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She didn’t turn round. ‘Oh. You again.’

‘There’s a welcome. Pint of Stella, please, Jess.’ He glanced around the bar, then said, ‘And whatever else you have on offer.’

‘We have some very nice dry-roasted peanuts.’

‘I was thinking of something a bit … wetter.’

‘I’ll get you that pint, then.’

‘Still playing hard to get, eh?’

She had known Liam since school. He was one of those men whom you knew would break your heart into tiny pieces if you let him; the kind of blue-eyed, smart-mouthed boy who ignored you all the way through years ten and eleven, laughed you into bed when you lost your braces and grew your hair, then gave you nothing more than a cheery wave and a wink for ever after. His hair was chestnut brown, his cheekbones high and lightly tanned. He ran a flower stall in the market and whenever she passed he would whisper, ‘You. Me. Behind the dahlias, now,’ just seriously enough to make her miss her stride. His wife had left him about the same time as Marty had departed (‘A little matter of serial infidelity. Some women are so picky’), and six months ago, after one of Des’s lock-ins, they had ended up in the ladies’ loos with his hands up her shirt and Jess walking round wearing a lopsided smile for days.

She and Marty had lived like an irritable brother and sister by the time he left. Sometimes he said he was tired. Mostly he said she put him off with her nagging.

Jess sometimes thought she missed it, but she didn’t miss him.

She was taking the empty cardboard crisps boxes out to the bins when Liam appeared at the back gate. He walked up to her with a sort of silent swagger so that she had to back slowly against the wall of the pub garden. He had a smile on his face like they were both in on some private joke. He stood so that the entire length of his body was just inches from hers and said softly, ‘I can’t stop thinking about you.’ He held his cigarette hand well away from her. He was a gentleman like that.

‘I bet you say that to all the girls.’

‘I like watching you move around that bar. Half the time I’m watching the football, and half the time I’m imagining bending you over it.’

‘Who says romance is dead?’

God, he smelt good. Jess wriggled a bit, trying to get herself out from under him before she did something she’d regret. Being near Liam Stubbs sparked bits of her to life that she had forgotten existed, like those joke birthday candles that insist on reigniting long after you’d blown them out.

‘So let me romance you. Let me take you out. You and me. A proper date. Come on, Jess. Let’s make a go of it.’

Jess pulled back from him. ‘What?’

‘You heard.’

She stared. ‘You want us to have a relationship?’

‘You say it like it’s a dirty word.’

She slid out from under him, glancing towards the back door. ‘I’ve got to get back to the bar, Liam.’

‘Why won’t you go out with me?’ He took a step closer. ‘You know it would be great …’ His voice had dropped to a whisper.

‘And I also know I have two kids and two jobs and you spend your whole life in your car, and it would take about three weeks for you and me to be bickering on a sofa about whose turn it was to take the rubbish out.’ She smiled sweetly at him. ‘And then we would lose the heart-stopping romance of exchanges like this for ever.’

He picked up a lock of her hair and let it slide through his fingers. His voice was a soft growl. ‘So cynical. You’re going to break my heart, Jess Thomas.’

‘And you’re going to get me fired.’

He was the man you never dared take seriously. She thought he probably liked her because she was the only woman round here who didn’t.

‘I take it this means a quickie’s out of the question?’

She extricated herself and made her way towards the back door, trying to make the colour subside from her cheeks. Then she stopped. ‘Hey, Liam.’

He looked up from stubbing his cigarette out.

‘You don’t want to lend me five hundred quid, do you?’

‘If I had it, babe, you could have it.’ He blew a kiss as she disappeared back indoors.

She was walking around the bar to pick up empties, her cheeks still pink, when she saw him. She actually did a double-take. He was sitting in the corner alone, and there were three empty pint glasses in front of him.

He had changed into Converse trainers, jeans and a T-shirt and he sat staring at his mobile phone, flicking at the screen and occasionally glancing up when everyone cheered a goal. As Jess watched, he picked up a beer and downed it. He probably thought that in his jeans he blended in, but he had ‘incomer’ written all over him. As he glanced towards the bar, she turned away swiftly, feeling her brief happy mood evaporate.

‘Just popping downstairs for some more snacks,’ she said to Chelsea, and made for the cellar. ‘Ugh,’ she muttered, under her breath. ‘Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.’ When she re-emerged he had a fresh pint and barely looked up from his phone.

The evening stretched. Chelsea discussed her Internet options, Mr Nicholls drank three more pints and Jess disappeared whenever he got up to the bar, juggled debts and imaginary lottery wins and tried not to meet Liam’s eye. By ten to eleven, the pub was down to a handful of stragglers – the usual offenders, Des called them. Chelsea put on her coat.

‘Where are you going?’

She stooped to apply her lipstick in the mirror behind the optics. ‘Des said I could leave a bit early.’ She pursed her lips. ‘Date.’

‘Date? Who goes on a date at this time of night?’

‘It’s a date at David’s house. It’s all right,’ she said, as Jess stared at her. ‘My sister’s coming too. He said it would be nice with the three of us.’

‘Chels, have you ever heard the expression “booty call”?’

‘What?’

Jess looked at her for a minute. ‘Nothing. Just … have a nice time.’

