‘Ready for your first lesson?’ Finn asked.

‘Lesson?’ Jesse looked puzzled for a moment, then grinned. ‘It’s not too wet, is it?’

‘Just a shower. A bit trickier, but you’ll be fine. The thing is, over the next few weeks I’m going to be away a lot, off and on, so I thought we ought use whatever time we can find.’

Jesse glanced down at his jeans, his shoes. ‘I haven’t got any rain gear.’

‘Come down to my office.’

Sarah had been joking only about the chains. The black leather outfit fitted almost perfectly, as if Finn had measured him in his sleep.

‘I feel—’ Jesse stopped, searching for an adequate description. ‘I feel like a sleek black panther.’

‘Feels good though, doesn’t it?’

‘Better than I thought it would. Much better.’

Finn regarded Jesse’s feet sceptically before passing him a pair of boots.

‘Try these on. They’re the only spares I’ve got, but it doesn’t look as if they’ll fit.’

Jesse unlaced one of his trainers. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t manage to screw his foot inside. He was reminded of Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters.

Finn must have been thinking the same thing.

‘Just as I guessed. Forget the glass slipper. We’ll have to get you some proper manly boots.’

‘I’ve got big feet,’ said Jesse, wriggling his toes in relief.

‘Immaterial. They only start charging extra when your feet approach yeti measurements.’

Jesse was quiet for a moment.

‘Did you buy all this stuff for me?’

Finn shuffled some papers on his desk, his face suddenly inscrutable.

Finn’s money made Jesse uncomfortable. Not because Finn had it. Not because Jesse didn’t like accepting it (though he didn’t). But because Jesse noticed that he minded accepting it less and less.

‘They belonged to Peter?’ Jesse asked, realisation dawning.


They looked at each other, then Finn patted Jesse awkwardly on the shoulder.

‘Go on, get ready,’ Finn said. ‘Take the blue helmet by the front door and leave the black-and-silver one for me. I’ll meet you at the garage. I need to make a phone call before we start.’

‘Where are we going? I’m not old enough to drive, you know.’

Finn didn’t succeed in hiding his smile. ‘You’ll see,’ was all he’d say.

Jeans in hand, Jesse headed for the stairs, then remembered that he’d taken his cigarettes from his pocket while changing and left them on Finn’s desk.

‘Sorry, I forgot my—’ Jesse began, as he opened the office door.

Finn was holding a pistol in his hand. Their eyes locked, then Finn sighed and gestured for Jesse to enter.

‘Please shut the door,’ Finn said.

He stowed the gun in a desk drawer before explaining.

‘I wish you hadn’t seen that, but it can’t be helped now.’ He tugged at his beard. ‘I suppose you’re wondering what I’m doing with a firearm.’

‘Yeah, you could say that.’

‘I need it for my work.’

‘As a *photographer?*’ With some difficulty Jesse refrained from a nasty crack about photo shoots.

‘Some of the places I go are dangerous.’ Finn chewed his lower lip for a moment, his eyes on Jesse. ‘OK, it’s obvious you’re not convinced. Let’s just say that photography isn’t my only work.’

‘You mean—’

‘I mean,’ Finn interrupted, ‘that I can’t and won’t talk about it. For a lot of reasons. And I’m relying on you to do the same.’

Jesse ran swiftly upstairs, two at a time. Outside his room he came face to face with Sarah, who was carrying the satchel she used for dance classes. She averted her gaze and walked on past him, then spun round, her eyes chasing the colour of thunder, her voice accusing.

‘Did my father give you those biking clothes?’

He nodded.

Sarah tightened her lips and strode off. Peter’s Harley gear was the one thing Finn had refused to pack up or give away. Now Jesse was prancing around in it. Well, not prancing… he didn’t prance. Not like some, who flaunted themselves at every opportunity. Jesse danced without taking a single step. The black leather was soft and supple—and just a little savage. Sarah ignored the thistle unfurling in her belly, but not the words her treacherous mind was whispering. Damn him. He had no right to look so good. So perfect. So *sexy*. She could just imagine what someone like Tondi would say—or do.

