The Morning After
If you reach for a star, you might just catch a cloud.
Catch a cloud? Evie Craig had pulled a star right out of the bloody sky. It just showed what kitsch weddings, retro discos and several pints of Cumberland Bitter could do for a girl.
The star stirred in his sleep.
There was a simmering temptation to overstep the stalker-border, to sit cross-legged wearing his t-shirt and simply watch his stubble grow. Evie smiled to herself. Not a chance. The last place she wanted to be when Nate woke up was in his bed looking like some desperate sad case.
Silently, she pulled on her black and white polka dot playsuit and gathered up the rest of her belongings. Fuchsia heels, hot pink cardigan, cerise clutch… the clashing orange gerbera that had dressed up her scruffy bun the day before lay wilting on his bedside table. She’d leave it as a memento. And a sort of apology for nicking his signed Chilli Peppers guitar pick.
Resisting the urge to kiss his sleeping lips, she slipped out, quietly closing the front door behind her as she made her escape. Time to get home, as quickly, and secretly as possible.
Great start… Evie supressed a groan but instead smiled brightly to a woman she vaguely recognised, kneeling on a lawn, pulling tiny weeds from an otherwise pristine border of hyacinths. Was she part of her mum’s Women’s Institute flower arranging thing? Who the hell did their gardening at half seven in the morning?
Responsible people. Regular people. Evie’s smile waned.
‘Morning,’ the woman called, her voice tight.
Oh, oh, oh… Nate’s mum. Was that Nate’s mum? What on earth must she be thinking?
Slut, that’s what she’d be thinking.
‘Morning,’ Evie replied, scuttling down the driveway, her hardened soles barely registering the gravel.
Oh why hadn’t she gone home the night before? Why hadn’t she gone home after the wedding to her mum’s house? Oh why had she thought it such a good idea to—
It was his mum. Bloody hell. Evie didn’t really know her, but she did know June was a gardening buff, dark grey hair and who the hell else lived on their grounds? What must she think of some half-dressed girl walking out of her son’s house wearing yesterday’s clothes?
Ah, was there anything more adept at making a girl feel crap about herself than staggering home, shoes in hand, wearing yesterday’s clothes and a solid dose of stubble rash?
Evie rammed on her sunglasses, hoping to hide her shame.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Was it too much to ask to just sneak home unseen, to get back to her mum’s house without being judged?
Of course it was too much to ask — it was way too much to ask when you were Evie Craig and the whole village hated you.
The Wedding Before
Weddings had changed. In just two years since Evie left Gosthwaite to work in Indonesia, they’d changed and she stepped into the marquee, utterly sure she’d walked into the Great British Bake Off.
‘Mum,’ Evie asked, taking a glass of prosecco from a smiling waitress, ‘when did matrimonial events go all mismatched crockery and afternoon tea?’
Her mum fanned herself with a beer mat, glancing around. ‘Oh, there’s you’re uncle Mark. I’ll be back in a sec.’
The last wedding Evie attended was an extravaganza of gilded chairs, champagne by the shore, three courses of exorbitant but dubiously executed salmon parfait, pan-fried chicken and raspberry panacotta. But none of that for Lianne and Dale’s wedding. Evie pushed aside the bunting draped over a window and pressed her lips together, stemming her giggles. On the field outside was a fish and chip stall, dishing out lunch in newspaper cones, and beside it, an ice cream van – a retro cool fifties number. And for someone who’d spent two years out of England it was… killing Evie.
Oh who was she kidding, she wasn’t stemming giggles; she was stemming tears – homesick, glad to be back in Blighty and eating chips, bloody tears.
Christ, she had to get a grip. Being back in England might be awesome, but she couldn’t keep welling up at the mere sight of a cup of bloody tea – with milk in.
Shaking her head a little, banishing emotional overkill, she glanced across to the bar where her elder brother, Ryan, was ordering pints for the groom’s party. Ah, a pint. One British tradition that wouldn’t reduce her to tears was a pint – a real pint with a head on it. Bintang might’ve won her over in the end, but dear god… the bar had Garter Belt, a beer specially brewed for Lianne and Dale’s wedding. Why the hell was Evie drinking fizzy wine when she could have real ale? She didn’t even like fizzy wine. Put a girl in heels and look what happens – she forgets her roots.
Evie dumped her untouched glass on the nearest trestle table, but her heel, skittish on the polished wooden floor, had her pause. Lianne and Dale knew everyone. Who would actually be at this reception – she hadn’t seen him at the wedding, but would Ali be there? Or any of his extended family? He and Dale used to be pretty close.
Hell, it’d been two years since she’d broken up with Ali. Two years. Surely it’d be okay… Maybe no one even cared anymore about what she—
‘You look like you need a hand walking in those shoes.’ A gentle hand took her arm and guided her towards the bar.
Evie glanced up. Nate Hadley-Brown? Why was Nate Hadley-Brown smiling at her like that? In the twenty-odd years he’d been her elder brother’s best mate, he’d barely acknowledged Evie’s existence, so for him to even be speaking to her was a bit of a turn up for the books.
Oh lord, what if he hadn’t realised just whose small of the back he had his hand pressed against.
‘Hi,’ she offered. It was weak at best.
And in Nate’s in his defence, most of the wedding party hadn’t realised who she was either. The Evie Craig from two years ago would mostly likely be found wearing jeans, Converse trainers and an oversized beanie, so the Evie Craig who stepped off a red double-decker bus, ten miles from Windermere, was a bit of a surprise. That said, the shocking pink high heels with black and white polka dot playsuit were alien to her too, impulse buys from Ted Baker she could ill-afford, but utterly necessary to face the scrutiny of the entire village, to face up to her reputation as the bitch that broke Ali Johnston’s heart.
‘Evie-Jeebie?’ her brother called, frowning towards her. ‘Christ, you’ve scrubbed up.’
Clearly she did look nothing like the two-years ago Evie. Nate’s arm instantly fell away and Evie felt for him. Yeah, it’s just Evie. Your best mate’s little sister.
‘When did you get back?’ Ryan asked, lifting her off the ground in a bear hug.
‘Lunchtime, yesterday.’ She pressed her eyes tight together as she fought tears. God it was fabulous to see her brother again.
‘Good to have you back, Titch.’ Her brother’s voice was gruff, emotion-filled as he clung to her. ‘Right, what you drinking? I bet the beer’s crap in Indonesia.’
It wasn’t her favourite, but it didn’t stop her drinking it. ‘Pint of Garter Belt, please.’
As Ryan turned to the barman, reciting an endless list of drinks, Evie hovered, unsure who to talk to, who would want to talk to her. Ninety-eight-point-five percent of the village probably still hated her – and the other point-five percent she was related to.
‘You alright, Jeebies?’ Nate asked, propping up the bar beside her.
‘I hate that name.’
‘Ryan’s pleased to see you. He was proper choked up just then.’
Evie turned to her brother who was handing out shots of god only knew what, any of his earlier brotherly love abandoned for cheeky liveners. ‘He was doing his best man duties yesterday so this is the first time I’ve seen him.’
A blur of white fuzz launched at her, squealing, arms outstretched.
‘Oh my God, you’re here!’ Lianne hugged her. ‘I can’t believe you’re back. God, I’m so pleased you made it.’
‘Touch and go with getting my new passport, but honestly, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.’ Evie held her at arm’s length. Her beautiful cousin looked immaculate as usual – bleach blonde hair coiled into an elegant up do, her skin glowing against the pristine white strapless gown and… rather un-Lianne like pert boobs filled the bodice. ‘You got your tits done then?’
Lianne grinned down at her cleavage. ‘Best thing I ever did. I might regret it once I get knocked up, but could you imagine my old fried eggs trying to fill this dress? They feel amazing.’
She grabbed Evie’s left hand, pressing it against her right breast. It did indeed feel remarkably… squishy.
‘Steady on, Jeebies. She’s a married lady.’ Nate flashed a grin, and Evie snapped her hand away, mortified.
‘I’d best go say hello to Nana,’ Lianne said, glancing along the bar. ‘Her and Magda have already started on the Hendricks.’
Evie took a deep breath. She had to know if Ali were there. ‘Li—’
‘I’ve put you two singletons together.’ Lianne hiked up her voluminous layers before leaning in to whisper to Evie. ‘You can thank me later.’
Evie glanced from Lianne to Nate who, while still hovering beside them, was doing an awful impression of pretending not to listen. Lianne shot a cheeky wink before dashing off.
You can thank me later? What the hell was she playing at?
‘Evie?’ Nate asked, holding out a golden pint. ‘Drink?’
And what the hell was he playing at? You two singletons? He was her brother’s best mate – an official no-go zone. The only reason he ever seemed to talk to Evie was to take the piss or to get in Lianne’s’ pants, which hadn’t entirely done Evie’s ego too much good over the years. Especially as Nate was seven levels of fit. Tall, athletic with light brown hair and shag-me-now green eyes. As a tree surgeon, his usual uniform was on the surfer side of casual, yet here he was rocking freshly trimmed hair and a three-piece suit, albeit with the jacket off already.
‘You know,’ he said. ‘I nearly didn’t recognise you earlier.’
‘What because I have my legs out and look like a girl? It’s a wedding. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in a tie before.’ She picked a fleck of grass from his waistcoat. ‘When was the last time you wore one? Court case?’
He sipped his beer slowly, not dropping eye contact with her. ‘My dad’s funeral actually.’
Evie closed her eyes for a moment. What a thoughtless, stupid cow. She remembered the email, must’ve been twelve months ago when her mum’s weekly email mentioned Nate’s dad dying of lung cancer. She gently faux-punched his chest. ‘Sorry, Nate.’
He forced a smile. ‘And I wasn’t referring to your clothes. You don’t have your nose in a book. First time since…’
It was a fair cop. She fished in her bag. ‘Since I got my Kindle?’
‘You don’t change.’ He laughed and gestured to the tables. ‘Do you know how many people, here today, who’re single?’
