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‘I find it impossible being close to you.’ His lips were inches from her ear, his voice a low rumble through her skin.

Jess felt her skin prickle. ‘What?’

‘I just imagine myself doing filthy things to you. Pretty much the whole time. Completely inappropriate things. Disgraceful things.’

He took hold of the front of her jeans and pulled her to him. A bolt of such heat went through her that she was amazed nobody could see it. Jess drew back a little, craning her neck to make sure they were out of sight. ‘That’s what you were thinking about? While you were driving? All that time while you weren’t speaking?’

‘Yup.’ He glanced behind her towards the shop. ‘Well, that and food.’

‘My two favourite things, right there.’

His fingers traced the bare skin under her top. Her stomach tensed pleasurably. Her legs had become oddly weak. She had never wanted Marty like she wanted Ed.

‘Apart from sandwiches.’

‘Let’s not talk about sandwiches. Ever again.’

And then he placed the flat of his hand on the small of her back, so that they were as close as they could decently be. ‘I know I shouldn’t be,’ he murmured, ‘but I woke up really happy.’ His face scanned hers. ‘I mean, like, really, stupidly happy. Like even though my whole life is a complete disaster, I just … I feel okay. I look at you, and I feel okay. I feel like we’re going to get through this.’

A great fat lump had risen in her throat. ‘Me too,’ she whispered.

He squinted against the sun, trying to gauge her expression. ‘So I’m not … just a horse?’

‘You are so not a horse. Well. In the nicest way I could say that you were –’

He dropped his head and kissed her. He kissed her and it was a kiss of utter certainty, the kind of kiss during which monarchs die and whole continents fall without you even noticing. When Jess extricated herself it was only because she didn’t want the children to see her lose the ability to stand. Her finger traced his lips, just for the pleasure of touching them, and he grinned.

‘They’re coming,’ he said.

Jess found herself staring at him goofily.

‘Trouble.’ He glanced back at her as they approached, bearing their paper bags aloft. ‘That’s what my dad said.’

‘Like you hadn’t worked that one out by yourself.’ Her lips tingled. Her thoughts swam sweet and sticky, like honey. Jess felt like he was imprinted all over her. She held back, watching Ed chat to Nicky, the opening of paper bags as Nicky revealed what they’d chosen, waiting for the colour on her cheeks to fade. She felt the sun on her skin, heard birdsong over people talking, revving cars, smelt petrol fumes and cheap food, and the words echoed through her head, unbidden: this is what happiness feels like.

They set off slowly back to the car, faces already buried in paper bags. Jess watched her daughter walking a few paces ahead, her skinny legs trailing behind the others and it was then that she noticed something was missing.

‘Tanze? Where are your maths books?’

She didn’t turn around. ‘I left them at Dad’s.’

‘Oh. Do you want me to call him?’ She fumbled in her bag for her mobile phone. ‘I’m sure I can get him to pop them straight in the post. They’ll probably arrive back before we do.’

‘No,’ she said. She inclined her head slightly towards her, but not quite meeting Jess’s eye. ‘Thank you.’

Nicky stopped, as he reached the car. His gaze slid to Jess and back to his sister. And something heavy settled in her stomach.

By the time they reached their final overnight stop it was almost nine o’clock and they were drooping. The children, who had been snacking on biscuits and sweets for most of the last leg of the journey, were exhausted and cranky, and headed straight upstairs to examine the sleeping arrangements. Ed carried the bags and Tanzie tugged the dog behind her.

The hotel was vast and white and expensive-looking, the kind of place Mrs Ritter might have shown Jess on her camera-phone and she and Nathalie would have sighed about afterwards. Ed had booked it over the phone and when Jess had started to protest about the cost there was a slight edge to his voice: ‘We’re all tired, Jess. And my next bed may be at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Let’s just stay somewhere nice tonight, okay?’

Three interlocking rooms, in a corridor that seemed to double as an annex to the main hotel. ‘My own room.’ Nicky sighed with relief as he unlocked number twenty-three. He lowered his voice as Jess pushed open the door. ‘I love her and everything, but you have no idea how much the Titch snores.’

‘Norman will like this,’ said Tanzie, as Jess opened the door to room twenty-four. The dog, as if in agreement, immediately flopped down at the side of the bed. ‘I don’t mind sharing with Nicky, Mum, but he really does snore badly.’

Neither of them seemed to question where Jess would be sleeping. She couldn’t work out if they knew and didn’t mind, or whether they just assumed either she or Ed was still sleeping in the car.

Nicky borrowed Ed’s laptop. Tanzie worked out how to operate the remote control for her television, and said she would watch one programme then go to sleep. She wouldn’t talk about the missing maths books. She actually said, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ Jess didn’t think Tanzie had ever said those words to her.

‘Just because something doesn’t work out once, sweetheart, doesn’t mean you can’t try again,’ she said, laying out Tanzie’s pyjamas on her bed.

Tanzie’s expression seemed to contain a knowledge that hadn’t been there before. And her words broke Jess’s heart. ‘I think it’s best if I just work with what we’ve got, Mum.’

‘What do I do?’