Jesse watched her leave.

In his room he tossed his jeans onto the bed and rubbed his hands along the sensuous leather of the trousers, whose warmth reminded him of melting chocolate, or Emmy’s fresh-bathed skin. He’d never clad himself in—and certainly never owned—anything of this calibre. Wearing Peter’s garments didn’t make him feel a trespasser, no matter how much Sarah resented it.

Unable to find the elastic for his hair on the bedside table, Jesse went to check his desk. As he shifted the pad of paper he was using for some notes, he caught a whiff of anise and turned to look if he’d left the window open. This time the lad is lying on a rough cement floor, one eye swollen shut, his face a mass of bruises, blood trickling from his mouth. Help me, he says. You’re the only one who can.

Jesse gasps and takes a step forward.

‘Jesse!’ Finn’s voice bellowed from the downstairs hallway. ‘What’s taking you so long?’

The Harley was a monster. A dream machine whose power lay not in cc (1450, and no anti-gravity required for lift-off) nor its size nor its in-your-face design, but in its mystique. Even Jesse felt it as Finn showed him how to check out the simple stuff—the T-CLOCK inspection, he called it (tyres, controls, lights, oil, chassis, and kickstand).

‘Always look your bike over carefully before even *thinking* about starting off. You can avoid big problems, save yourself a lot of grief that way.’ He grinned. ‘Maybe your life.’ Then he gave Jesse a spare key and told him to zip it into a pocket. ‘I duct tape it to a hiding place on the bike when I haven’t got someone riding pillion.’

He ran through a number of other instructions and safety tips, showed Jesse the controls, explained a few basics about engine, clutch, brakes, gears. He was a good teacher, patient and thorough and explicit. Then he verified that Jesse’s helmet was securely fastened, wheeled the bike out of the garage, mounted, waited for Jesse to hop on behind, started the engine, revved it once—hard—for the sheer *wicked* pleasure of it, saluted the sky with a gloved fist, and they were away.

The rain was light, the tarmac slick and shiny. Their wheels threw up a fine spray which billowed behind them as the Harley sliced through the outskirts of the city, opening a rite of passage into the hills. Surprised that his visor didn’t fog, Jesse found it difficult to gauge how fast they drove. He was warm, though. Moisture simply beaded on Peter’s leathers, which must have been waxed or treated in some way.

Questions buzzed about in Jesse’s head, but he could do little more than hang on tight to Finn’s waist and wait for them to reach their destination. Jesse hadn’t been sure how he would cope with riding body to body, entirely dependent on someone else’s skill. Perhaps it was their protective clothing, but Jesse experienced no discomfort whatsoever—no uneasiness, no shrinking away. At one point, as Finn strafed sharply into the next corner, Jesse tightened his hold and leaned into the big man’s shoulder. Finn shouted something unintelligible back at him, then slowed a bit, took a hand off the handlebar, and gripped Jesse’s where it lay across his own generous midriff. Jesse straightened with a smile, an indecent sense of gratitude filling his throat for a few moments.

After about thirty minutes, they passed a dip in the road, then a cluster of derelict stone buildings, where they turned off into a narrow lane. They were well above the river now—once or twice Jesse had glimpsed its long sinuous curve and the spread of the city, appearing from this distance to cling like a malignant lesion to both sides of a dark blue vein. Even the Old Bridge had been visible. Finn couldn’t maintain his previous speed, for the lane was overgrown and muddy. The rain had just about let up, and above the trees Jesse could see patches of lighter sky behind swiftly driving gunmetal cloud, though no blue as yet. There were puddles in the lane, some deep enough to reach the axles, but Finn was able to dodge the worst potholes. He maintained an even and alert pace, never once skidding or losing traction.