‘Not the answer to everything. Nope.’
Evie wrinkled her nose. ‘Two?’
‘Bingo.’ He nodded.
‘You’re a tragic singleton?’ Evie asked, raising her eyebrows to Nate. At least he was smiling again, but when had he ever been without some girl in tow, ever? ‘What did you run out of women to harass in Gosthwaite?’
He held out her chair. ‘Not entirely.’
Okay, he was playing flirty – undoubtedly put up to it by Lianne – but his face still looked sad, still lingering over thoughts of his dad. Evie pulled a face.
‘Remember the last time you had to look after me?’
Nate sat down, the sadness evaporating as he smiled. ‘When you said you wanted to climb up the gorge?’
‘And Ryan said I wasn’t allowed, that I was too short.’
‘But he buggered off with Jess, so you did it anyway.’
Evie blushed, but couldn’t help smiling. ‘I did.’
Nate settled back, resting his arm on the table, his chin on his hand. ‘You were crazy.’
‘I totally thought I could reach the ledge.’
‘You totally weren’t tall enough.’
‘Yeah, I totally knew that really.’
‘So why do it?’ Nate laughed. ‘I had to rescue you.’
‘You did.’ Evie chinked her glass against his. ‘Thank you for that.’
‘And now here I am, rescuing you again.’
He was so flirting. Evie grinned. ‘Saving me from the mortification of being a tragic single soul who my Aunt Francis will passive aggressively suggest is gay?’
‘That. Absolutely that.’
Evie leant in. ‘But you realise I’m also rescuing you. Saving you from the self-same mortification?’
He mirrored her pose, definitely flirting. ‘Rescue away, Jeebies.’
The Morning After
It would be her third walk of shame. The first was a post-St. Patrick’s Day scurry across campus wearing only Sam-the-Barman’s Game of Throne’s t-shirt. He’d got a little carried away on his balcony and merrily tossed her leprechaun dress over the side in his haste to get her naked. Never again would Evie Craig drink green-tinted Guinness.
The Crows Before Hoes t-shirt became her first ever shag memento. The second was a Manchester City scarf. It didn’t exactly suit her slinky top, skinny jeans and heels, but at least it hid the whacking great love bite on her collar bone as she rode the bus across town.
In fact, the guitar pick would be her first unnecessary theft from a boy’s house. And the last since she never, ever planned to indulge in a one night stand ever again. It wasn’t exactly her style. One serious boyfriend since she was fourteen and three one night stands.
Evie paused at the end of the long, sweeping drive and looked around. The hamlet of Lum Ford — nothing more than a row of workers cottages, a seldom used church hall, even less seldom used church and a converted manor house — sat two miles from Gosthwaite. Two miles of road. Not a main road, granted. But one that cars could drive down, that cars would drive down, even at 7:30am on a Sunday morning. Bugger. She glanced back at the manor house behind her.
‘It’s a pigsty,’ Nate had said, using the hand he held hers with to point to the little cottage that sat to the left of the main house.
‘My dad always said I was playing a game of hide the carpet,’ she’d replied.
‘No, I mean it’s an actual pigsty. Well, it was.’ He’d nodded to the etched slate name plate — The Old Pigsty — before unlocking the door to reveal a comfortably messy, but utterly cool bachelor pad.
Can’t go back. Evie took a deep breath and headed down the road towards Gosthwaite. Okay, options Evie Geebies? You’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, two miles from home. Do you (a) walk down the road and hitch a lift from any passing psychopath in the hope that no one from the village spots you? Or (b) walk down the road with your head held high just to show the bloody village that you’ve nothing to be ashamed of? Or (c) Find the nearest footpath and skulk home across country?
Down the road, shadowed by the low morning sun, two dark shapes walked towards a tall, glinting object. Evie smiled. Or (d) get the bloody bus. There should be one at twenty-two. Bingo. And if she could sit down while she waited, she could brave putting on her toe-crimping heels and boarding the bus like a regular member of society, not some loose-moralled—
Her hair out of its arty up-do revealed two natural, semi-dreadlocks, a million split ends and two years of root regrowth — the effect less ombre chic and more Courtney Love gets out of rehab. With her mini-fringe barely flattened and mascara smudged under her eyes, she looked anything but a regular member of society — a well-dressed Glastonbury leftover maybe. But did it matter what she looked at? There was nothing Evie Craig could do to fit in with Gosthwaite’s try-hard middle-class society.
She just had to get home, to the sanctuary of her mum’s cottage. Holding her head high with a bravery that didn’t reach her heart, Evie strode down the lane between traditional stone cottages.
Please don’t let me meet anyone else I know. Please, please, please.
But her prayer fell on stone deaf ears, as she gained on the two figures, one of whom she could now see had the immaculate, if far too black, coiffured chignon of her grandmother. Evie groaned.
Nana Belle was a five-foot-four package who lived by the motto Life Isn’t a Dress Rehearsal. She liked to style herself on Audrey Hepburn but after several glasses of more G than T, she’d bear more of a resemblance to Patsy from Ab Fab. At five, Evie had rocked out on the kitchen table while Belle mimed into a rolling pin along with the Stones. And at ten, Belle baffled Evie by showed her all the right places to dab a little scent. Why anyone would want Chanel No. 5 behind their knees remained a mystery until that night on the balcony when Sam the Barman had kissed his way up her legs declaring with his faux-Irish lilt that she smelled like the garden of Eden.
It turned out that Nana Belle knew her stuff.
Beside Nana Belle was the familiar grey pixie cut of her partner in crime, Magda. Both widows of over twenty years, they shunned the WI – too much baking and god-bothering for me, Evangeline – instead setting up something more social for her silver sisters. Bridge nights at Magda’s, art club at Belle’s, film club at the village hall… all thinly-veiled ploys to get hammered several nights a week. Why they didn’t just go to the pub was forever an unanswered question.
But still, bumping into your seventy-five year-old grandma on a walk of shame? Less than ideal. And they’d just sat down on the bus stop bench. Arsen Wenger. Now she couldn’t even get away with a chirpy hello, can’t stop getaway. Well she could, but that’d mean walking the full two miles to Gosthwaite.
Lifting her chin once again, Evie strode on, a forced smile in place.
‘How are you, petal? Enjoy the wedding?’
Evie sat down, pecking her grandma’s cheek. ‘You could say that.’
‘And from the smell of you, you didn’t pack your toothbrush.’ Belle routed in her vintage Dior crocodile handbag, pulling out a pack of polos. ‘Where did you get to?’
Grateful, Evie took a mint. Lie. She needed a plausible lie. ‘Stayed a friend’s.’
‘Oh, who was that?’ Magda asked, her eyes flashing with mischief.
‘Um…’ Who the hell else lived in Lum Ford aside from Nate?
‘Nate Hadley-Brown by any chance?’ Belle raised her eyebrows.
‘That boy,’ Magda chuckled.
With her cheeks burning, Evie peered down the road. ‘I just went back for a cup of tea.’
‘Tea?’ Bella asked, her eyebrows raised.
Magda struggled to restrain a grin. ‘Is that what they’re calling it these days?’
‘Okay, fine!’ Evie folded her arms. ‘I had a one night stand with Nate Hadley-Brown and now I’m doing a walk of bloody shame.’
The elderly twins cackled.
Evie inwardly died, but forced a pleasant smile as she changed the subject. ‘Did you two get enough gin at the wedding?’
‘No Hendricks,’ Magda said, ‘but we made do with Tanqueray.’
‘And we left at nine,’ Belle continued. ‘Bloody awful things, family dos. Your uncle was doing his usual, hugging girls half his age for far too long.’
‘Phil.’ Evie nodded. ‘Creep.’
‘The wife’s no better,’ Magda muttered. ‘Looks right down her nose at you.’
‘Calls herself my niece.’ Belle pulled her handbag a little closer. ‘Francis is always trying to ship me off to a home, telling me it’ll be safer. She just wants to get her nail extensions on Knott End.’
Evie laughed. ‘The silly moo asked me if I was batting for the other side, what with me being single for ever such a long time. Oh, but you know what, Nana? It was actually alright, way better than I was expecting it to be. Let’s face it, I’m not on most people’s Christmas card lists, but everyone was.. well, okay.’
‘Why wouldn’t they be?’ Belle asked.
‘Er… because of Ali.’
‘So you split up,’ Magda said. ‘It’s nothing to do with anyone but you, him and—’
‘His entire family and everyone who’s ever known him?’ Evie picked at her nails.
Had she done the wrong thing? It wasn’t like Ali was a bad boyfriend, they’d been together since they were fourteen for a reason – they… well, they worked. She loved him all through uni and even when he split up with her in the first year, citing we need to live our lives. God she’d been devastated, but six months later, she staggered in from a night out with her flatmates, and there he was, on her bloody doorstep. He’d seen a photo of her on Facebook and realised what he was missing. The niggle had started then. I was living my own life and I liked it. But it amounted to nothing more than that — a drunken niggle, a midge bite she valiantly refused to scratch.
‘Let’s buy a house.’
It was a year after university, both twenty-two, both living at home with their parents, when Ali uttered the four words that effectively killed their relationship as they staggered back from the pub one night. He said them as simply as he would ask her if she wanted to ring for a Chinese takeaway. And that’s what saying yes would’ve meant. Working forty hours a week, more if they were unlucky, Monday night quiz at the Alfred, Wednesday night tea from the fish and chip van, TV from the minute they walked in the door, Sunday roasts at his mum’s, her mum’s…
I don’t want that life, Evie had screamed in her head. The words that fell out of her mouth at the time were much quieter: I want to break up.
Girls said it all the time. Girls in New York, in Dehli, in Timbuk-bloody-tu. Did they have people — women they’d considered friends come up to them berating them for being an evil bitch? Paige Metcalf actually crossed the road to call Evie a ‘stuck up slut’. Even the postman couldn’t look Evie in the eye. But then he was Ali’s half-cousin.
