My book, Lovers in Their Fashion, had two free days—yesterday and today. It was downloaded by more than 1,000 people. Only when the reviews started to come in, saying that no-one understood the ending, did I suspect that something might be wrong. I downloaded it myself and looked at it. OMG! My beautiful reunion, my love-making, my happy ending—all were missing!
I have now uploaded the full version but it usually takes 12 hours to become available on Amazon. I’ll make it free again very soon. If you have the patience, for those who wondered what the hell was going on, here are the chapters you missed:
Merrill began to slice bread for toast. She broke three eggs into a bowl, added salt and pepper and began to beat them with a fork. ‘I’ll ask you again. Why?’
‘Oh, Merrill. What can I tell you? Think of it as a rite of passage. The day I finally break free of my mother.’
Merrill dropped the cut slices into the toaster. She put a handsome knob of butter into the pan and put it over a low light to melt. ‘I don’t buy that.’
‘It’s the only answer I have.’
‘I think you’re trying to atone.’
‘Atone? For what?’
‘For being such a foolish girl. For not telling John, all those years ago, what Planer wanted you to do. And why he could ask you to do it. The hold he had over you. Which was not your fault. And for the result of that foolishness, which was to throw away the kind of love most people only get to dream about.’
Alice’s lip quivered. ‘Don’t, Merrill.’
‘I’m right. Aren’t I?’ She poured the beaten egg into the melted butter and took up the fork again, ready to stir and keep it from burning on the base of the pan.
‘I don’t know. Maybe.’
‘Honestly, Alice. How medieval can you get? You made a mistake, and now you’re going to sacrifice yourself to that disgusting pig to make up for it.’
‘It won’t be that bad.’
‘It will be worse than anything you can imagine. And you know it. Planer isn’t turning up for a simple fuck. He’s going to hurt you. That’s what people like him do.’
Alice’s tears spilled over and began to run down her cheeks. ‘Please, Merrill.’
Merrill wrapped her arms round her friend’s shoulders.
‘Your eggs will burn.’
‘My heart burns, Alice. For you.’ She returned to the stove, scooped the toast out of the toaster and spread it with butter. She spooned the eggs onto the toast. ‘Is there anything I can say to change your mind?’
Merrill slammed the pan into the sink and filled it with water. ‘So be it.’
‘I need to know I have your support, Merrill.’
‘You do know you have my support. And my love. And you will still have them after you’ve done this foolish thing. What you don’t have and won’t have is my understanding.’
Alice stood up. ‘I’m going to dress.’ She walked slowly out of the kitchen. At the door, she turned and looked at Merrill. ‘Atonement?’ she said. ‘You really think I’m trying to atone? For not trusting my man enough ten years ago? You really think that’s what I’m doing?’
‘Sit down, Alice. Let me talk to you one more time.’
Fran sighed deeply as John gently separated the cheeks of her raised bottom and began to rub the lubricant into her exposed pink rosebud. He spread more jelly on his finger and pressed gently, past the tight muscle into the narrow passageway beyond.
‘How does it feel?’ murmured Fran.
‘It feels wonderful. Like silk. It’s like you have a channel of silk going deep into your body. How does it feel to you?’
She squirmed as his finger moved within her. ‘It’s a delight. The most delightful thing I have ever done. Oh! Oh, my darling.’
His finger slipped out of her.
‘A little more?’ she asked. ‘Just to be sure.’
He squeezed more jelly onto his fingertip and returned to the scene of his attentions. As his finger moved deeper and deeper, her movements became more and more impassioned. At last, she said, ‘That’s enough. You’ll bring me off with your finger if we’re not careful. Which is not what I want.’
‘I didn’t know you could have an orgasm there.’
‘Just you wait and see. Lie down, my love.’
When he lay on his back, she took his solid prick in her mouth and began to run her tongue from tip to base and back again.
‘I thought we were going to use a condom?’
She raised her head. ‘It tells you to do this. On the packet. If your cock is wet, the rubber slides on it and you get a better ride. More like the real thing. What’s so funny?’
‘You are,’ he said as she took him in her mouth again. ‘You must be the only person in the world who reads the instructions on a packet of johnnies.’