A five-bar gate barricaded the end of the lane. *Private*, the sign said. *No Entry.* Finn pulled to a halt and signalled for Jesse to open it. The lane became a grassy track just wide enough for a vehicle. From the ruts and flattened nettles Jesse could tell that a car had passed through here recently. He slid off a little unsteadily, surprised to see the treetops whipping in the breeze. Once Finn had steered the motorbike across the cattlegrid—though no herd was in evidence—Jesse closed the gate and climbed back on board. Finn followed the track as it skirted a ridge and twisted to the right, then entered a densely wooded tract. After about three kilometres, the track forked, then began to steepen uphill. They needed another twenty minutes to reach a small clearing. An ancient Landrover was parked outside a stone cottage. When Jesse dismounted and removed his helmet, he saw that the track ended here.

‘Go and have a look,’ Finn told him, waving towards the rear of the cottage.

Jesse examined the dwelling, which had been built either by a genius or a madman—or was a joint venture. Two-thirds of the walls were natural stone, more pinkish in colour than common in the area and intensifying in places to a deep salmon; the remainder, cement painted a bright sapphire blue. No two windows were of the same size or shape, and all were asymmetrical. And although Jesse counted the outer walls repeatedly, he came up with a different number each time. There were no 90° angles to be found anywhere, and quite a few bulges and curves. The roof surged and recoiled around an off-centre chimney. And Jesse swore that he saw the fender of a steam engine mortared under one of the eaves.

It was magnificent.

Jesse laid his helmet on the motorcycle seat, shook the stiffness out of his shoulders, and walked slowly around the cottage, skirting a large mound of straw bales. He stopped when he reached the back, and gaped.

The entire rear wall of the cottage was an amber-tinted mirrored façade, affording privacy but providing a breathtaking view. The cottage was built into the bank of a large, stream-fed pond—a small upland lake, really. A wooden deck jutted far out over the water, so that its broad teak planks appeared to be floating free like a raft, and on the opposite shore a waterfall plummeted first into a rocky plunge pool, then spilled into the clear depths of the lake itself. Immediately Jesse yearned to strip and throw himself into the water, swim across to the falls. This was something he understood!

Then he realised that they weren’t alone. Under a large garden parasol a man was stretched out in a deckchair, with a tartan woollen rug tucked round him. He threw off the blanket and rose as Jesse walked towards him, held out his arm, and smiled broadly. A long-sleeved jumper hid his tattoos; one sleeve had been truncated and sewn shut.

‘Welcome, Jesse,’ Matthew said.

Finn was approaching from around the other side of the cottage, a big grin on his face.

Inside they sat down to strong black tea. There was a large tin of homemade shortbread, too, and a fire that Matthew lit in the stone fireplace.

‘Whose place is this?’ Jesse asked, after he’d eaten a frightening number of biscuits and had a chance to look round him. The interior was as fascinating as he’d expected, but scantily furnished. They were seated on very simple armchairs and a sofa—straight clean lines, quiet colours. It was the architecture itself that decorated the room.

‘Mine,’ said Matthew. ‘The land belongs to my family, but I built the cottage myself.’

‘Stone by stone,’ said Finn, ‘when Matthew was stronger.’ He looked at Matthew with a question in his eyes.

‘He knows,’ Matthew said. ‘We can talk about it.’

‘You’re looking better. Much better than last time I saw you,’ Finn said.

Matthew and Jesse exchanged glances. Jesse gave an almost imperceptible shake to his head, then turned to study the trees and rocky outcroppings through the great stretch of glass. The surface of the lake reflected the sombre tones of the sky and the rain-darkened trees, except where the waterfall foamed into its lap.

‘I *am* feeling better,’ Matthew said.

‘A new course of treatment?’

‘Yes.’ Matthew let it go at that.

‘Excellent.’ Finn addressed Jesse. ‘I thought you’d enjoy this place.’

Matthew indicated his missing arm. ‘Finn helped me build the cottage. That’s why he gets squatter’s rights.’

Jesse must have looked confused, since Finn laughed and explained. ‘I use the cottage as kind of retreat, when I need to do some quiet thinking. I get fed up sometimes with the noise and the stink and the crowds. The carnivorous city. And the *telephone*. Whoever invented the mobile should be butchered in his own laboratory, or at least made to listen to that infernal ringing day and night, till he goes mad from sleep deprivation.’