Evie was left with no one. She somehow no longer had her own friends in the village – only Ali and his crowd. She was aware of her uni friend’s lives thanks to Facebook, but she barely even saw Lianne more than a handful of times in the last four years. There was a lesson learned – always keep a community of your own friends, because you’ll never know when you’ll need them.
And faced with a village brimming with ill-concealed judgement, Evie found only one way to cope: run the hell away.
She’d run from the anger, from the contempt, from the blame, but was what she did so bad? Was it wrong to not to raise three kids in a semi-detatched house and watch Coronation Street every bloody night. Was it wrong to just want… more?
Evie picked at her nails. But in wanting more she’d broken the heart of a local boy, one who could trace his family history back to the sixteen hundreds, whereas Evie’s parents had only moved there twenty years ago. ‘We’re off-comers and we always will be.’
Belle laughed and wrapped her arm around Evie’s shoulders. ‘They’re okay to me and I’m more off-comer than you.’
Like anyone would give Nana Belle a hard time for anything. She’d probably clobber them with the Dior bag.
‘They hate me.’
‘Oh, they do not.’ Belle waved a dismissive hand. ‘He’s—’
‘What time’s the bus due, anyway?’ Evie stared down the road, not wanting to discuss Ali.
‘Bus?’ Magda laughed. ‘You’ll be lucky. They killed off most of the services last back end.’
Oh arse. ‘Looks like I’ll be walking.’ Evie stood up. ‘Where are you two off to anyway?’
‘Home.’ Belle stood up, straightening her skirt and for the first time, Evie realised it was the same silk, navy fabric as Belle had worn the day before.
‘You haven’t been home yet, nana?’ Had her and Magda actually got that pissed?
Belle shot her a wink and stood up. ‘You’re not the only one doing… what did you call it, a walk of shame?’
What? Evie glanced to Magda. And she still wore her burgundy trouser suit… ‘And…’
‘The colonel is one hell of a man.’ Magda winked. ‘Ex-MI5.’
‘You both…’ Well, there was a mental image Evie could do without.
‘Haven’t you got it yet, Evangeline?’
‘Got what?’ The fact my grandma does threesomes is currently blowing my mind.
Belle sighed. ‘I thought when you broke up with Ali and buggered off to the Far East that you’d finally understood what I’ve been telling you all these years.’
Evie frowned. ‘That life’s not a dress rehearsal?’
‘No regrets, Evie.’ Magda said nodding. ‘Life’s too short to worry about what other people think.’
‘The only opinion you need to worry about,’ Belle went on, ‘Is your own.’
‘My own?’ Bewildered, Evie stared at women either side of her. Audrey, Twiggy… how were these seventy-somethings living more of life than she had in years? Why weren’t they even slightly ashamed to be staggering home in yesterday’s clothes when they’d been menaging with an ex spy?
‘Come on, petal,’ Belle said, standing up and slipping on a pair of Jackie O shades, ‘we’ll walk back with you. Bit of solidarity.’
Magda, knees creaking, mimicked her friend, donning a pair of vast tortoiseshell frames which made her elfin face look thirty years younger in the right light. ‘Are you putting those shoes on?’
Evie shook her head and the three women set out to Gosthwaite.
Did she have regrets?
Unlike Belle and Magda, she still wore a worried frown, not a smug half-smile.
Obviously she did have regrets. But why?
Okay seriously, it’d been two years, two years and no sex. She hadn’t cheated on anyone – Nate was single too. Consenting adults. So why feel so ashamed? Was it that bad to want a shag?
The Wedding Before
As Dancing Queen echoed from the marquee across the lawns, Evie sighed. The disco had started. She ought to go back, to dance with her cousin, but as Evie looked up from her book, it wasn’t the thought of rejoining the party that had her frown. A familiar broad-shouldered figure headed down the lane towards the terrace where she sat.
After her brother’s close-to-the-bone speech and the three-tier carrot cake was ceremoniously sliced, Evie had ducked out, craving solitude. For a glorious hour she sat curled up on a bench, reading, thinking, daydreaming she was the lady of this beautiful manor house, that the grounds peeling away to ancient woodland were all hers – hers and some dashing hero who’d whisk her away from all the hatred in the village.
But now Nate dragged her back to reality, back to Gosthwaite.
‘Are you hiding?’ he asked, jogging up the terrace steps.
‘Of course not,’ she lied.
‘You’re sat over here, by yourself, in the shadows…’
‘Okay. Maybe. It’s a lot to cope with… all the people, all the noise.’ The truth was he’d left her side to help Ryan with some groomsmen duties and one of the octogenarians at their table asked if she were the girl who used to be with Ali. Mild panic took over and she’d sought refuge in the written word. ‘I just felt like a little quiet time.’
‘What are you reading?’
‘Nothing.’ Evie closed her Kindle. ‘Are you having fun?’
What she really wanted to know was, why was he out there? Lianne sent him maybe?.
‘You never read nothing’ he said, ignoring her question. ‘What is it?’
‘Nothing of interest to you.’ Her face was burning, but thank the lord for the dimming light.
‘I’m not a mummy, and don’t be ridiculous.’
Before she could stop him, he grabbed her Kindle and opened it, his face crumpling into a frown as he read the page. Evie folded her arms, ready for the mockery.
‘You’re reading Danny Champion of the World?’
‘So? Roald–’ Evie paused. He recognised the book? ‘Roald… Dahl was a superb writer.’
‘Agreed, but you? I thought Booker Prize winners were more your thing, clever stuff translated from Norwegian.’
‘Sometimes. But I wanted something very… British. And Danny Champion of the World is about as British as you can get. You’ve read it?’
Nate smiled and put her Kindle back down. ‘My dad used to read it to me when I was a kid.’
‘I was so sorry to hear he died.’
‘He smoked forty a day since he was fifteen. Not a shock when it caught up with him.’ Nate looked down, studying his hands. ‘Quick in the end, but fucking horrific.’
‘It must’ve been awful – for him and you.’
Nate nodded. ‘But… it was over a year ago and it’s… well, you get used to it, don’t you?’
At twelve, Evie had lost her own father to a farming accident – man versus rolling tractor. ‘Did you know you’re technically an orphan when you lose one parent, it doesn’t have to be both?’
‘Always the trivia queen.’ Nate turned to her, a smile pasted in place. ‘How long you back for? Ryan wasn’t sure.’
Neither am I. ‘The weekend. It depends.’
‘Depends on what?’
‘What everyone in the village is like?’ She took a deep breath, unable to resist picking the scab. ‘How is he? Ali, I mean.’
‘I don’t know. He’s Ali. Why?’
‘Well… I just wondered if he was okay.’
‘You hoping you can go running back?’
‘No. God, no. But it’d just be easier if he wasn’t all broken hearted still.’
‘Oh.’ That was good, right? ‘He’s seeing someone else then?’
‘You need to forget about Ali.’ Nate looked up at her, flashing a smile. ‘Are you glad to be home?’
She nodded, unable to stop her grin. ‘Apple trees, hedges, road markings… everything’s so… English. I’ve missed it.’
‘Even the Lake District drizzle, Jeebies?’
‘Even that. ‘ She smiled back, despite him using her hated nickname. ‘God, I can’t wait for autumn.’
‘Frosty blue sky mornings?’
She groaned, anticipating wearing scarves and mittens. ‘It’ll be bliss. Walking Mum’s dogs down by the river.’
Nate glanced down at her bag, at her Kindle. ‘I wanted to live like Danny and his dad.’
‘In a gypsy caravan in the woods?’ Evie laughed. ‘I keep thinking the same, then I remember there’d be no wifi and I’m not sure I could live on foraged apples and wild garlic.’
’You don’t fancy yourself as a poacher?’
‘It’s illegal. And I wouldn’t have a clue.’
‘Such a townie.’
‘I’m a farmer’s daughter. Am not.’
‘What, and you’re a dab hand at robbing pheasants, are you?’
‘No, but…’ Nate looked around, to the vast lawn that disappeared into the woods. ‘Just the weekend?’
The weekend, maybe a week… what did it matter? ‘As I said, it depends.’
Nate stood up. ‘Fancy a walk?’
But he merely grabbed her bag, shoving the kindle inside it. ‘Come on, Jeebies.’
She paused to take off her shoes – the heels were a disaster on the gravel earlier – but as she went to head down the stone steps Nate put his arm around her waist, casually picking her up.
‘There might be broken glass,’ he explained. ‘Or sharp stones.’
Evie took in a sharp breath. Oh… kay…
Three steps… two steps… onto the gravel lane, away from the marquee. He kept going.
She had to keep breathing.
And she definitely, most definitely mustn’t wrap her arms around him. Okay, one arm around his shoulders wasn’t too desperate, was it? Wait, she wasn’t desperate. This was Nate – her brother’s lumberjack best mate. She didn’t fancy him or anything.
At the end of the short lane, he carefully put her down, but when he handed back her bag, he looked anywhere but at her. And thank god, because her cheeks had to be the colour of tomatoes – they were on fire.
Okay, she might have a tiny lingering crush from her teens.
‘Where are we going?’ she asked to break the god-awful silence.
He pointed to the river at the edge of the woods. ‘Best trout river for miles. I used to fish it with my grandad.’
‘I see…’ She didn’t really, but to be away from the party, away from the noise was utter bliss.
‘What’s it like in Indonesia?’
‘Amazing,’ she said, wriggling her toes in the cool grass. It’s not perfect, but such a beautiful place and the people are so welcoming. It’s a muslim country, but no one ever minded that I wasn’t. Everyone seemed so tolerant of one another. Shame it isn’t like that here.’
‘Come on, it’s not that bad.’
‘When I broke up with Ali, someone actually made the effort to cross the street to call me out.’
‘You’re joking?’ Nate shook his head. ‘The two-faced—’
‘I know, right? I thought we were friends.’ Evie sighed. ‘But it seemed all hell broke loose after I left. Ryan hitting Ali in the pub?’
