discover her dad had no part in any of it. It might have bothered her more, were it not for the fact that he currently occupied a jail cell. Who got what in the Will paled in comparison.
The house was quite new but had been built with several features from both the Victorian and Greek Revival eras. Ella had loved every minute she’d spent in it. From the front gable and dark shuttered windows, to the tiny front porch and overgrown garden out back; the whole space reminded her of her mama—it had always smelt of freesias and fresh bread.
She slowly worked her way through the house to the living room, taking in the room through glassy eyes. On first glance the area was tidy and clean, the way her house-proud mother always kept it; up-close though, there were signs that there’d been no one around for the last few weeks to maintain that. The room was gloomy, and there was a thin film of dust on the furniture. Empty beer cans, a Vodka bottle, and a few ready-meal trays were strewn in front of the sofa, and the lower drawers of one of the cabinets spewed their contents onto the carpet.
Ella picked up a frame from the pile, leaving a bright thumb print in the middle of the dusty glass. It was Adelaide. Same dark hair, same smile, as her twenty-six- year-old daughter. She stood in the all too familiar garden, sunlight streaking her hair. It was an old picture, one either Ella or Brooke must have taken as children—the lopsided angle had always been a tell-tale sign.
Ella rubbed the glass against her jeans, smearing away the dust. She would never be able to see her mama’s face ever again unless it was like this, in a photograph. This was all that was left of her; this and the fading memories—and an unanswered question that lingered in the air like a bad smell. All she could do was smile nicely, and play ‘pretend’—pretend it was okay, that everything wasn’t falling apart.
Her fist tightened around the frame and heat flared inside her. She hurled the frame across the room, enjoying the satisfying crash it made as it collided with the wall.
‘Ella?’ Brooke burst from the hall, her eyes darting from Ella’s twisted face to the smashed remains of the photo frame on the floor.
‘Hey,’ Brooke soothed, drawing Ella into a hug.
Ella fought against her, her chest heaving, and her back tense and hurting with the urge to fight, or scream, or cry.
‘Ella, hey, listen—listen to me.’ Brooke shook her by the shoulders and forced eye contact. ‘It’s gonna be okay. You hear me? You will get through this.’ Brooke stared her down for a moment, then embraced her again.
Ella steeled herself against the hug, refusing to give in to comfort.
‘How, Brooke? How?’ She croaked the words between sobs. ‘Tell me, go on, tell me. How is it going to be okay? Mama’s dead, and—’ Ella paused, her breaths sharp and ragged. She tried to pull away, but Brooke refused to let her go, so they stood locked together as Ella tried again to find her voice. ‘Mama’s… gone. And Dad is in prison—accused of killing her. Murder… Murder, Brooke! Can you imagine?’
Brooke didn’t answer. She squeezed Ella more tightly, and Ella was glad for it. The pain was more real now for having released it, and Brooke’s tight embrace seemed to be the only thing keeping her from falling completely to pieces.
‘It’s okay to be upset,’ Brooke whispered into her hair. ‘And it’s more than okay to be angry. Just give it time, okay?’
Ella didn’t answer.
‘Okay?’ Brooke repeated.
Ella pulled away, clumsily wiped her eyes on her sleeve, and nodded. It didn’t feel okay, but she willed herself to believe the lie, simply because there was nothing else she could do right now.
She shot a guilty, fleeting glance at the photo frame, sorry now for having broken it. That last little piece of her mama shattered into pieces with almost the same finality as her death; it could never be put back wholly, the way it once was. Everything that made it what it was, no longer existed—just like her mama.
‘We can fix that, don’t worry. Go. Shower, change. Then maybe we can go out, have something to eat… grab a few drinks. In fact, we could skip the meal altogether, and go straight to drinks,’ Brooke suggested. ‘I know I could use a couple, or five.’
‘Tonight? I don’t really—’
‘Yes, tonight. Unless you fancy sticking around here and trashing the place?’ Brooke inclined her chin toward the shards of broken glass.
‘Fine. You’re right. It may do us both some good to get out.’
They started up the stairs with their luggage, Brooke spouting unintelligible curse words the whole time. At the top, she crossed the landing, red-faced and breathless, heading straight on up to tackle the second flight of stairs to the converted loft, as Ella took a left toward the open door of her own room. For a while she simply stood in the doorway, taking it in; trying not to imagine how different this day would have been had her mama been here to greet her.