‘Use your mailbox,’ Matthew said.

Finn smote his head. ‘Now *why* didn’t I think of that?’

Jesse was picturing Finn’s spacious house, his complex of rooms in the basement, and the quiet overgrown garden.

‘I can tell what you’re thinking, Jesse. What have I got to complain about?’

Jesse grinned. ‘Yeah, something like that.’

‘Don’t forget that I grew up with the northern wilderness for my backyard. It’s in my blood, which gets too thin on a steady diet of exhaust fumes and neon lights.’

‘One of the reasons you like to take those long exotic assignments?’ Jesse asked, an ironic overtone creeping into his voice.

Finn pulled his pipe, lighter, and tobacco pouch from a pocket. He spent some time filling the bowl, then clamped the stem between his teeth without lighting up. ‘One of them.’

‘Finn does a fair amount of shooting up here,’ Matthew said. ‘Photos, not wildlife.’

Finn removed the pipe from his mouth.

‘The abstracts in the sitting room were photographed near the waterfall,’ he said. ‘There’s a lot that can be done just within a three-kilometre radius of the cottage.’

‘You didn’t bring a camera,’ Matthew said.

‘Not today. This trip is for Jesse.’ He glanced out the window. ‘I’m introducing him to biking. If it doesn’t start to rain again, I’d like to let him have a go on his own.’ He turned to Jesse. ‘There are kilometres of private road throughout the woodland. It’s a very extensive property.’

‘My uncle’s been having the track near the ancient quarry cleared and widened. There’s a good-sized flattish bit where Jesse could practise,’ Matthew said.

‘Good idea,’ Finn said.

‘Are you going to light that thing?’ Matthew asked, pointing at the pipe. ‘If so, I’ll fetch an ashtray.’

‘Maybe later.’ Finn poured himself another cup of tea from the pot. ‘Driving back tonight?’

‘Tomorrow morning. Or did you want some privacy?’

‘You don’t live here all the time?’ Jesse asked.

Matthew shook his head.

‘Matthew often stays in the city, at his uncle’s boathouse, when he’s not—’ Finn looked down into his mug.

‘When I’m not in hospital.’

They were silent for a few minutes, listening to the low crackling of the fire.

‘Mind if I smoke?’ Jesse asked when the smell of the burning wood became insistent, and uncomfortable.

‘Only in so far as I know what cancer’s like,’ Matthew said. ‘There are faster—and less painful—ways to kill yourself. Pills, for one. Or jumping off the Old Bridge, which would be a touch more melodramatic. And add to the legends whispered about the bridge.’

‘Don’t be so bloody morbid, Matthew,’ Finn said.

‘Morbid? *Me?* Because I’ve got my pills hoarded? I call it being a good boy scout. Suicide is a perfectly legitimate option… sometimes.’

Jesse hesitated. He’d forgotten how blunt Matthew could be. But Matthew picked up Finn’s lighter and tossed it across to Jesse.

‘Go on, then,’ he said. ‘If you must.’

But Jesse left his cigarettes in his pocket. He was not stopped by the prospect of cancer in some far distant future. Nor was he intimidated by Matthew. It was the flash of grief that he’d seen in Matthew’s eyes, perhaps not for himself, but for all the stupid and senseless and destructive things people do to themselves with the little time they’re given.

And Finn in those few minutes of shared silence had watched Peter sawing planks of wood for Matthew, loping off with his sketchbook towards the lake, throwing a stick to a golden-coated dog.

‘Where’s Daisy?’ Finn asked.

‘Out chasing lemmings,’ Matthew said.

‘Forgot to buy dog food again, have you?’ Finn asked.

They laughed, and Jesse helped himself to another biscuit.

‘Those are Peter’s things, aren’t they?’ Matthew asked. ‘It’s about time they were used.’ Mortality was a fact of life for him, not a nasty little secret to be kept hidden in a cupboard.

