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‘And that’s it.’ His voice was thick, distracted.

Jess moved closer. ‘That’s it,’ she murmured.

‘You’d have made a great negotiator.’

‘Do you ever stop talking?’ She moved forward, a fraction, until her lips met his. She almost jolted. She felt the electric pressure of his mouth on hers as he ceded to her, the sweetness of him, and she no longer cared about anything. She wanted him. She burnt with it. ‘Happy birthday,’ she whispered.

He pulled back a fraction. She felt, rather than saw, Ed Nicholls gazing at her. His eyes were black in the darkness, unfathomable. He moved his hand and as it brushed against her stomach she gave a faint, involuntary shiver.

‘Fuck,’ he said quietly. ‘Fucking f**k.’ And then, with a groan, he said, ‘You will actually thank me for this tomorrow.’

And he gently disentangled himself from her, climbed out of bed, walked over to the chair, sat down and, with a great sigh, hauled the blanket over himself and turned away.



Ed Nicholls had thought that spending eight hours in a damp car park was the worst possible way to spend a night. Then he’d concluded that the worst way to spend a night was hoicking your guts up in a static caravan somewhere near Derby. He was wrong on both counts. The worst way to spend a night, it turned out, was in a tiny room a few feet from a slightly drunk, good-looking woman who wanted to have sex with you and whom you had, like an idiot, rebuffed.

Jess fell asleep, or pretended to: it was impossible to tell. Ed sat in the world’s most uncomfortable chair, staring out of the narrow gap in the curtains at the black moonlit sky, his right leg going to sleep, and his left foot freezing cold where it wouldn’t fit under the blanket and tried not to think about the fact that if he hadn’t leapt out of that bed he could be there, curled around her right now, her arms around his neck, his lips pressed against her skin, those lithe legs looped around …


He had done the right thing, he told himself. He must have done. His life was complicated enough without adding an impulsive cleaner with an eccentric family to the mix (he hated himself for letting the word ‘cleaner’ appear in that little mental riff). Even as Jess, uncharacteristically still in those last few moments, had lain against him and his brain had started to melt, he had tried to apply logic to the situation, and had concluded, with the few cells still functioning, that it couldn’t end well. Either (a) the sex would have been terrible, they would have been mortified afterwards, and the five hours spent travelling to the Olympiad would have been excruciating. Or (b) the sex would have been fine, they would have woken up embarrassed and the journey would still have been excruciating. Worse, they could have ended up with (c): the sex would have been off the scale (he slightly suspected this one was correct – he kept getting a hard-on just thinking about her mouth), they would develop feelings for each other based purely on sexual chemistry and either (d) would have to adjust to the fact that they had nothing in common and were just completely unsuited in every other way or (e) they would find they were not entirely unsuited, but then he would be sent to prison. And none of this considered (f), which was that Jess had actual kids. Kids who needed stability in their lives and not someone such as him: he liked children as a concept, but in the same way that he liked the Indian subcontinent – i.e. it was nice to know it existed but he had no knowledge about it and had never felt any real desire to spend time there.

And all this was without the added factor of (g): that he was obviously crap at relationships, had only just come out of the two most disastrous examples anyone could imagine, and the odds of him getting it right with someone else on the basis of a lengthy car journey that had begun because he couldn’t think how to get out of it were lower than a very low thing indeed.

Plus the whole horse conversation had been, frankly, weird.

And these points could be supplemented by the wilder possibilities that he had completely failed to consider. What if Jess was a psycho, and all that stuff about not wanting a relationship was just a way to reel him in? She didn’t seem that sort of girl, sure.

But neither had Deanna.

Ed sat pondering this and other tangled things and wishing he could talk a single one of them through with Ronan, until the sky turned orange then neon blue and his leg became completely dead and his hangover, which had formerly manifested itself as a vague tightness at his temples, turned into an emphatic, skull-crushing headache. Ed tried not to look at the girl sleeping in the bed a few feet away as the outline of her face and body under the duvet became clear in the encroaching light.

And he tried not to feel wistful for a time when ha**ng s*x with a woman you liked had just been about ha**ng s*x with a woman you liked and hadn’t involved a series of equations so complex and unlikely that probably only Tanzie could have got anywhere near understanding them.

‘Come on. We’re running late.’ Jess shepherded Nicky – a pale, T-shirt-clad zombie – towards the car.

‘I didn’t get any breakfast.’

‘That’s because you wouldn’t get up when I told you. We’ll get you something on the way. Tanze. Tanzie? Has the dog been to the loo?’

The morning sky was the colour of lead and seemed to have descended to a point around their ears. A faint drizzle promised heavier rain. Ed sat in the driving seat as Jess ran around, organizing, scolding, promising, in a fury of activity. She had been like this since he’d woken, groggily, from what seemed like twenty minutes’ sleep, folding and packing, dragging bags downstairs, supervising breakfast. He didn’t think she had met his eye once. Tanzie climbed silently into the back seat.

‘You okay?’ He yawned and looked at the little girl in the rear-view mirror.

She nodded silently.


She didn’t say anything.

‘Been sick?’

She nodded.