Even now though, Addie’s presence lingered: the double bed was fully made-up, as though she’d been expecting Ella to walk through the door any minute, and instead of the clutter of Ella’s youth, a single vase of wilted flowers sat atop the small Victorian dressing table. Five boxes were stacked in the corner of the room near the window, just as she’d left them—a cocktail collection of memories and junk.
A distinct thud came through the ceiling as Brooke set her luggage down in the room above Ella.
‘Man alive! How the hell did I live in this hole?’ Brooke exclaimed seconds later.
Ella smiled without answering. She crossed the landing to the master bedroom, then hesitated. It would be much easier to wait, to walk away. Instead, she took a deep breath, reminded herself of the absence, and turned the doorknob. She nudged the door open with the toe of her shoe.
It was dark and still. She could make out the dressing table, the collection of bottles and jars, and small piles of books. The bed was unmade, as though someone had only just stepped out of it this morning.
A shiver ran through her, and goosebumps erupted on her bare arms. She automatically reached for the light switch just inside the door but nothing happened. Trying to shake off the feeling, she shut the door again just as Brooke came bounding down the stairs.
Trying to shake off the feeling, she shut the door again just as Brooke came bounding down the stairs.
‘I have no idea how I got so tall living in that cupboard up there. I can just about stand upright. You okay?’ she added. ‘You been in there yet?’ She beckoned toward the master bedroom and Ella’s hand, which still clutched the doorknob.
‘Mm,’ Ella nodded. ‘It needs a new bulb.’
Brooke waited until she heard the water running in the shower before she exhaled heavily and collapsed onto the edge of the creaky bed. It was exhausting having to pretend for Ella’s sake that she had her shit together. Or that everything would eventually be okay. Especially when she had no idea how any of this crap could amount to anything other than what it was: crap.
She pulled one of her cases toward her and began the search for an outfit, simply to have something else to focus on other than the suffocation of being back in her old room. She made a conscious effort not to really look at anything but it was useless. Bare walls, one window, a tatty-edged,
Bare walls, one window, a tatty-edged, blu-tacked poster of The Cranberries, naked wooden floor, single bed. No photos or frills; no charm—just memories… The pine wood flooring had been re-laid when she’d been officially adopted—the newly-orphaned girl, given a second-chance home with the family of her best friend. It had felt special at the time; a new room just for her. New bed, new paint, new floor. The smell of the pine wood had been intoxicating. Now, as an adult, the smell sickened her.
As she discarded one item of clothing after another, she forced herself to focus on the positives in returning home. She’d get to be the nurturing one for a change. Supportive, helpful. And she could try, really try, to bury things once and for all. Even if she couldn’t manage that, and she sincerely doubted it, at least she wouldn’t have to worry about work—that had to be a plus; although, to be perfectly honest she didn’t make a habit of worrying about work during work hours, much less otherwise. One genuine bonus was that she’d get to see a few old faces. The problem was she might not get to choose who those faces belonged to…
In a month, it’d all be over. Just one month. It was all she hoped to endure, despite Ella’s reluctance to book return tickets. Going along with that seemed more of a sympathy offering than anything at the time; now Brooke wished she’d put her foot down. She wanted to be certain of her departure details, her ‘get out of jail free’ card. Seems like she wasn’t the only one in the family in need of one of those right now.
She sighed, and tossed a red item of clothing over her shoulder, followed by another one, this time black. Black would have been appropriate, but Brooke was past mourning. Ella was her sister through and through, by love, if not blood; and Addie had been a wonderful mother figure in so many ways, but Brooke could never really connect with her. On some level, mourning her would feel like a lie. She was sad, naturally, but Ella was grieving in a way Brooke would never be able to. She just didn’t feel that way. Or wouldn’t allow herself to…
‘I’m done!’ Ella’s voice came up the stairs.
Brooke jumped guiltily, and brushed away the beginnings of a tear, as though it weren’t happening. The last thing Ella needed was an unstable co-pilot.
The bar was already heaving with people when they arrived just after ten. Ella recognised a few faces on the way in; she slipped under the radar with ease as Brooke bobbed her head and threw enough half-smiles for the both of them.