Jesse managed not to overturn the motorcycle, and he only stalled the engine twice. Finn had him practise starting till he could do it smoothly; the first few times he forgot about the kill switch, then tried to start the engine while in gear. He had some trouble coordinating clutch and throttle. Eventually he was able to drive in a wide circle without wobbling, though he still didn’t trust himself entirely with the gear shifter. Leaning to make a turn and braking seemed to come naturally to him, but smooth throttle operations were less successful.

Jesse removed his helmet and flicked back his hair. There was a line of sweat along his brow. He’d forgotten what it was like for someone to believe in you.

‘That’s enough for now,’ Finn said. ‘It’s a big bike, and it would have been easier to start out on a scooter or at least a lighter machine. We’ll work on changing gears, then swerving and emergency braking the next couple of times I take you out, before you try to get up any speed.’

Jesse mopped his face with his hand.

‘You did fine, Jesse. Remind me someday to tell you about my first afternoon on a motorbike.’

‘What happened?’

‘Not now. I have to be very drunk to recount the story. Hop on, and we’ll go back to the cottage.’

‘Do you mind if I make my own way back? I’d like to walk through the wood, maybe go down to the lake.’

Finn glanced at his watch. ‘I can’t be away for too long. How about if I run you down to a path that leads to the waterfall, and you walk back along the lake by yourself? Will that do for today?’

Jesse nodded.

‘Good,’ said Finn. ‘There are some things I need to go over with Matthew.’

‘He’s a very unusual man.’

‘How much has he told you about himself?’

‘Very little. We don’t talk much while we work.’

‘That’s like him. He’s as open as can be about his illness, but there’s a lot he leaves out. He was studying architecture when they discovered his cancer. It changed everything for him. His father was devastated. Matthew’s an only child, and his mother died when he was eleven. Of a brain tumour,’ Finn said.


‘There’s more. Aside from the arm, I mean. He was living with a woman. It had been a few years, they’d talked about getting married, kids were being mentioned. Within six weeks of the diagnosis, she was gone. Packed her clothes and her books and her cat and moved in with someone else. She couldn’t deal with illness, not serious illness. *Fatal* illness. In a way I could understand her. When I didn’t feel like throttling her.’ He gave a small flat laugh. ‘Her name was Daisy. To this day I can’t figure out whether it was longing or bitterness that made Matthew name his dog after her.’

‘Or masochism.’

‘Know something about that, do you?’

There was an uncomfortable silence. After a moment Jesse turned and looked towards the open face of the quarry. Not once had he thought to ask Matthew about his life. It would be easy for Jesse to pretend that it was out of delicacy, but he’d be fooling himself. He’d been too preoccupied with his own thoughts, his own issues. He swallowed, his mouth tasted sour. He thought of Mal, who had needed those model ships; the glass bottles had contained a message for Jesse that he’d refused to decrypt.

‘But Matthew adopted Daisy—most people underestimate a husky’s needs, and she’d been turned over to the RSPCA—and started work on the narrowboat. He’s got a little family money and probably not a whole lot of time, but he’s one of the sanest men I know. Dying teaches you how to live, he always says.’ Finn paused for a moment, examining Jesse’s profile, then braved, ‘If I were trapped in a burning building, there’s no one I’d rather have trying to reach me, one arm and all.’

Without a word Jesse strapped on his helmet and went to stand by the Harley until Finn joined him.

It was a struggle not to go for a swim—a struggle which Jesse quickly lost. Ten minutes, he told himself, no more. He looked round, but of course there was no one in sight. He stripped, debating whether to leave anything on, then decided for once against it. He didn’t mind if a trout or badger caught a glimpse of him.

He’d picked a spot where he wouldn’t have to fight his way through a thicket of reeds or clamber over rocky ground to reach the water’s edge. Tossing back his hair, he stepped quickly through the coarse grass at the bank, scanned for underwater hazards, and pushed off from the gently sloping shelf. The lake was cold, but no colder than he was used to.