‘He didn’t just hit him. He totally laid him out cold.’
‘Oh god.’ Evie cringed. Stuff like that just made things a hundred times worse. ‘Why?’
‘Because… it doesn’t matter. So have you got the travel bug now? It’s just you seem prety glad to see England again.’
‘Maybe. I don’t know.’
‘Would you go back to Indonesia?’
She shrugged. ‘Probably not.’
‘I thought you loved it – you loved it enough to stay for two years.’
‘I broke up with Ali because his idea of seeing the world was spending two weeks in Lanzarote. If I went back to the same place then I’d be doing the same thing.’
‘Two weeks?’ Nate laughed.
‘That way you can really get to know the place apparantly.’ She grinned. ‘Like he didn’t know it well enough already. He and his family have been going there every summer for the last twenty years.’
‘Total dick.’ As they approached the river, Nate shed his jacket and held a finger to his lips, telling her to be quiet.
‘What are you doing?’ she whispered as he skulked along the river bank.
Looking for fish, he mouthed and mimed one swimming with his hand.
Intrigued, Evie sat on the grass, watching as he rolled up his sleeves. Nate Hadley-Brown. His waistcoat clung to his trim torso, and unless things had changed massively in the last two years, there’d be washboard abs under there. Years of rock climbing keeping his physique ripped and his hands rough. No one liked boys with soft hands, right?
Slowly and silently, he crouched down, flashing her a grin before he lay on his front, and trailed a hand into the river. His forehead furrowed in concentration. What was… Oh. Evie glanced to her bag, to her Kindle, to Danny Champion of the World. Was he tickling a trout? She put a hand to her mouth, stifling her giggles. How did it work? The sleeping trout would be nestled into the river bank and you had to subtly bring your hand in from behind, gently caressing the fish, relaxing it. Evie crossed her legs, more than a little jealous. Then you moved your hand forwards, and when you reached the gills, you hooked it, grabbing the fish right out of the—
Water splashed Evie as Nate swept a fish from the river, laughing in astonishment. ‘Fuck me.’ He glanced sheepishly up at her. ‘Sorry. Swears.’
‘Oh my god.’ Evie laughed as much at Nate apologising for swearing as at the ludicrousness of him kneeling on the grass, his shirt half-soaked as he held out a perfect brown trout. ‘But you just tickled a trout.’
‘No need to live on wild garlic and apples,’ he said.
‘Grilled trout for supper in the gypsy caravan?’ She laughed. ‘What the hell are you going to do with it?’
‘Put it back.’ He peered at its face. ‘Sorry for disturbing your sleep, mate.’
‘You can’t just put it back. You have to kiss it.’
‘I have to do what now?’
‘It’s kiss and release.’
‘It’s a tradition. Kiss it.’
‘You kiss it.’ Nate’s eyes dared her.
‘Fine.’ Impetuously, Evie leaned closer. As her lips touched the fish, its mouth opened, its little fishy lips moving against hers. She squealed, backing away in horror and wiping her hand across her lips.
‘Ugh… I’ve just snogged a trout.’
Laughing, Nate carefully placed the fish in the water, holding it for a few seconds, letting it breathe in the water.
‘Lucky fish,’ he muttered, his words almost lost to the sound of the river.
‘Excuse me?’ she asked, laughing a little. ‘Why’s he lucky, because he got to kiss me?’
It was a joke, but Nate didn’t look up from the river and from the pink tinge his ears had taken on, he clearly hadn’t meant her to overhear. Was he being serious? Was Nate jealous of the fish? Did Nate want to kiss her too?
Finally, he turned to her, his eyes twinkling playfully. ‘Well… I’m sure there are… worse things to do.’
Evie’s cheeks burned. Oh dear god.
‘Ready to get back to the party?’ he asked, holding out a hand.
Evie let him pull her to her feet, but he quickly let go of her hand and headed away from the river, his hands in his pockets. Nate couldn’t like her. He liked Lianne-type party girls, not boring bookworms like Evie.
‘Come on, Jeebies. Party.’
Still bemused, she trotted after him. ‘You know I hate that name, right?’
‘Then why use it?’
‘It makes you cross.’ He glanced down at her, grinning. ‘You’re cute when you’re cross.’
‘Cute?’ What had happened to her? Had she fallen down a rabbit hole, eaten or drank something she shouldn’t? Nate Hadley-Brown was jealous of a fish kissing her and now was calling her cute? This clearly wasn’t the real world. ‘Are you hitting on me or taking the piss?’
‘What do you think?’
‘Taking the piss.’ She elbowed him, but his eyes twinkled as he elbowed her back. Hitting on me. Nate Hadley-Brown is hitting on me. She shouldn’t really care – he was her brother’s best mate, a no-go zone, but Evie struggled not to do a cartwheel. Nate was… well, quite frankly he could hit away. It really didn’t hurt her ego. ‘I can’t believe I just kissed a fish.’
Nate, bit his lip for a moment, before laughing. ‘It’s nice to see you living a little.’
‘Excuse me?’ Evie frowned. ‘I live.’
‘No, you don’t.’
‘I so do.’
‘Name one thing.’
‘Er… I dumped my boyfriend one week, then quit my job and signed up to VSO the next? Surely that’s the definition of living a little.’
‘That was an exceptional circumstance and you weren’t living, you were hiding. As usual. You’re always hiding in a corner with your nose in a book. Like today.’
Evie bristled. ‘Ah, you are taking the piss.’
‘No. I’m making a point.’
‘What point?’ She walked on, resolutely staring at the ground. ‘I’m intrigued.’
‘You’re so busy reading about different lives, maybe you’re forgetting to live your own.’
‘I refer you back to the boyfriend and VSO statement.’
‘I refer you back to my exceptional statement. That was a one off. Have you any idea how often Ryan would try to talk to you, to get you out of the house, to do something—’
‘Only so he could pick on me where mum couldn’t see. I like reading.’
‘Me too. But I prefer real life. It’s a lot more exciting.’
‘I beg to differ. Real life is all Coronation Street, fish and chips on Wednesday…’ Evie shook her head. ‘No thanks. And since when did you like reading?’
‘Since you got me into the Harry Potter books.’
‘You read them all?’
She folded her arms. She’d have been what, eight when she started the series. Nate maybe twelve. And he’d totally recognised Danny Champion of the World. Was Nate a bit of a bookworm? ‘But whatever. I’d still rather go to Hogwarts in my head than sit through real life.
‘That’s your problem. You shouldn’t be sitting through it. Live it.’ Nate stopped her at the edge of the grass, a gentle hand on her arm. ‘Promise no more hiding today?’
Bravely she looked up at him. ‘What was the last thing you read?’
‘Is this some kind of test?’
‘Maybe.’ Do we have something in common?
Nate struggled not to smile. ‘Never Let Me Go.’
Evie’s insides flipped. That was her all-time favourite book. ‘Did you like it?’
‘Slow but worth the effort.’
‘So what’s it to be, Evie Jeebies? Are you going to sit in the shadows and read about other imaginary lives, or give your own a go?’
Okay, this world, right at that moment was… worthy of a page turn. It was like some bizarre fantasy world where Nate Hadley-Brown, the dashing hero, was… hitting on her.
Taking a deep breath, Evie stepped forward, the tiny pebbles cold and sharp under her bare feet. ‘You know,’ she said, looking up at Nate, ‘there could be broken glass…’
‘Now you’re getting it, Jeebies.’
Her faux-outraged scowl dissolved as he swept her up and slowly headed across the largely untreacherous pebbles and Evie fought a grin. And to clutch his shirt too tightly. Or to run her fingers through his hair.
Evie’s Adventures in Wonderland had begun.
The Morning After
‘Going to be a lovely day,’ Belle remarked, lifting her face to the sun.
‘Watercolours by the tarn?’ Magda suggested.
‘And a picnic.’ Belle nodded.
Their picnic would probably consist of olives for their martinis. But actually, how awesome would it be to sit by Black Fell Tarn, sipping vodka martinis from a proper triangle cocktail glass while painting a landscape? It’d be like something out of… Evelyn Waugh? Or maybe, Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse.
Except I’d always think it was a bad idea to drink during the day.
Did she regret sleeping with Nate?
The word popped into her head without hesitation. She was living a little, and he was a good guy. A friend. They had fun. He was single; she was single. It was nobody else’s business but theirs. And she hadn’t had sex for over two bloody years. Regret it? She deserved it.
Evie’s shoulders relaxed.
It was true. Shagging Nate did not make her feel ashamed. She had no regrets.
Yet, why didn’t she have a smug half-smile like Nana Belle? Why did she have a lingering sense of soul-eroding guilt?
But she already knew the answer.
Two years on and nothing had changed. She’d broken Ali’s heart and now to make matters worse, she’d cheated on him. What a bitch. That’s what everyone would think.
She had to stop worry about what other people thought, that was Nana Belle and Magda’s advice. Easier said than done though.
Evie pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth in a vain attempt to produce some saliva. At least the garage was around the next bend, at the entrance to the village. She could get an ice cold bottle of water. What did she have in her purse, eight pounds or so? She could get a bottle of Irn Bru, full fat. Would they still sell it at the garage? They used to.
Beside her, Belle and Magda still twittered about oils versus watercolours, as they had for the last fifteen minutes, but when Evie upped the pace, already imagining the icy chill and comforting sugar rush of the only thing worth drinking after a night on the beer, her silver sisters kept pace.
As they rounded the corner, the awesome sight of the garage became more freaking awesome when Evie spotted the Caprelli’s Ice Cream sat by the roadside. Forget Irn Bru, how awesome would a Caprelli’s mint choc chip cone go down? When had she last had locally made, real ice cream?