‘It’s all the rage on this trip. You’ll be great. Really.’

She gave him the exact look he would have given any adult if they had said the same, then turned to stare out of the window, her face round and pale, her eyes mauve with exhaustion. Ed wondered how late she had stayed up revising.

‘Right.’ Jess shoved Norman into the back seat. He brought with him an almost overwhelming scent of wet dog. She checked that Tanzie had done up her belt, climbed into the passenger seat and finally turned to Ed. Her expression was unreadable. ‘Let’s go.’

Ed’s car no longer looked like his car. In just three days its immaculate cream interior had acquired new scents and stains, a fine sprinkling of dog hair, jumpers and shoes that now lived on seats or wedged underneath them. The floor crunched underfoot with dropped sweet wrappers and crisps. The radio stations were no longer on settings he understood.

But something had happened while he had been driving along at forty m.p.h. The faint sense that he should actually have been somewhere else had begun to fade, almost without him being aware of it. He had stopped trying to anticipate what was going to happen next, stopped dreading the next phone call, stopped wondering whether there was any chance that Deanna Lewis would decide not to drag him down with her … and he had just started existing. Ed Nicholls drove mile after easy mile through the early-morning mist, slow enough to notice the landmarks, the subtle changes in landscape, the lives around him in little market towns, huge cities. He found himself glancing at the people they passed, buying food, driving their cars, walking their children to and from school in worlds completely different from his own, knowing nothing of his own little drama several hundred miles south. It made it all seem reduced in size, a model village of problems rather than something that loomed over him.

He drove on, and despite the pointed silence from the woman beside him, Nicky’s sleeping face in the rear-view mirror (‘Teenagers don’t really do Before Eleven o’Clock,’ Tanzie explained) and the occasional foul eruptions of the dog, it slowly dawned on him, as they crept closer to their destination, that he was feeling a complete lack of the relief he had expected to feel at the prospect of having his car, his life, back to himself. What he felt was more complex. Ed fiddled with the speakers, so that the music was loudest in the rear seats and temporarily silent in the front.

‘You okay?’

Jess didn’t look round. ‘I’m fine.’

Ed glanced behind him, making sure nobody was listening. ‘About last night,’ he began.

‘Forget it.’

He wanted to tell her that he regretted it. He wanted to tell her that his body had actually hurt with the effort of not climbing back into that sagging single bed. But what would have been the point? Like she’d said the previous evening, they were two people who had no reason to see each other ever again. ‘I can’t forget it. I wanted to explain –’

‘Nothing to explain. You were right. It was a stupid idea.’ She tucked her legs under her and stared away from him out of the window.

‘It’s just my life is too –’

‘Really. It’s not an issue. I just …’ she let out a deep breath ‘… I just want to make sure we get to the Olympiad on time.’

‘But I don’t want us to end it all like this.’

‘There’s nothing to end.’ She put her feet on the dashboard. It felt like a statement. ‘Let’s go.’

‘How many miles is it to Aberdeen?’ Tanzie’s face appeared between the front seats.

‘What, left?’

‘No. From Southampton.’

Ed pulled his phone from his jacket and handed it to her. ‘Look it up on the Maps app.’

She tapped the screen, her brow furrowed. ‘About five hundred and eighty?’

‘Sounds about right.’

‘So if we’re doing forty miles an hour we’d have had to do at least six hours’ driving a day. And if I didn’t get sick, we could have done it …’

‘In a day. At a push.’

‘One day.’ Tanzie digested this, her eyes trained on the Scottish hillsides in the distance ahead. ‘But we wouldn’t have had such a nice time then, would we?’

Ed glanced sideways at Jess. ‘No, we wouldn’t.’

It took a moment before Jess’s gaze slid back towards him. ‘No, sweetheart,’ she said, after a beat. And her smile was oddly rueful. ‘No, we wouldn’t.’

The car ate the miles sleekly and efficiently. They crossed the Scottish border, and Ed tried – failed – to raise a cheer. They stopped once for Tanzie to go to the loo, once twenty minutes later for Nicky to go (‘I can’t help it. I didn’t want to go when Tanze did’) and three times for Norman (two were false alarms). Jess sat silently beside him, checking her watch and chewing at her nails. She was still wearing flip-flops and he wondered fleetingly if her feet were cold. Nicky gazed groggily out of the window at the empty landscape, at the few flinty houses set into rolling hills. Ed wondered what would happen to him after this was over. He wanted to suggest fifty other things to help him, but he tried to imagine someone suggesting things to him at the same age, and guessed he would have taken no notice at all. He wondered how Jess would keep him safe when they returned home.

The phone rang and he glanced over, his heart sinking. ‘Lara.’

‘Eduardo. Baby. I need to talk to you about this roof.’

He was aware of Jess’s sudden rigidity, the flicker of her gaze. He wished, suddenly, that he hadn’t chosen to answer the call.

‘Lara, I’m not going to discuss this now.’

‘It’s not a lot of money. Not for you. I spoke to my solicitor and he says it would be nothing for you to pay for it.’

‘I told you before, Lara, we made a final settlement.’

He was suddenly conscious of the acute stillness of three people in the car.


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