Jesse struck out for the centre of the lake. He’d have to leave the waterfall for another time. If he swam the circumference of the lake, he could probably locate the outlet, unless it were far underwater. The lake must flow into the river, eventually into the sea. As his arms parted the water with his unhurried stroke, strong and true as an elegant theorem, he pictured the cells his body was right now giving up to the water—a little skin, some sweat, a hair or two, his spit, his pee—and which would in time arrive at the coast. How strange that he might encounter part of himself there, when he finally reached it. And part of how many others, too? He’d never thought of it that way before. What had Sarah said? Some places carry an imprint. Who knew what complex codes were still to be deciphered in the most ordinary stuff?

He rolled over onto his back. Idly he flicked the water with his fingers. What am I doing here? he asked himself. What are any of us? A few raindrops sprinkled his face, scribbled on the surface of the lake. He laughed: getting wet. The universe’s answer to our frantic scrabble for meaning. He wished Sarah were here to share the joke with him. Then he remembered her scorn—her hurt. He flipped over and slid beneath the surface of the water. Apologise, you fool. The resounding silence of the lake offered no rebuke—but no absolution either.

On the bank Jesse rubbed his hands along his limbs to warm and dry them. He squeezed out the excess water from his hair, combed it back with his fingers. He’d pulled on his pants, though his skin was still a little damp, and was reaching for his T-shirt when he heard a soft footfall behind him. Quickly he turned to hide his back from view.

‘Cold?’ Finn asked.

‘Not too bad.’

Neither spoke for a moment.

‘I reckon you’ve seen them,’ Jesse said. ‘The scars on my back.’

‘From the fire?’

Jesse nodded.

And that was that.

Finn picked up a stone and skipped it neatly across the surface of the lake. Quickly Jesse donned his clothing, leaving the leather jacket unzipped. He checked for the top, then searched the ground. At the water’s edge he found a handful of smooth pebbles.

‘Challenge?’ he asked.

Finn broke into a wide grin. ‘Loser gets to climb up on the roof.’

‘Even as a forfeit that’s rather extreme.’

‘I’m serious, there’s a broken tile to replace before we leave. I don’t want Matthew doing it on his own. That’s why I came to fetch you. One of us needs to hold the ladder.’ He hiked his leather trousers, then rubbed his hands together gleefully. ‘I hope you’re not afraid of heights. Years ago I was Olympic gold medallist in ducks and drakes.’ He looked up at the clouds. ‘Come on, it looks as if the sky has got a bellyache.’

‘Prepare for your ignominious defeat,’ Jesse said. He divided up the stones and let Finn choose the pile he preferred.

‘You won’t beat me next time,’ Jesse said.

‘Is that so? Then perhaps a little timely practice might be in order,’ Finn said.

They smiled amicably at each other as they went to fetch the ladder.

‘Matthew! What are you doing up there?’

Matthew jerked at the sound of Finn’s voice, and the ladder on which he was standing wobbled. Then, in excruciating slow motion, exactly as in a film, it began to tilt. There’s one single instant when it seems the fall could be prevented. Loki peers at the board, cradles the dice—he loves to play Snakes and Ladders. And what better chance? Matthew, suspended in mid-air, carried by the sudden breathless silence, the silent breath of wind. Jesse sees the tiny figure clinging with one arm to the Lego ladder. Hovering far above, he sees the toy dog, the bearded man with wide staring eyes and a round O of a mouth, and the blond boy. His merciless vision tells him that even with his speed he cannot reach the man soon enough to pluck him safely from the ladder—from the game. All he can do is adjust, fractionally, the trajectory. And so he flaps his wings, once, and tugs at the air, rises in a fierce steep climb, and is gone.

Matthew landed unharmed in the bales of straw. Once he’d recovered his breath, he stared at Jesse. ‘Just before I fell, I saw you enter the kestrel,’ he whispered.

Jesse closed his book and stretched. Time for a jog in the park, maybe along the river. As soon as Nubi could run properly, they’d go after dark; even better, after midnight. Jesse missed the deep solitude of night, its timelessness; its spatial singularity.

There was a faint but enticing smell seeping under the door. Could Meg be home already? She’d said that she was taking on extra duty in order to have a few days off next week to clear out the attic. A daunting task. He’d stay that long, certainly.