Less freaking awesome was a blue polo heading down the road towards them. A blue polo remarkably similar to her mother’s. Remarkably similar to her mother’s and pulling into the garage. It looked like locally made, real ice cream would be a nice to have, not one of life’s necessities. Oh like she could avoid facing her mother. And, she could offer a lift back to the village – not that it was far – but a tremendously brave face would be needed.
Evie lifted her chin as her mother climbed out of the car. The previous evening, Evie had avoided her brother’s undoubtedly disapproving face as he’d been sitting on the top deck of the vintage red bus, most likely with his tongue down Emily Fetherstonhaugh’s throat. Evie’s mother on the other hand had been perched on the seat nearest to the exit and when Evie skipped after Nate, and her lips had pursed like she was sucking a lemon – and no imported from Sorrento kind of lemon; this was Tesco Value lemon kind of pursed.
And it wasn’t much better now when Susan Craig leaned against her VW Polo and folded her arms.
‘You’re a bold article, Evie Craig.’
‘What?’ Evie half-laughed, aiming for faux-innocence.
Her mother looked at each of the silver sisters. ‘What the bloody hell did I actually do to deserve this, to deserve my bloody family?’
Evie frowned. Seriously? ‘Mum–’
‘Your brother’s nearly thirty and has no desire to do anything with his bloody life other than earn just enough money to pay for beer, rent and Sky Sport. Emily bloody Fetherstonhaugh’s at ours for tea more than she’s at her own mum’s. Carry on like this, Ryan won’t move out; she’ll move in. I’m about to turn fifty. I should be shot of my kids, not having them back expecting bacon and bloody eggs on Sunday mornings. But you know what, I don’t actually mind. I’d rather have you both at home, knowing you’re safe, knowing you’re happy.’
‘I’ve done everything for you lot,’ her mother went on. ‘I brought up two kids on my own when I was barely more than a kid myself. I’ve worked three jobs, sold the family farm and took my mother in. I’ve worked hard to keep this bloody family together, so I don’t bloody appreciate this bloody family doing everything it bloody can at every bloody opportunity to show me up.’
Evie’s mouth opened, but no suitably useful words fell out.
‘And you, Mum,’ Susan snapped, scowling at her own mother. ‘Did you have to slope off on the arm of that bullshitting army bloke when the reception had barely started. Lianne’s mother was fuming. And it didn’t help that Magda was on the moustached lothario’s other arm. It was a bloody wedding, not Take Me Out.’
Belle leaned in, whispering in Evie’s ear, ‘No regrets. He was worth it.’
Evie’s subsequent smile was short-lived as her mother turned to her.
‘And you, buggering off with Nathan Hadley-Brown.’
‘So?’ Evie folded her arms, mirroring her mother’s pose.
‘You made a total show of yourself.’
‘How? I’m single. He’s single. We… spent the night together. It’s not the Fifites.’
‘Single?’ Her mother gave a hollow laugh. ‘He’s been single for less than a week.’
Evie struggled not to react. It wasn’t what Nate said, but… it wasn’t relevant. Or an issue. ‘So?’
‘This time last week, he was seeing Becky from the Post Office. Linda said they were about to book all inclusive to Croatia and then, Bam! Out of nowhere, her tells her it’s over. He’ll have someone else on the side and in the meantime, he’s using you for…’
‘Sex?’ Evie kept her chin high, even if her arms had dropped. ‘What if he is?’
‘Evie!’ her mother hissed, glancing around the empty petrol station.
‘It wasn’t a date.’ I’m not ashamed of what happened with Nate. Evie took a deep breath. ‘It was sex. It was fun and… and maybe if you remembered that… maybe if you got some and remembered that, then you wouldn’t be giving me and Nana Belle a hard time for… living a little.’
Her mother stared back at her.
‘But she is getting some.’ Nana Belle said quietly. ‘Tell her.’
Evie looked from Belle to her mother to Magda who nodded. ‘What? Who?’
Her mother’s cheeks turned a dark pink. ‘Mark.’
‘Well, he’s not really your uncle.’
‘No. He’s… he was Dad’s best friend.’
Her mother bristled. ‘Well, now he’s my best friend.’
Oh. ‘Since when?’
‘Since he split up with Jen.’
‘You’ve been seeing him for fiveyears?’ Evie stared in credulously. ‘Why don’t I know this?’
‘Unlike you lot,’ Susan glared at them all, ‘I don’t parade my relationship for the world to see.’
‘You don’t have a relationship,’ Belle said, quietly but firmly. ‘You have secrecy, a half-life.’
Susan’s arms tightened around herself – no longer cross with her family, now defensive. ‘So? I can’t just… go out with Mark. What would Steven’s family think? It’s not just about me. I don’t want them to just think I’ve forgotten him.’
‘Mum… Dad died fifteen years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I miss him every day, but you’re allowed to move on. I’m quite sure Nana Craig will think that too.’
‘Will she?’ Susan asked.
‘And does it matter?’ Evie replied. ‘It’s your life…’ and she glanced to Nana Belle, finally getting it. Only you should be able to make yourself feel ashamed. ‘Are you okay with you having a relationship with Mark?’
Her mum nodded. ‘He’s asked me to marry him.’
‘For god’s sake mum!’ Evie suppressed a squeal. ‘How could you not have told me?’
‘Because it’s not right.’
‘You’re worrying about what…’ Evie took a deep breath. ‘Mum, when I dumped Ali it made me the most unpopular girl in the village. I know people hate me, but I don’t regret dumping–’
‘No one hates you,’ her mother blurted out.
Evie frowned. ‘What?’
‘He made his bed,’ Nana Belle said, nodding.
‘Who?’ Evie asked, bewildered.
‘Alistair.’ Her mother looked her in the eye. ‘A few weeks after you left, he… he started going out with Paige.’
‘Paige Metcalfe?’ Evie fizzed inside with uncertainty.
‘And then…’ Susan paused to take a breath, ‘Paige was pregnant.’
That was quick. ‘Oh.’
‘The baby, Iris, she’s nearly two. She’ll be two in August.’
Evie frowned. But she’d only split up with Ali two years ago. That meant Paige would’ve been pregnant before Evie left for Indonesia. Those baby hormones maybe explained why she went off on one at Evie, calling her a stuck up slut. All credit to Ali for taking on someone else’s kid. He’d never been keen on having his own. He obviously really liked Paige.
‘Wow. So who’s the father?’
Susan took a deep breath. ‘Ali.’
‘He was seeing Paige before you broke up with him.’ The words stumbled from her mother’s mouth.
‘We don’t know how long for, but it was a thing.’
‘A thing.’ Evie sat on the bonnet of her mother’s car. ‘Ali was shagging around?’
Nana Belle rubbed her arm. ‘We were all shocked when we found out.’
‘When did you find out?’
‘Just after you’d gone.’
‘What the actual fuck?’ Evie stared at them all. Where the fuck was the solidarity? ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
Susan folded her arms again. ‘Now I won’t feel bad for that. You’d left here, gone away to do something with your bloody life and, you were doing it. Living a real life, not a half one back here.’
‘No.’ Susan stood tall. ‘I know you, Evie Craig. If you knew that no one here was mad at you, that they were mad at Alistair and Paige instead, well… you might’ve come home and I didn’t want you to.’
‘You were living your dream, Evie. Ever since you were four years old you wanted to go to Timbuctoo. I didn’t want you to come home and miss out on all that.’
Evie swallowed. Hard. Her mum was right; she would’ve come home, but all the same… ‘You should’ve told me the truth.’
‘I just have.’
Evie struggled to keep tears at bay and when they tumbled down her cheeks, she refused to wipe them away. Ali cheated on her. Despite everything that was said when she broke up with him, he’d already ruined the relationship.
‘I’m going to kill him.’ Evie’s hands balled into tight fists. And that two-faced bitch… How dare Paige call Evie a stuck up slut, berating her for dumping Ali when Paige was shagging Ali all along? For fu– ‘No. I’m going to kill her. Give me a lift, mum? Where do they live?’
‘The new estate?’ Evie gave a hollow laugh. Ali got his dream house then. ‘Do they go to Fuerteventura too? Give me a lift, mum?’
‘I don’t think you should–’
‘Fine. You want so see me make a show of myself? I’ll walk.’ She rammed her shoes back on. ‘Nana?’
‘With you all the way.’ Belle’s struggled to fight a smile as she slipped her sunglasses back on.
Taking shaky breaths and peering in the Polo’s window, Evie checked her hair, checked her make-up, checked she didn’t look too mental, though potentially, she knew she was very mental.
I’m going to kill one of them.
‘Mags, you coming?’
Magda nodded. ‘That unfaithful piece of shit deserves to be told the score.’
With her jaw set, Evie stalked off, vaguely aware of her mother locking the Polo and scurrying after them, begging Evie to be reasonable, but reasonable was the last thing Evie intended to be. Her head swam with memories of Paige ranting at her, Ali begging her, everyone in the village blanking her and that fact that for two bloody years no one had told her the god-damned truth.
I might actually kill someone.
And she didn’t give two fucks what anyone though of that.
Anger still burned through Evie as the four stern-faced women rounded the corner to enter Grasmere Close, but when she saw the two-year-old mini-housing estate, her intent to murder had lessened to GBH. If this was the life Ali wanted, Paige was welcome to it. Two rows of identikit houses ended in a little cul-de-sac, but instead of neat terraces as was usual in the area, the stone cottages were semi-detached boxes with integrated garages and postage stamp gardens edged with foot high stone walls. They couldn’t look less like a traditional Lake District house if they tried.
Despite the early hour on a Sunday morning, kids were riding bikes, lawns were being mowed, and outside number six, Paige bloody Metcalfe was washing a silver Volvo estate.
This is my idea of hell.
‘Morning,’ the man from number said as he tipped his lawn clippings into a trug.
‘Morning, Gordon,’ Belle and Magda chimed in unison.
Paige straightened before putting her bucket of soapy water down and tossing the sponge into it. ‘You’re back then.’
‘Yeah, I’m back.’ Evie stepped closer. ‘Why, Paige?’