‘I hope not,’ she answered as she knelt up. She took the packet, ripped it open and began to roll the condom onto him, her fingers nipping the little bulb at the end of the rubber, her eyes intent on her task. ‘Good job I got the large size, isn’t it?’
He stroked her head fondly. ‘They don’t have sizes.’
‘Course they do. Japanese men would find them falling off, otherwise.’
‘Do you have experience of Japanese men?’
‘I have experience you haven’t dreamt of.’ She picked up the tube of lubricant, smeared it on her fingers and began to rub it liberally on the condom. ‘There,’ she said. ‘Now we’re set.’
She returned to her position on the pillows, her legs widely spread. Her hands came back, took the cheeks of her bottom and held them wide. ‘Do it to me, my lovely.’
He knelt in position, placing the tip of his heavily swollen cock at the slippery entrance.
‘You’ll have to push harder than that,’ said Fran.
‘I’m afraid of hurting you.’
Her sigh indicated exasperation. ‘I’m the one who asked for this. Remember? I expect it to hurt. I want it to hurt. At first. My fanny’s elastic. Now, push.”
‘I am pushing. I don’t think I can…Oh!’
‘Oh, yes. Oh, God, yes. Oh, go on, darling, go on pushing. Like that, yes. Yes.’
He was inside her. Right inside her, his hips against hers.
‘Just hold still for a minute, love. Just till it…yes…like that. Oh, yes.’
‘Are you all right?’
She began to laugh. ‘Of course I’m all right. I couldn’t be all righter. I’m just getting used…oh, God. Can you feel how it…Oh, John. Oh, my darling.’
Her head was sideways on the bed sheet, one flushed cheek towards him. ‘Now, darling,’ she said.
‘Now! You know last night, when I said “ride me”? Well, ride me again. Hard.’
He began to move. Slowly at first, but with increasing speed, he drew his swollen cock back and plunged forward again. His first movements were hesitant, afraid of causing pain, but the sounds and the movements below him told him his fears of hurting her were misplaced.
Never had he been so firmly held. The tight ring of her sphincter had him in a vice, multiplying his pleasure ten-fold, a hundred-fold, a thousand-fold, and her bottom rose and fell with each hard thrust as she cried out, words he could not tell, sounds more than words, sounds of pain and joy and pleasure and if this was man subjugating woman he could not help it, if this was sinful it would not be denied, his hands moved forward, took her breasts, squeezed, rubbed, and he sensed her approaching climax, felt her rising through the murky, weed-filled waters of her fervour, knew her to be on the brink of a passion he had never shared with anyone, not even with Alice in the days of their great love, the greatest love he had ever known but he must not think of Alice, could not allow himself to oh, my God, the thoughts were torn from him, this was no time for thought, he was swept away in the grip of the most devastating oh, my God, and so was she, and surely they must, oh, Fuck, and someone was screaming and he thought it must be her and then she was collapsing under him and now, and now, surely?, and yes, and yes, and yes, and YES!
Alice came out of her dressing room. ‘How do I look?’
‘Beautiful,’ said Merrill.
‘You’ll come down with me?’
‘Try and stop me.’
Fran rose gingerly from the bed. ‘I have to use the bathroom, chick. Clean myself up and stuff, you know? Why don’t you make us some coffee?’
John pulled on his boxer briefs. Whatever else he did today, he would have to go home to change. Walking around in yesterday’s underwear, socks and shirt was not an option. Passing through the living room on his way to the kitchen, he glanced at his cell phone. Five missed calls. He checked the caller IDs. All from Tony. A little symbol in the top left of the screen said there were voice messages.
They could wait.
By the time Fran came back, a T-shirt commemorating an old Eric Clapton concert covering her to half way down her thighs, John was on his second cup of coffee. He looked at her and knew instantly. The change had happened again.
‘What is it?’
‘What is what, my love?’
She sighed. ‘I said last night I wasn’t going to psychoanalyze you. Give me the same courtesy, will you?’
‘Sure. What plans do you have for today?’
‘Plans? Oh. I don’t know.’
‘Okay. Let me come at it from a different angle. I don’t have anything I have to do. Except change my clothes. Shave, I guess. I’d like to spend the day with you. If you’d like to spend it with me?’
During this exchange, Fran had been opening and closing the fridge, looking in cupboards, running her hand along a work surface. She had not looked at John once. In a flat voice, she said, ‘Spend the day?’