There was still the road, and the sea.

Jesse glanced at Nubi, who was stretched out theatrically with his broken leg on display, and snorted. Another performer. The bandage was past its *best by* date: grubby and starting to unravel. Nubi wouldn’t leave off tearing at it with his teeth. Finn was taking them by car to the vet day after tomorrow.

There was still the sea.

Nubi would be a good travelling companion. It wouldn’t always be easy to feed him, but people trusted you more readily with a dog—or left you alone.

There was still the sea.

Jesse rubbed a hand across his eyes. Matthew’s face had begun to flesh out already, and to lose its telltale translucence, if not the deep lines of pain. And he was paying Jesse more than he should. It was time to look for a second job, a room (though Finn would be hurt). At least until the primary tumour deep inside Matthew’s head had shrunk.

There was still the sea.

He’d promised himself to swim the lake. Just as Sarah had promised to tell him what Peter had been like. Promises…

And there was still the sea.

Someone knocked, a quiet and tentative sound.

‘Come in,’ Jesse called out.

Sarah opened the door, a plate in her hands.

‘I’ve baked some brownies,’ she said with a hesitant smile. ‘Want to try them?’

She was dressed in her usual jeans and T-shirt, but she looked different somehow—softer, more troubled. There were dark rings under her eyes, and her freckles stood out. She had very long feathery eyelashes, he noticed. Like Nubi’s. He grinned to himself at the comparison. But Nubi had very pretty eyes.

‘What is it?’ she asked, seeing his lips twitch.

‘I was just thinking about your eyes,’ Jesse answered. Immediately he wanted to thwack himself on the forehead. What a *stupid* thing to say.

Sarah didn’t seem to find it so bad. She coloured some, but her smile became less hesitant, and she prodded his chest with the plate. ‘Come on, try one. They’re good.’

‘Mm,’ he said, chewing slowly and luxuriously, his mouth having decided it had arrived at the garden of Eden. Apple? Adam hadn’t had a clue.

‘What did you call them?’ Jesse asked.

‘Brownies,’ Sarah repeated. ‘They’re American.’

‘No,’ he said as he reached for another, ‘they’re Divine.’

They settled on Jesse’s bed, eating without saying much. Very soon the brownies were finished. Jesse picked up the last crumbs from the plate with a fingertip. He sighed and lay back with his arms under his head, his eyelids heavy. Just now he would tell her he was sorry. And maybe he’d wait until later to go out. He was full and warm and a bit sleepy. He could feel his mind slip its moorings, adrift on the wavelets lapping against their old dock. A gentle breeze ruffled his hair. Thistle-light it brushed his skin. He opened his eyes just as Sarah touched her lips to his. Her long hair swung across his face like a fresh gust of wind.

Her eyes were wide, liquid. With one arm Jesse reached up and buried his hand in her hair, pulled her into the kiss. The scent of chocolate lingered on her breath. He felt his body stirring. Her small breasts nestled against his chest. He tightened his hand in her hair. She shifted against him, and a line of heat raced from his mouth to his groin. Her heart drumming. A sound like tearing silk in his throat. Could she feel his erection, how did you tell with a girl, if he touched her, would it be springy like Liam’s or more like fine new grass, soft and full and lush they must be to call them lips, warm too, moist there where she’d let Mick… his mind buckled like a metal girder being torn from its rivets.

‘No,’ he cried. ‘No.’

Jesse pushed her away and sat up. His face was blotched, his breathing uneven.

Sarah rolled onto her side, her face hidden from him. Neither of them said a word. Jesse became aware that her shoulders were trembling. He waited till he could lever himself upright, sat for a moment with his hands between his knees, then rose and went to the window. He gripped the sill, looking out. A few smudges of blue were leaking into the clouds. Briefly a finger of sunlight poked its way through the canvas, gilding everything it touched before being swallowed up again by greyness. He leaned his head against the windowpane, the glass cool on his forehead.

Only when Jesse heard the door shut softly did he realise Sarah had left the room.

Chapter Sixteen