One of the men on the open-air patio all but pounced on her sister.
‘Brooke? That you?’
Brooke smiled back casually at the overeager guy, her green satin top accentuating a lot more than just her eyes. She was never at risk of going unnoticed.
Ella hung about, feeling uneasy, wishing Brooke would stop dragging out the whole sorry charade and get to the point, so they could get moving. She remembered this particular victim, vaguely. Dylan… or Darren? Shit, if she couldn’t remember his name she doubted Brooke could, even though Brooke was the one who used to date him—him and every other two-legged hopeful. Dylan, or Darren, had been crazy about Brooke, so she had messed around with him for about a week and a half and then told him ‘it wasn’t working out’. Any man lucky enough to know Brooke was also unlucky enough to have heard those infamous last words from her.
Ella observed the two of them, caught up in conversation as though there hadn’t been a single awkward moment between them. To be honest, she felt surplus to requirements; she knew only too well how many more of Brooke’s ‘acquaintances’ would be waiting to get reacquainted, and quite frankly, unless Ella was prepared to issue tickets, she’d be invisible.
The idea of going back to the house beckoned. Instead, headed bravely for the bar, she began squeezing her way through the crowd. She ordered her drink and scanned the room. She recognised so many people—unmoving, unchanging, as though no time at all had passed. She spotted her cousin Sarah, but she’d been less than friendly towards Ella for the majority of their lives, mostly because of the company Sarah kept—Christy, Paige and Louisa—together: the fantastic-bloody-four. Between them, back then, they’d been the epitome of cool. Granted, Ella’s definition of ‘cool’ left a lot to be desired. Give yourself a few years, and a good, sharp smack in the face with reality and things certainly looked different.
As enviable as they’d been growing up, Christy and her crew provided Ella with just enough remembered nerves to act as a distraction from the anguish swarming around her head, like flies around a corpse. She allowed a small, self-deprecating smirk: perhaps she should hire them to come home with her; it’d keep her mind off… her mind.
She paid for her drink, and then propped herself up at the bar for a while, still gazing around, hoping to see someone she actually knew or liked. There were several old classmates around but she didn’t have the nerve to just walk right up and start talking. Keeping in touch would have paid off, had she had the sense and social skills to have done it.
Two of Christy’s three groupies were being frivolous at the far end of the bar.
Perpetual idiots… It was a small mercy Christy was absent. Morphing into a former teenaged shell of herself, Ella found herself hoping Christy would remain absent.
Automatically, she began wondering whether Christy might still be with Matthew…
Matthew Hudson: heart-break extraordinaire.
It would be pretty ironic if they were still together. Or married.
She sincerely hoped not, even after all this time.
After a last hopeless glance around the room, she gave up. She would check in on Brooke, but after that, she was quite prepared to shoot her glass of wine in a single unladylike gulp, and run off home.
Rising, she grabbed her glass off the bar and collided—wine first—with the solid bulk of another body.
She cursed under her breath.
‘Sorry about that,’ she said, shouting over the racket from the DJ.
She twisted between several other patrons to rid herself of the empty glass. At least it hadn’t broken. She shook her hands in a pathetic effort to dry them, and then smoothed them across her wine-soaked dress, an attempt that was even more desperate.
‘Really, I’m so sorry,’ she said again, turning. ‘I wasn’t looking where—’
She became rapidly aware of the staccato thudding in her chest. She’d heard the saying ‘speak of the devil’. Apparently, thinking of the devil would suffice.
‘Hey,’ he said, smiling.
Matthew freaking Hudson… of all the people to run into.
‘Hi, what are you d—I mean—how are you? God, it’s been… how long?’
She ignored her flustered stammering, and observed the tall, burly man in front of her, as thoroughly bewildered by him now as she’d been when last she saw him. All these years later and he still rendered her a little breathless.
‘I’m so sorry about the—’ She gestured to her former beverage currently seeping through the front of his shirt.
‘It’s okay,’ he shrugged. ‘It’s my fault. I saw you and kind of… charged over. Let me get you another drink. Wine, right?’
‘White?’ he asked.
Wow, he paid attention. Although he had the damn stuff all over him, so it wasn’t much of a challenge.