‘Why go to the effort to cross the road to call me a stuck up slut when you were shagging my god-damned boyfriend.’
Paige folded her arms and pouted. ‘You never appreciated what you had.’
‘What, an unfaithful boyfriend?’ Evie shook her head. ‘You should’ve been happy, over the bloody moon that he was free.’
‘Over the moon I could have your cast offs? Gee thanks.’ Paige put her hands on her hips. ‘You’re so ungrateful. You’d sit there in the pub, Miss-too-fucking-good-for-this-shithole-village–’
‘I love this village.’
‘Like hell.’ Paige shook her hair back. ‘I want to read poetry by the Seine.’
‘Oh my god,’ Evie’s eyes widened. ‘I said that when I was fifteen. I don’t even like poetry.’
‘See, you’re just full of shit.’
‘Oh my god, you’re not even a little bit sorry, are you?’
‘Why should I be? You…’ Paige jabbed a finger in Evie’s direction. ‘Made Ali feel he was never good enough for years. Of course he was going to look elsewhere for a bit of support.’
‘Support? You were shagging him.’
‘I was.’ A smug smile took over Paige’s face and fury took over Evie. Intent to Murder was back on. ‘We even did it in your bed when–’
Letting out a banshee wail, Evie stepped forwards, her arms out and pushed Paige hard. The girl squealed as she toppled backwards over the tiny garden wall, landing with a hard thud on the backed lawn.
‘That,’ Evie snapped, ‘is for shagging Ali behind my back.’
But Evie wasn’t finished. She grabbed Paige’s bucket of soapy water and dumped the lot over Paige’s head. ‘And that is for calling me a stuck up slut, you two-faced, back-stabbing, pots calling kettle cow!’
‘Oh my god!’ Paige spluttered, gasping against the cold. ‘You’re a nutjob.’
‘Abso-freaking-lutely.’ In a flash, Evie grabbed Gordon from Number Four’s trug and shook the whole load of grass cuttings over Paige. ‘And that’s for not being remotely sorry about any of it!’
Her heart pounded as she stepped back and surveyed her handiwork. Paige still sat on the ground, her legs hooked over the wall, mascara running, grass sticking to her wet skin but more importantly, a defeated slump had taken over her shoulders. Evie had won.
But was that what she wanted?
She glanced to the house where Ali now stood in the front doorway, an adorable little girl in his arms – a truly protective father, or using his child as a shield?
‘You two happy?’ she asked Paige.
Paige wiped her face and nodded. ‘Yeah.’
‘He told me he wasn’t fussed about kids.’
‘Iris wasn’t exactly planned, but we’re happy. He’s a great dad.’
‘I always said he would be.’ Evie glanced again at her ex and his daughter. The little girl had Paige’s dark hair, but Ali’s blue eyes. ‘She’s beautiful.’
‘Look, Paige. I’m… well, I will be happy for you two. I just wished you hadn’t lied.’
‘But if I’m going to stick around Gosthwaite, I don’t want a war.’ Evie held out a hand, offering to help Paige up. ‘We’ll put this behind us, move on?’
Paige took the hand and after a deep breath, let Evie haul her to her feet. ‘Thank you.’
Evie nodded, relived. It was over. No one hated her and she wouldn’t waste her life hating anyone else. Slowly, she walked away, back to her little support network. Her mother visibly relaxed and Nana Belle took Evie’s arm.
‘Evie?’ Paige called. ‘I’m sorry… for everything.’
Grinning, but without turning back, Evie called back, ‘Then I’m sorry for the grass.’
Beside her, Belle chuckled. ‘I thought the water was a hoot, but the clippings… oh my.’
Reality was dawning. She’s actually done that. ‘Sorry mum. Made another show of myself.’
‘Under the circumstances,’ her mother said, smiling, ‘I’ll let you off. I’d better get back to the car. God knows what they thought of me leaving it like that on the forecourt.’
‘Mum,’ Evie said, elbowing her, ‘you really shouldn’t worry about what people think.’
‘Oh good lord, now you sound like your bloody grandmother.’
‘Then my work here is done,’ Belle said, detangling her arm from Evie’s. ‘I’d best get home. Constantine will be wanting his breakfast.’
‘He’s still alive?’ Evie laughed. Belle’s aged Siamese monster had been in the throes of death for the last ten years.
‘Evil creature,’ Magda said, kissing Evie’s cheek. ‘Take care, angel.’
After Evie watched her mother disappear to the left, Belle and Mags head off to the right, she slipped off her shoes once again and slowly sauntered through the village, soaking up its cosy familiarity. Paige was wrong, she’d never thought she were too good for the village. And she certainly never considered it a shithole. Okay, it might not be Cartmel or Hawkshead pretty, but it had a village green, local shops selling local wares and every corner held a memory. The lane where she learned to ride a bike, the tree she fell out of after Ryan and Nate dared her to pinch an apple. Oh, was that them encouraging her to do something, to live a little?
Inwardly, she cringed. Nate.
Okay, she might have gotten over what people think, and she didn’t feel bad for indulging in a one night stand, but how the hell was she ever going to face her brother’s best mate again?
The Wedding Before
‘You ready to dance to cheesy disco?’ Nate asked, holding open the door. ‘Give it your best Gangnam moves?’
‘For Lianne, I’d even dance to Justin Bieber.’
Nate’s eyebrows raised. ‘And for me?’
‘That would…’ Evie paused, trying but failing to come up with a little sass. Nate’s hand was on her back, his thumb brushing her side. Something slow, sexy and infinitely hot? ‘It’d need to be a really good tune.’
He leant closer, his lips near her ear. ‘How good a tune?’
Anything. She’d literally dance to the Eastenders theme to keep Nate’s hands on her. Evie’s heart thundered against her ribs as Beyonce faded away, Lianne proudly shaking the hand with a ring on it. What would it be… Lianne’s choice of upbeat disco, or Dale’s choice of gritty guitar bands?
The unmistakable strumming of the Strokes filled the tent and Evie struggled to hide her grin. Nate didn’t bother. It was an awesome tune, and they both knew it.
‘You’re in luck.’ Evie grabbed the front of his waistcoat, leading the way to the dance floor. God, the fabric was still damp from the water he’d splashed with that little trout.
If she wanted to – if she wanted to live a little – she could totally pull Nate Hadley-Brown. Last night… she said… Evie jumped up and down, pogoing alongside Lianne, laughing with Ryan, and trying very subtly to flirt with Nate.
As the Strokes faded and Mr Brightside took over, Nate’s arm snook around her waist, his lips brushing her cheek.
‘I love this tune,’ he said.
Evie turned her head, her lips flirtingly close to his, her hand resting on his bicep. ‘Me too!’
Okay, not so subtly.
But pull… or pull-pull? Evie’s heart rate increased and it had nothing to do with the dancing. Would they kiss? Surely they would, maybe hidden in the shadows of the marquee, the lingering promise of more. Evie sucked in a breath as his hand brushed her neck. Or what if… she raised her arms, turning to Nate, using the beat to inch closer to his body. Nate flashed her a genuine life-fucking-rocks smile.
Oh dear god. Sex. It had been over two years.
Evie turned from Nate so he couldn’t see what was in her eyes, but when his hands landed on her hips, the whole marquee probably could. Certainly, Lianne had. Evie mouthed an innocent what but her cousin merely flashed a cheeky wink.
Beyonce melted to Tay-Tay, Tay-Tay to Oasis, Oasis to the Streets – it had to be the best disco in the history of discos. Especially since Nate’s hand had not just brushed, but actually rested on her arse three times already.
Evie tried not to grin as she dried her hands. That morning she’d employed every make-up and hair-styling skill in her arsenal to feel brave enough to face Gosthwaite. But now her skin shone with perspiration and her arty up-do bordered on a scruffy bun. But she looked… radient.
‘Li…anne…’ she called to her cousin. We need to get back out there. ‘Come on…’
Lianne bustled out of a cubicle, grinning. ‘And?’
Evie took a slow breath, waiting while Lianne washed her hands. ‘And what about Nate?’
‘Oh, please… Evie and Nate sitting in a tree—’
‘You like him though, right?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘He so likes you. He hasn’t taken his eyes off you all freaking day.’
‘Whatever.’ Absurdly pleased, Evie skipped out of the toilets, dragging Lianne back to the dancefloor. ‘He’s being nice, that’s all.’
‘Nice?’ Lianne hoisted her skirt, can-can style. ‘Fuck me senseless kind of nice?’
‘No!’ Evie’s cheeks burned.
Two one-night-stands were the extent of her non-Ali sexual history. Both isolated instances of wild abandoned sex – the absolute antithesis of anything she experienced with Ali. Evie went through the motions of dancing with Lianne, but she couldn’t help glancing to the bar where Nate was talking with Ryan. Would Nate be up for a little wild abandonment?
As if he’d read her mind, Nate looked over, but his small smile evaporated as Ryan slapped his shoulder, and not in a good way. Shit. Nate hung his head, but Ryan wasn’t done. He appeared to give a few stern words before glancing at Evie. Nate nodded.
‘What the actual hell?’ Evie whispered, turning to Lianne. ‘Has Ryan just warned Nate off?’
Lianne’s eyes flashed. ‘And if he did?’
‘Well, I love that he’s looking out for me, but it’s none of his—’
Nate was walking back, his head down.
‘Shit. Lianne, what should I do?’
But her cousin merely shot a wink and turned to shake her ass at her new husband.
At the edge of the dance floor, Nate looked up, his eyes blazing.
‘I’m so sorry… Ryan can be…’ Evie stammered. ‘But I don’t want you and him—’
He kissed her, barely for a second, but in that barely second, she wanted more. She wanted more wild and abandoned shagging. She wanted to touch, to smell, to taste… and she wanted to not freaking read about it. And screw the multitudes who hated her, screw the angry mob who called her names. She could really give them something to talk about.