‘Take a drive somewhere? Have lunch out? Walk along the Downs? Does that appeal?’
‘Yeah. Sounds great, John.’
‘Well. Okay, then. Fran, you want to look at me while we’re talking?’
And now she did look at him, pausing in her aimless sweep of the kitchen to look him straight in the eye. ‘And do you want to not give me orders in my own home? What does that look mean?’
‘It means I’m taken aback. It means I thought we were going gang-busters, doing just great, and suddenly we’re fighting. It means I don’t understand what the hell is going on.’
‘You don’t? Listen, John, this day out thing. You mind if I take a rain check? Make it some other time?’
‘Whatever you want.’
‘Well, that’s what I want. You to go home and me to get on with some stuff I have to deal with. Okay?’
‘Okay.’ He drained his coffee and started to laugh.
‘This. Us. Me. I’ve been used. You used me.’
‘You think so?’ She stepped forward and cupped his cheek gently in her hand. ‘What were you doing, John? When you called me last night? That was a bit of a last minute kind of thing, wasn’t it? I assumed you’d been stood up, and that’s why you called me. Was I wrong?’
‘You were, actually. I was on a blind date. And when I saw my date, I realized she wasn’t who I wanted to be with. That’s when I called you.’
‘Oh. Well, I’m flattered. That’s very sweet. It doesn’t change anything, though. I don’t know what you’ve been hoping for, John, but I know what I want. What I don’t want is a man permanently in my life. I want a man when I want him. The right kind of man. A man like you. You know what Mae West said? A hard man is good to find. We can meet occasionally, have a meal occasionally, be lovers occasionally. That’s what’s on offer.’
‘Take it or leave it?’
‘I wouldn’t have put it that starkly, but…’
‘I’ll leave it. I’m not interested in being an occasional lover.’
‘You have the right to make that choice. No hard feelings?’
‘I don’t know yet.’
‘It’s funny, isn’t it? Every woman you’ll ever meet can tell you stories about being used by a man. Picked up and put down again as it suits his fancy. A Fuck on Demand toy, and put me back in the closet when I’m not needed. The way of the world. But when a man thinks he’s been used by a woman, it’s suddenly not so funny. Didn’t your mate Tony warn you about me?’
‘We haven’t seen much of each other recently. I never mentioned you to him.’
She leaned down and kissed him on the forehead. ‘Maybe you should have done, my flower.’
Walking home, John passed a greasy spoon serving breakfast. He turned back, went in and ordered the full works. Sausage, bacon, fried egg, black pudding, tomato, mushroom, fried bread. Toast. A pint mug of tea.
‘You hungry?’ asked the waitress, pushing a lock of greasy hair out of her eye.
‘Starving,’ said John.
‘I like to see a man with an appetite. What have you been doing to get so ravenous?’
John laughed. ‘I’ve been used and abused by a woman I thought fancied me.’
The waitress nodded. ‘And that makes you hungry, does it? Funny, the differences between men and women. If I’d just been ill-treated by a man I thought liked me, I wouldn’t eat for a month. I guess that’s why love makes women thin.’ She gestured at her well-padded hips. ‘I haven’t been in love for a while. As you see.’ She went off to pass his order to the kitchen.
While he waited, John took out his cell phone and pressed the Recall button. Tony answered on the first ring. ‘Where the hell have you been?’
‘Good morning to you, too. I’ve been with someone I believe you know. Fran Nolan?’
‘Good God. Where are you now?’
John told him. Tony said, ‘Don’t move. I’ll be right there.’
John was just taking his first mouthful of sausage when the door opened and Tony walked in. He looked at John’s plate. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘That looks good.’ He sat down and turned to the hovering waitress. ‘Can I have one just like that?’
‘Sure you can, love.’ She bustled away.
Tony put down the newspaper he was carrying. ‘So,’ he said. ‘Fran Nolan. You spent the whole night with her?’
‘Yeah, I did. Second time, actually.’
‘Right. But now you’re not with her.’
‘As you see.’
‘The first time, you didn’t fuck her up the ass? And this time, you did.’
‘Arse. How did you know that?’
‘Ass to a Bolivian. And it was wonderful. Right? And you loved it and she loved it.’