He nudged his way through bodies, and she tagged along behind him, relishing the opportunity to examine him in profile as they drew level with the bar. This made for a much better distraction than her earlier idea. As unchanged as the feelings he stirred, so were his features—youthful as ever: playful eyes, wide mouth, chiselled jaw-line…
He put a freshly filled glass in front of her.
‘Thanks.’ She took a sip, then a large gulp.
‘You look great, El.’
She nearly choked on the wine. It was all she could do to keep from spitting it back into the glass.
‘Thanks,’ she muttered again.
‘You haven’t aged a day,’ he said, his eyes trained on her face, whilst she concentrated on emptying her glass at a steady pace.
‘Tell me you’ve got more than flattery up your sleeve these days.’
‘It’s true, though. You haven’t changed at all.’
She shrugged. What he didn’t know could go unmentioned.
‘You’ve aged dreadfully,’ she quipped.
He threw his head back, his laugh loud, even above the music in the room.
‘Thanks, I’m touched.’
‘Don’t mention it.’
‘So, I take it you didn’t know we were on the same voyage back here, either?’
She looked at him, puzzled; he must’ve figured that as ‘no’, and continued.
‘I only saw you after we’d dropped anchor. Saw you disembarking.’
‘No way? I have to admit I was a bit of a hermit the whole time.’
‘Shame,’ he said. ‘Could’ve had some fun.’
She let the comment slide, unwilling to speculate, irritated that after all this time he had the nerve to assume that she still thought he was the next best thing. Whether she did or not was entirely beside the point.
‘Jason!’ Brooke squealed as she spotted the six-foot, dark-haired man, unable to contain herself. She weaved her way through the crowd toward him, and he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her without so much as a hello, as though he had rights.
‘A little birdy told me you were on your way home,’ he said, when he pulled away from her, his arm still around her shoulders. ‘Seems like you left just yesterday.’
‘Well! That’s charming!’ Brooke laughed. ‘It’s been a bloody decade, J, give or take.’
His laugh was deep. ‘So where’s my other girl?’
‘What? There’s someone else? Jason Richards! Another woman… I’m fucking heartbroken.’
‘You’re a lousy actress.’ Jason sniggered. ‘Where is she?’
Brooke craned her head above the throng, trying to spot Ella.
‘You know, I have no idea. She was here a minute ago.’ Brooke wondered then if it had only been a minute.
She shrugged. Ella always wandered off on nights out. She just… had a habit of disappearing. The worst part was that she was often a hard person to find again; she was so short she was the last to know when it rained; finding her amid drunken, arm-waving bump-n-grinders was virtually impossible.
‘I’ll keep an eye out for her,’ Jason said.
‘Sure, she’s probably just at the bar.’
Before either of them made a move, Ella showed up. She crept up behind Jason, and made a fair attempt to cover his eyes with her hands; she could barely reach the top of his shoulders. She dug him in the ribs instead. He spun around, then realising who it was, scooped her up in a hug that momentarily lifted her off her feet.
‘Hey, you,’ he said.
‘Hey, yourself. How are you?’ Ella’s face lit up despite all the recent tragedy, and Brooke smiled, relieved to see her a little more at ease than earlier.
‘I’m wet,’ Jason chuckled, pulling away from her and glancing down at his shirt. ‘What the hell happened to you?’
Ella dismissed it with a wave of her hand.
‘Oh, it was nothing. Clumsy as ever, me.’
Jason shook his head.
‘Didn’t change a bit,’ he grinned, and draped his arm across her shoulders. ‘I can’t believe you’re back, both of you! Just like old times, huh?’ He smiled, then caught himself. ‘Well, not exactly like old times… I’m sorry about your mama, El.’
Ella’s smile slipped like watery cake icing, and Jason squeezed her a little tighter.
He had been their friend for a long time. To Ella, he was the big brother she’d never had. Brooke, on the other hand, had been linked to him in such a way that brotherhood would render the whole thing a sin.
‘So… what’s new with the two of you? Apart from… y’know…’ Jason wrapped an arm around each of them and sauntered towards the bar. Neither of them answered.
‘Okay, looks like we’re saving the heart-to-heart for later, huh? Suits me. How ’bout we drink ourselves senseless instead?’
‘I thought you’d never ask,’ Brooke said.
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