So in the middle of the dance floor, with Kelly Clarkson belting out HeartbeatSong, Evie clutched at Nate’s waistcoat and kissed him back like no one was watching.
The Morning After
Her mum, Belle and Magda walked away, silhouetted against the rising sun. What a bunch of women. If only she had the strength they did. Hang on. She’d just taken Paige down a peg or three; she’d totally pulled the hottest guy in the village – was Evie already as strong as the women striding away?
Maybe she was.
With her head high, shoulders back, Evie sauntered up Market Street. There was no guilt to face, no exes to avoid, or new girlfriends to confront. Just wander home, best foot forward – okay, the shoes would have to come off again – barefoot forward.
This was no walk of shame; it was a stride of god-damned pride.
The red sign in the café window wouldn’t normally have interested her, but since it sat on a tower of paperbacks, Evie stopped.
The Eskimo Kiss Café & Secondhand Bookstore – Opening Friday!
There’d been a café here on Market Street for as long as she could remember, but it’s last incarnation, Betty’s Tea Room was more paper doilies and WI sponges. This new version had chunky oak tables, Chesterfield sofas and almost every wall covered with a bookcase. An ancient, battered copy of the Wind in the Willows sat under the Staff Wanted sign. Evie picked up the book. How lovely would it be to float down the river with Ratty and Mole?
You’re so busy reading about different lives, maybe you’re forgetting to live your own.
Nate’s words haunted her. If he hadn’t persuaded her back in, she wouldn’t have spent the evening dancing, laughing, celebrating with her cousin. Lianne had been there when Evie split up with Ali, and how had Evie tried to repay her? By sitting in the dark reading Danny Champion of the World. Thank God for Nate. He’d done her a massive favour, making her rejoin the party, making her embrace life – she couldn’t stop now.
Placing the book back on the pile, Evie frowned at the sign in her hand. She had no reason to run away from Gosthwaite anymore… and she kind of needed a job. She had a degree in hotel management and two year’s experience teaching in a school on the other side of the world. Could she handle a waitressing job?
‘Despite a year backpacking in Australia, I never got the hang of that.’ A woman around Evie’s age stood in the doorway, her auburn hair hanging in two long fishtail braids. ‘Walking barefoot on the street.’
Evie glanced down. Dirty feet. Not the best first impression. ‘Two years in Indonesia got me the hang of it. I just got back two days ago. Shoes are a bit of a shock.’
‘You’re looking for a job?’
Evie nodded. ‘For the summer, at least.’
‘Come in a sec. Can I get you a drink?’
‘Water would be awesome, please.’
The woman fished a bottle from a fridge behind the counter and handed it to Evie. ‘Experience?’
‘Of waitressing? Two years as a Costa barrista at Sixth Form.’ Evie took several mouthfuls of cold, crisp, life-saving water. ‘Thank you. How are you organising the books, by genre or alphabetical?’
The woman’s brow furrowed as she surveyed the piles. ‘I hadn’t thought that far, just bought a job lot on eBay. There’s this cafe in Bondi Beach, Gertrude and Alice’s. They do second hand books too. I loved the place and thought it might work here.’
‘And the name?’
‘Something my grandma used to say. An eskimo’s kiss is a thing of warmth when everything is cold around you.’
‘Sweet. And apt for the Lakes in winter.’
‘How would you sort the books?’
‘By genre, then alphabetical by author.’
‘There are ten thousand paperbacks, most are upstairs. And five hundred hardbacks. Still interested?’
Evie supressed a squeal. ‘Not reading them all would be my biggest challenge.’
‘You’re hired. Tomorrow, nine o’clock?’
‘Thanks so much. I won’t let you down.’
‘I’m Jasmine Hamilton, the owner.’
‘Craig? Any relation to Ryan?’
‘Do I still have a job if I admit he’s my brother?’
‘Totally. He’s a good bloke. He and Nate took a rotten ash down from out the back.’ Jasmine tipped her head to one side. ‘You’re very well dressed for a Sunday morning. Where are you headed?’
‘I see. Were you at the wedding too? The one where Ryan was best man?’
‘Yes. Lianne, the bride, is our cousin.’
‘Was er… Nate there?’
Unease crept over Evie. Jasmine was tall, pretty with the longest legs. Just Nate’s type? ‘He was.’
Jasmine’s head tipping increased. ‘Who did he take?’
‘No one.’ Don’t be jealous. Don’t be jealous. Don’t be jealous. ‘Why?’
‘I’m being nosey.’ Jasmine leant on the worktop a smile growing. ‘Last week he was hiding from Becky. She was on the warpath because she thought they were supposed to be going all inclusive to Croatia and he went and dumped her.’
‘I heard.’ Just like picking the Ali scab – Evie couldn’t resist. ‘Do you know why he dumped her?’
‘Well that’s the fun mystery I’m trying to solve. He’s in love with some woman, but I think she’s maybe married.’
Nate was having an affair? Evie took another sip of her drink, anything to hide the horror filling her soul. Was that why he was single? ‘Married?’
‘I don’t know, but he said she’s not available for some reason.’
Evie wanted to throw up. It shouldn’t matter, she’d gone for wild and abandoned, but the thought of Nate secretly wanting someone else when he was unzipping her playsuit…
‘He was hiding back here, clearly upset he’d hurt Becky but he said he had to because the wedding was his chance and he couldn’t waste it.’
‘He was being very vague.’ Jasmine frowned. ‘He said she’d been away but would be at the wedding…’
Evie tried to picture the tables in the marquee, but Nate’s smile distracted every view. She couldn’t be sure, but no one fitted the bill. Had she not turned up, was that why Nate had made do with Evie?
Jasmine’s eyes widened. ‘Ohmigod… is it you?’
‘Is it you? Are you the one he’s totally in love with?’
Evie snorted with laughter. ‘No.’
‘But the woman was coming back this weekend… you’re back this weekend. Did you see him yesterday?’
‘Yes.’ But it couldn’t be her.
‘And did he sweep you off your feet?’
Quite literally. What the hell… was Jasmine right? Was Nate secretly in love with her? ‘I… might’ve spent the night at his.’
‘Ohmigod it is you!’ Jasmine laughed. ‘What did he say? Did he declare his undying love for you?’
‘No.’ Evie shook her head, totally thrown.
Nate didn’t say anything about liking Evie, but he was there the minute she got to the reception, he was there at the table, he was there when she went hiding, he was there on the dance floor when he bloody kissed her.
And he was there when she left him in bed. Bugger.
‘I’ve got to go…’ She mumbled, smiling apologetically to Jasmine. ‘Sorry. And thank you for the water. I’ll see you tomorrow. Nine o’clock.’
‘Are you going to talk to him?’
She had absolutely no idea what she was going to do.
‘You spent the night at his,’ Jasmine called after her. ‘He must’ve said something?’
The Wedding Before
‘Tea, with milk in,’ Nate said, handing her a mug.
Evie struggled not to grin, not least because he casually dropped a kiss on the back of her neck as he ushered her out of the kitchen, but also because it wasn’t just any old tea. It was Tetley. ‘Nice place.’
The house was a one-storey, open-plan batchelor pad, complete with Playstation, Bose speakers, and a vast, flatscreen TV, but it also had a huge bookcase on one wall. Eyeing him playfully, she headed over.
‘You know you’re not supposed to judge people by their book covers,’ he said, perching on a windowsill beside the book case.
‘I know.’ But she’d do it anyway. ‘Habit of a lifetime.’
Less Than Zero… Norwegian Wood… The Secret History… One Day… The Hitchhiker’s Guide… Trainspotting. Tick approved, young man. Game of Thrones, Lee Child,IT… Okay, but…
‘Twilight?’ She glanced at him, raising her eyebrows. ‘You have a thing for sparkly vampires?’
‘Ha, ha.’ He frowned. ‘I think that might be… someone else’s.’
‘Least said.’ Evie held up a hand. The less information the better. She wasn’t staying in Gosthwaite longer than she needed to, so it didn’t matter who’d previously slept over. Or left their books.
But what about now? Evie sipped her tea, pretending she was still fascinated by his paperbacks. On the dance floor they’d kissed for song after song – ignoring the wolf-whistles, the cat calls telling them to get a room – only stopping when the DJ played some mushy, final number and announced the bus was outside, waiting to take them home.
But she hadn’t wanted to go home. And Nate clearly felt the same.
‘I don’t suppose you want…’ he’d asked softly, his lips brushing against her ear.
‘A cup of tea?’ she’d said, her voice dripping with suggestion.
She shouldn’t have. Her mum would go mental when she found out, but Evie had linked her fingers with Nate’s. Living life, right?
They hadn’t talked much on the short journey from the Gosthwaite Hall to Lum Ford where Nate lived, but he also hadn’t taken the back seat of the bus as an opportunity to hit another base. Instead, he’d merely held her hand, made a mug of tea and didn’t stop humming Heartbeat Song the whole time. Evie found it oddly sweet for a one-night-stand.
There would be some… standing, right? When would the wild abandonment begin, how would it begin? Maybe it was up to her.
Evie turned from the books, taking a nerve-calming breath, but on the wall beside Nate was photo montage and some seriously old snaps smiled back at her. She pointed to a group shot of about twenty kids.
‘Oh my god. I must be like six. We were camping down at the river, right?’
Nate nodded. Photos of Nate and Ryan climbing in Yosemite, of Nate’s mum and dad skiing, and of Evie sitting on Nate’s shoulders at Kendal Calling.
‘Do you remember that day?’ she asked.
‘When you and Lianne got shit-faced?’ Nate laughed. ‘I do. Ryan and Dale had to carry Lianne back to your tent.’
Evie blushed. ‘We were drinking vodka with wine as a mixer because we had no coke.’
Crikey, just look at seventeen year-old Evie. Arms raised, partying with the best of them, in tiny denim shorts and a not much bigger crochet vest. Lianne’s clothes, not Evie’s usual style, but her cousin insisted because Evie was back on the market after she and Ali had split up. For the first time.