‘And then she didn’t want to see you any more.’
John put down his knife and fork. ‘Were you watching us?’
‘Didn’t need to. What happened to you, happened to me. And a few others, I wouldn’t be surprised.’
Tony’s breakfast arrived. He said, ‘I haven’t eaten one of these for years. God help my arteries.’ He set to work on it with gusto. John called to the waitress. ‘Got any brown sauce, love?’
‘Is she mad, do you think?’ asked John.
‘Fran? We’re all mad, John. Fran’s barmy. Nutty as a fruitcake.’
An unlabelled bottle containing something brown was slapped down between them. ‘Forgive me interfering in what is not my business,’ said the waitress. ‘But when a man says a woman is barmy, that usually means she doesn’t play the game by men’s rules.’
John looked at her and grinned. She went off to serve two elderly men who had just come in. ‘Pensioner’s Special, love?’ she asked.
‘The thing about Fran,’ Tony said, ‘is that she doesn’t want to be in a relationship. She doesn’t mind the trappings of a relationship, like dinners and presents and having a man spend money on her. It’s just the relationship itself she doesn’t want. The nuisance of having a man around all the time. And she wants the physical stuff, but only when she wants it, and the way she wants it.’
‘That doesn’t make her nuts,’ said John. ‘That sounds like sanity to me. Of a sort.’
‘Possibly. But not if you play by men’s rules, as our chubby friend over there has just pointed out.’
‘She pulled the strangest number on me. She said “Now then,” you know, the way you do, and I said, “Which? Is it now, or is it then?” Just a little gag, you know? A jesty-poo. Accent on the poo, I admit. But she did this weird thing.’
‘Clammed up on you? Turned suddenly hostile?’
‘Yeah. And then it was gone. But it wasn’t gone, if you see what I mean.’
‘It’s technique. Part of the game. She was banking it in case she ever needed something to use against you. What she did with me, she mentioned something this friend of hers called Jude had said. It’s a woman, so Jude is Judy I should think, or Judith. Anyway, Jude had said this thing, whatever it was, I can’t remember now. And I said, “That’s a bit obscure.” See, you’re smiling. You get the reference.’
‘Jude the Obscure. Thomas Hardy. It wasn’t difficult. For me. But how does a Bolivian lad know about the Wessex novels?’
‘My dear chap. La Universidad Católica Boliviana has a very good English school. From which I graduated. You knew that.’
‘Okay. But Hardy?’
‘A God, according to our Professor.’
Tony finished his breakfast and pushed the plate aside. ‘So she mentions Jude and I say, “That’s a bit obscure,” and she says, “What do you mean?” And I say, “Jude the Obscure. It’s a book.” And she goes all quiet and closed-face with me. And I say, “What’s the matter?” and she goes on about how she’s just a poor thick Australian girl and people, by which actually she means me, put her down and look down on her because she isn’t educated and doesn’t know these things and it isn’t fair and it isn’t right.’
‘But she teaches English.’
‘She has a PhD, John. From the University of Melbourne. In English Literature. Her thesis was on nineteenth century English novelists. There’s no way she doesn’t know Jude the Obscure. She knows it better than me. It was just something she could, as I say, put in the bank to use when she needed it.’
‘Come to think of it, she did make a reference to Leda.’
‘Leda! Got shagged by a swan.’
‘Anyway. Did you call her on her PhD when she was pulling the little dummy routine?’
‘I didn’t know about it at the time. I found out later. From her husband.’
‘Who also explained not to get too close to her, or she’ll shut you out. With as much force as she needs to use. She comes on like someone who wants a permanent and loving relationship, but get close and you’re a goner. She can’t take that level of intimacy. And there’s nothing more intimate than what you just did with her, am I right? But that’s a whole other story. I’m not here to talk about Fran. Entertaining though that is. Have you listened to the messages I left you?’
‘Great. It’s nice to know I was wasting my breath.’ He picked up the newspaper. ‘Read this.’
‘What is it?’
‘If you read it, you’ll know. It’s a story the Evening Standard picked up last night from a French paper. It mentions someone you know.’ He signalled to the waitress. ‘Can I have another mug of tea? And some more toast?’
John started to read. As he read, his grip on the paper tightened, his knuckles turning white. At length, he put the paper down. ‘Who is this journalist? Do you know?’