She was loading the dishwasher when he appeared at the bar. His eyes were half closed and he swayed gently, as if he was about to embark on some free-form dance.

‘Pint, please.’

She shoved another two glasses to the back of the wire rack. ‘We’re not serving any more. It’s gone eleven.’

He looked up at the clock. His voice slurred. ‘It’s one minute to.’

‘You’ve had enough.’

He blinked slowly, stared at her. His short, dark hair was sticking up slightly on one side, as if at some point during the last hour, he had started to slide down the banquette. ‘Who are you to tell me I’ve had enough?’

‘The person who serves the drinks. That’s usually how it works.’ Jess held his gaze. ‘You don’t even recognize me, do you?’

‘Should I?’

She stared at him a moment longer. ‘Hold on.’ She let herself out from behind the bar, walked over to the swing door, and as he stood there, bemused, she opened it and let it swing back in her face, lifting a hand and opening her mouth as if to say something.

She opened the door again and stood there in front of him. ‘Recognize me now?’

He blinked. Jess could almost hear the cogs of his brain working.

‘Are you … Did I see you yesterday?’

‘The cleaner. Yes.’

He ran a hand through his hair. ‘Ah. The whole door thing. I was just … having a tricky conversation.’

‘“Not now, thanks” tends to work just as well, I find.’

‘Right. Point taken.’ He leant on the bar. Jess tried to keep a straight face when his elbow slipped off. ‘So that’s an apology, is it?’

He peered at her blearily. ‘Sorry. I’m really, really, really sorry. Very sorry, O Bar Lady. Now can I have a drink?’

‘No. It’s gone eleven.’

‘Only because you kept me talking.’

‘I haven’t got time to sit here while you nurse another pint.’

‘Give me a shot, then. Come on. I need another drink. Give me a shot of vodka. Here. You can keep the change.’ He slammed a twenty on the bar. The impact reverberated through the rest of him so that his head whiplashed back slightly. ‘Just one. Actually, make it a double. It’ll take me all of two seconds to down it. One second.’

‘No. You’ve had enough.’

Des’s voice broke in from the kitchen. ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, Jess, give him a drink.’

Jess stood for a moment, her jaw rigid, then turned and emptied the optic twice into a glass. She rang up the money, then silently placed his change on the bar. He downed the vodka, swallowing audibly as he put the glass down, and turned away, staggering slightly.

‘You forgot your change.’

‘Keep it.’

‘I don’t want it.’

‘Put it in your charity box, then.’

She gathered it up and shoved it at his hand. ‘Des’s charity of choice is the Des Harris Holiday In Memphis Fund,’ she said. ‘Really. Just take your money.’

He blinked at her, and took two unbalanced steps to the side as she opened the door for him. It was then she noticed what he had just pulled from his pocket. And the super-shiny Audi in the car park.

‘You’re not driving home.’

‘I’m fine.’ He batted away her protest. ‘There aren’t any cars around here at night anyway.’

‘You can’t drive.’

‘We’re in the middle of nowhere, in case you haven’t noticed.’ He gestured at the sky. ‘I’m miles away from everything, and stuck here, in the middle of f**king nowhere.’ He leant forward, and his breath was a blast of alcohol. ‘I’ll go very, very, slowly.’

He was so drunk that peeling the keys from his hand was embarrassingly easy. ‘No,’ she said, turning back to the bar. ‘I won’t be responsible for you having an accident as well as everything else. Go back inside, and I’ll call you a taxi.’

‘Give me my keys.’

‘No.’

‘You’re stealing my keys.’

‘I’m saving you from a driving ban.’ She held them aloft, and turned back towards the bar.

‘Oh, for Chrissakes,’ he said. He made it sound like she was the last in a long line of irritations. It made her want to kick him.

‘I’ll get you a taxi. Just – just sit there. I’ll give you your keys back once you’re safely inside it.’

She texted Liam from the phone in the back hall.

Does this mean I get lucky? he replied.

If you like them hairy. And male.

She walked back outside and Mr Nicholls was gone. His car was still there. She called him twice, wondering if he’d headed off to a bush to relieve himself, then glanced down and there he was, fast asleep on the outside bench. The angle of his limbs suggested he had simply keeled over sideways from his seated position and passed out.

She thought, briefly, about leaving him there. But it was chilly, and the sea mists were unpredictable, and he would likely wake up without his wallet.

‘I’m not taking that,’ Liam said, through the driver’s window, as his taxi pulled into the car park.

‘He’s fine. He’s just asleep. I can tell you where he’s got to go.’

‘Nuh-uh. Last sleeper I had woke up and vomited all down my new seat covers. Then somehow perked up enough to do a runner.’

‘He lives on Beachfront. He’s hardly going to do a runner.’ She glanced down at her watch. ‘Oh, come on, Liam. It’s late. I just want to get home.’

‘Then leave him. Sorry, Jess.’

‘Okay. How about I stay in the car while you drop him off? If he’s ill, I’ll clean it up. Then you can drop me home. He can pay.’ She picked up Mr Nicholls’s change from where he had dropped it on the ground beside the bench, and sifted through it. ‘Thirteen pounds should do it, yes?’

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