‘Nothing. She’s just had enough for now. You can’t blame her.’ Ed dropped the bags in the corner of the room. Jess sat on the side of the huge bed, trying to ignore her throbbing foot.

‘But this isn’t like her. She loves maths. Always has. And now she’s acting like she doesn’t want anything to do with it.’

‘It’s been two days, Jess. She’s had a massive upheaval. Just … let her be. She’ll work it out.’

‘You’re so sure.’

‘They’re smart kids.’ He walked over to the switch and turned the lights down, gazing up at them until he’d got it dark enough. ‘Like their mother. But just because you bounce back like a rubber ball, it doesn’t mean they always will.’

She looked at him.

‘That’s not a criticism. I’m just saying that it’s been a pretty intense week. I think if you give her some time to decompress, she’ll be okay. She is who she is. I can’t see that changing.’

He pulled his T-shirt over his head in a fluid motion and dropped it onto a chair. Her thoughts muddled immediately. Jess couldn’t see his bare torso without wanting to touch it. A little too thick around the middle to be perfect, perhaps. But that made it somehow more beautiful.

‘How did you get so wise?’ she said, gazing at him.

‘Dunno. I guess it rubbed off.’ He took two steps towards her, and then he knelt down and pulled off her flip-flops, removing the one on her injured foot with extra care. ‘How’s it feeling?’

‘Sore. But fine.’

He reached for her top. He unzipped it slowly and without asking, his eyes fixed on the skin it exposed. He seemed almost distant then, as if his thoughts were on her, yet miles away. The zip caught near the end, and she took it from him gently, her hands over his, unhitching the two sides so that he could peel it from her shoulders. He stood there for a moment, just gazing at her.

He kissed her then, and said softly, ‘I don’t think we should think about it any more.’ He kissed her shoulder. ‘I think we shouldn’t think full stop.’ He kissed her neck. ‘It’s our last night on the road and there’s nothing much we can do about anything. For tonight at least.’

He reached for her belt, undid it, then her jeans, his fingers measured and precise. She watched them and her heart began to pulse in her ears.

‘It’s time, Jessica Rae Thomas, that someone looked after you.’

Edward Nicholls washed her hair, his legs around her waist, as she lay back against him in the oversized bath. He rinsed it gently, smoothing it and wiping her eyes with a facecloth to stop shampoo getting into them. She went to do it herself, but he shushed her. Nobody had ever washed her hair, outside a hairdresser’s. It made her feel vulnerable and oddly emotional. When he was done, he lay in the steaming, scented water with his arms wrapped around her and kissed the tips of her ears. And then, as if some part of them agreed jointly that this had been quite enough romantic stuff, thank you, she felt him rise under her and swivelled, lowered herself onto him, and they f**ked until the water sluiced out of the bath, and she couldn’t work out whether the pain of her foot was greater than her need to feel him inside her.

Some time later, they lay half submerged, legs entwined. And they started to laugh. Because it was a cliché to f**k in a shower but it was sort of ridiculous to do it in a bath, and it was even more ridiculous to be in this much trouble and yet this happy. Jess twisted so that she lay along the length of him, and draped her arms around his neck and pressed her wet chest to his, and she felt with utter certainty that she would never be as close to another human being again. God, I love you, she told him silently. And then so that she didn’t let those words burst, unbidden, from her mouth, she smothered him with kisses. She held his face in her hands and she kissed his jaw and his poor bruised temple, and his lips, and she felt his arms holding her to him and told herself that whatever happened she would always remember how this felt.

He brought his hand down over his face, wiping the moisture from it. He looked suddenly serious. ‘Do you think this is a bubble?’

‘Um, there’s lots of bubbles. It’s a –’

‘No. This. A bubble. We’re on this weird journey, where the normal rules don’t apply. Real life doesn’t apply. This whole trip has been … like time out of real life.’

She noticed that the water was pooling on the bathroom floor.

‘Don’t look at that. Talk to me.’

She dropped her lips to his collarbone, thinking. ‘Well,’ she said, lifting her head again, ‘in a little over five days, we’ve dealt with illness, distraught children, sick relatives, unexpected acts of violence, nearly broken feet, police and car accidents. I’d say that was quite enough real life for anyone.’

‘I like your thinking.’

‘I like your everything.’

‘We seem to spend a lot of time talking rubbish to each other.’

‘Well, I like that too.’

The water had started to cool. She wriggled out of his arms, and stood, reaching for the heated towel rail. She handed him a warm towel, wrapping one around herself. Oh, the utter sensual pleasure of fluffy hotel towels. He stood, rubbing at his hair vigorously with one hand.

She wondered, briefly, whether Ed was so used to fluffy hotel towels that he didn’t even notice. She watched him and felt suddenly bone-weary. She brushed her teeth, switched off the bathroom light, and when she turned back he was already in the enormous hotel bed, holding back the covers to allow her in. He flicked off the bedside lamp and she lay there beside him in the dark, feeling his damp skin against her own, wondering what it would be like to have this every night. To have a man all to herself for ever.

‘I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, Jess,’ he said, into the dark, as if he could hear her thoughts. His voice was a warning.

‘You’ll be okay.’


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