But why was she even sitting on Nate’s shoulders? Lianne was with Dale – one of their first dates – and Ryan with some girl he’d pulled that morning.
‘Wow, so there’s another time you had to look after me,’ she said quietly. Nate had walked her back to the tent, pretty much holding her upright.
Evie put her tea down on the bookcase and stepped closer to him. ‘Thank you.’
‘That is quite okay.’ Nate smiled, taking her hand and pulling her closer still. ‘Because I have a thing for bookworms, not sparkly vampires.’
Trying not to laugh at such an obvious come on, Evie closed her eyes and focussed on how bloody fabulous it felt to have someone kiss their way up her neck. Her body ached to be closer to his.
‘You any idea how hot you look today, Jeebies?’
‘You know, you can save the sweettalk,’ she said. ‘I didn’t really come here for the tea.’
Laughing, he nipped her neck with his teeth, a little playful, a little rough. ‘And what did you come here for?’
‘To live a little.’ Not dropping eye contact, she turned her back to him. ‘I can’t reach the zipper myself.’
With maddening slowness, he pulled down the zip and the polka dot playsuit fell to the floor.
‘I take back my question,’ he said. ‘You know exactly how hot you are, don’t you?’
Hot? I’m not hot, not even slightly… well, not on a normal day.
But this wasn’t a normal day. Evie grinned and turned back to him. This was a one night stand, a time to be wild and abandoned, not a time to worry about what your arse looked like.
‘I must warn you though,’ she said, loving how he gazed at her body and more importantly that the kissing up her neck resumed. ‘I am on the rebound.’
His eyes narrowed. ‘You’re using me for sex?’
‘I’m afraid so.’ In between kisses, her fingers made light work of his waistcoat buttons while his knee slipped between hers.
‘And who, are you rebounding from…’ he asked, his eyes dark. ‘Some Indonesian voluntary worker?’
Evie shook her head, stopping the kisses for a moment, ensuring he was fully paying attention. ‘You see, there’s this fish I met…’
Laughing, Nate threw her over his shoulder and carried her squealing with delight into his bedroom.
Later, Evie rested her head against Nate, his arms around her. She tried to contemplate at what point she should leave and what she might say, but her eyes wouldn’t stay open.
‘It’s nice to have you back,’ he whispered.
If only the rest of the village felt the same.
The Morning After
Oh dear god, Jasmine was right. Evie walked in a daze up Market Street. Nate had said something – well, he had if she took everything at face value. You look hot. I’m glad you’re back. I’m into bookworms. She’d assumed they were mere platitudes, pretty words to get her into bed, but what if he were being entirely honest?
‘Morning, Evie!’ Claire from the grocer’s waved at her. ‘Your mum said you were back. Good to be home?’
‘Yes,’ Evie said, genuinely meaning it. Especially as she didn’t need to leave. No one hated her, she had a new job, and there was this guy… a guy who just might be into her. Quite frankly, it was bloody awesome to be home.
At her mum’s cottage, Evie pushed open the garden gate and kicked off her shoes before stepping onto the neat little patch of grass they grandly called a lawn. Home. The turf felt like a massage for her aching soles, a much-needed therapy. For a minute or three, Evie simply stood there, breathing in the morning air and just being home.
But big brother’s were made for ruining peaceful moments. The front door opened and Ryan appeared, his scowl emphasised by the porch’s shadow.
‘And?’ he demanded.
‘What did he do?’
Assuming her brother didn’t want to hear the finer details of Nate shagging her senseless, Evie gave a non-committal shrug. ‘Nothing.’
‘What?’ Her defensive heckles rose. ‘I said he didn’t do anything.’
‘Including give you a lift home.’ Ryan folded his arms. ‘What, did he just kick you out?’
‘No. He was asleep. I legged it.’
‘What the hell, Ry? Because he’s your best mate and bloody business partner and that could be absolute nightmare. I’m not stupid. God! My head’s a mess. I thought… and now… oh for fuck’s sake, becauase I really like Nate and I didn’t want to hang around in case he regretted last night.’
Shit. Evie tossed a shoe across the lawn, half-aiming at her over-protective brother. I really like Nate. At least she’d admitted it to herself.
‘He wouldn’t.’ Ryan sighed, stepping toward her. ‘He’s kind of… into you for some weird reason.’
‘You’re such a tosser.’ Evie through her other shoe at him before giving into to raging blushes. ‘But it’s true then?’
‘He told you?’
Evie shook her head.
‘He’s such a girl sometimes.’ Ryan hooked his arm around her neck, gently hugging her. ‘I said I’d kill him if he hurt you.’
‘I’m twenty-seven, dickhead.’ She nipped his arm, her childhood method of getting back at him. ‘But I’m fine.’
Ryan offered her his phone. ‘For you.’
On the screen, Nate’s name and a photo of him and Ryan filled the screen. Evie stared in horror. Nate was on the phone? While they were talking about him? And when she said—
‘He heard all that, you asshole,’ she hissed to her brother, snatching the phone. ‘Bugger off.’
Grinning, Ryan backed away. ‘The death threat still stands, Nate.’
Defeated and resigned to a mortifying conversation, Evie put the phone to her ear. ‘Hi.’
‘You weren’t supposed to just leave.’
‘Maybe not. But I did.’
‘Because… oh look, you just heard why.’ Could he make this more humiliating?
‘Morning, Nate,’ a male voice called, but it sounded… close.
Evie scanned the street, unsure if she wanted it to be just her imagination playing tricks, or reality rearing its ugly head. But there he was riding a bike towards her, one hand on the handlebars, the other holding a phone to his ear.
Despite everything, she hung up the phone and sank down onto the grass, trying not to smile too much. Seriously, what could she do but smile? She’d walked two and a bit miles to avoid facing him, but here she was, unwashed and brazen as they come after a walk of shame.
Yet still she smiled.
The only problem was that Nate was wearing a huge frown.
‘Hi,’ she said.
He didn’t reply as he dumped the bike and stepped over the garden wall. Was he angry with her? He still didn’t say a word as he glanced nervously back to the house before sitting down next to her.
‘How long are you going to be here for?’ He picked at the grass. ‘In Gosthwaite, I mean.’
Oh. Oh was that why he was so serious. She tucked her hair behind her ears. ‘I’m not sure, but… a while.’
‘I’ve got a job, for the summer.’
He looked up, his brow more furrowed than ever. ‘But yesterday—’
‘I didn’t have a job yesterday.’
‘You got a job this morning, walking home?’
He shook his head, finally smiling. ‘Congratulations.’
‘Thanks. I mean, it’s just at the cafe, but it’ll do for the summer I guess. I get to sort the books out. How cool—’
His smile faded. ‘Which cafe?’
‘Jasmine’s.’ Evie struggled not to giggle when Nate turned a slight shade of pink. ‘She said you’ve been working there.’
‘Yeah.’ Nate closed his eyes for a moment. ‘Did she tell you anything—’
‘She did.’ Evie elbowed him. ‘As did Ryan.’
Nate nodded, glancing across at her, a smile finally teetering. ‘But you’re not leaving?’
She shook her head. ‘And it turns out, no one hates me. I know about Ali and Paige.’
‘Sorry, Jeebies. You okay?’
‘I’m a bit pissed off that no one told me. You could’ve told me yester—’
He held up a hand. ‘Sod that. You think I’d risk… Oh fuck it. Evie, I’ve been waiting two years for you to come back. Do you really think I’d risk that opportunity to tell you that dick of an ex was an unfaithful dick? Jesus, if Ryan hadn’t have laid him out, I would’ve.’
She laughed softly. He really did like her. ‘Thank you.’
‘Evie…’ Nate looked away, to the other side of the street. . ‘Do you… I mean, would you…’
She waited expectantly.
‘With me, and well…’ Nate closed his eyes, cringing. Was he nervous?
‘You’re not very good at this, are you?’
Swearing, he laughed. ‘When it comes to you, no.’
‘Me?’ Your best mate’s bookworm sister?
‘Yeah, you.’ He looked sideways at her, a half-smile on his lips. ‘Totally you.’
‘Since Kendal Calling.’
What the actual hell? Evie stared at him. ‘But you never—’
‘You were seventeen and Ry’s little sister. It wasn’t even a conversation.’
‘When did it become a conversation?’
‘When you dumped Ali.’
‘Oh.’ Evie frowned. ‘But you still never—’
‘You were leaving. It wasn’t the right—’
‘You bottled it, didn’t you?’
Blushing a little, Nate laughed. ‘I totally bottled it and your brother has been giving me hell about if for two years.’
Oh my god. ‘That’s why he was giving you a hard time yesterday? He wasn’t warning you off, he was telling you to ask me out before I left?’
Nate nodded and took a deep breath, but before he could get the words out, she took matters into her own hands.
‘Nate, want to go out sometime?’
His fabulous face finally smiled for real. ‘Like tonight?’
‘And what would you have in mind?’
Aside from the obvious? She paused, thinking.
‘Dinner at the Mill?’ he suggested.
‘How about you help me haul my very unfit ass up the Gorge?’
‘You want to go climbing?’ His goofy grin said it all.
She leaned forwards. ‘I want to go climbing.’
Evie kissed him and as he kissed her back, she regretted ever leaving his house. They could be doing this in his bed, utterly naked.
A banging from behind them pulled her back to reality, and from the living room window, Ryan stood glaring at them. God-damned brothers. So what, he was okay with her going out with Nate, she just wasn’t allowed to kiss him? Like that was going to work. After giving Ryan the finger, she lifted her clutch bag, sheilding her and Nate, then indulged in another very long, who-cares-what-the-neighbours-say kiss.
‘Why,’ Nate asked as they dragged their lips from one another, ‘did you leave like that this morning?’
Evie smiled at the sky, the village and finally Nate. ‘Sorry, but there were some women I needed to see.’