‘Michel LeGrand. I’ve met him. In fact, there’s a little coincidence there because I met him here in Brighton the same night as I met Merrill. Which is also the same night as LeGrand met Alice.’
‘He implies a lot but he doesn’t say much.’
‘That’s what they do, isn’t it? Journalists. Does what he implies make sense?’
‘Alice’s mother steals from the company she works for. Which Martin Planer also works for and which is one of our biggest competitors. He’s suggesting that it’s Alice who makes good the money her mother takes. So?’
‘This has been going on for years, John.’
‘What of it?’
‘When you first knew Alice, did she have money to pay off her mother’s debts?’
‘She was an office junior.’
‘So that’s a “no.” What else did she have that Planer might have wanted?’
John stared grimly ahead of him.
‘John. I know the whole story. I know you think Alice betrayed you…’
‘She did betray me…’
‘All right, she betrayed you. She gave Planer information she got from you.’
‘Stole from me.’
‘Stole from you. Okay. But you think she did it because she loved Planer and was stringing you along…’
‘How do you know this?’
‘Alice told Merrill, all right? When she was at her wit’s end, poor kid. And Merrill and I are an item. Or had you forgotten that?’
‘No,’ John said quietly. ‘I hadn’t forgotten that.’
‘I’m going to ask Merrill to marry me, as a matter of fact.’
‘And if she accepts, I’m going to ask you to be my Best Man.’
‘I’ll be honoured.’
‘I should hope you will. And I don’t have any doubt that Merrill will want Alice as her Matron of Honour.’
‘Oh, bloody hell.’
‘Alice knows how stupid she was. But she was a child, John. Does she have to go on paying? Do you?’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Oh, come on. I saw you. You still love that woman to bits. And she loves you.’
‘Yes? You say so? So how come you’ve never married, all this time since you split?’
‘I never met the right woman.’
Tony laughed. ‘But that’s just the point, John. Isn’t it? You did meet the right woman. And her name is Alice.’
They fell silent. When the waitress put a bill beside each of them, John picked them both up and fished in his wallet.
‘You don’t have to buy my breakfast,’ said Tony.
‘I know that,’ said John, laying down a twenty pound note. He stood up. ‘Keep the change,’ he said to the waitress.
‘But that’s far too much, love.’
‘I don’t care. Give a passing tramp breakfast. Spread a little happiness.’
‘Okay,’ he said when they were outside the café. ‘I give in. You’re right. I’d better go and make my peace with Alice. I’ll shower and change and then I’ll hop a train to London.’
‘Ah,’ said Tony. ‘Yes. Bit of a problem there, actually.’
‘Oh, my God,’ said Merrill when Tony phoned her an hour or so later. ‘What did he say when you told him?’
‘He went berserk. Apeshit. Demanded to know why I’d kept him talking about Fran Rooney when all the time I’d known how his sweetest little angel Alice was going to her doom.’
‘Oh, yes. Fran Rooney. I’m going to want to hear more about her, my love.’
‘She was before your time.’
‘Nevertheless. But that will keep. His sweetest little angel? He called her that?’
‘No, no. I said that. But that’s what he was thinking. You could tell.’
‘He forgives her.’
‘Like it never happened.’
‘He wants her back.’
‘He wants her back.’
‘Well, Hallelujah. So. What’s he doing about it?’
‘He had the shortest shower, shave and shampoo you’ve ever seen and then…’
‘It’s okay, Tony. You can say “shit” to me. It’s allowed.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘You men. When you’re talking to each other, it’s not “shower, shave and shampoo,” now is it? It’s “shit, shower, shave and shampoo.” Am I right?’
‘Do you want to hear this story or not?’
‘Thank you. So, after his speedy ablutions he gets togged up in his smartest casuals, packs an overnight bag and off he goes to Southampton. Driving rather quickly, if you want to know.’
‘Sure. He’s going to get the ferry to Le Havre, drive to Honfleur and give Martin Planer the licking he deserves. Why are you laughing?’
‘Because, my love, I know something you don’t. Anyway, my darling, you have done a wonderful job. You deserve a reward. I want you to get on the very first train you can and come here so I can suck your most beautiful cock and you can fuck my brains out.’
‘That sounds wonderful.’
‘Both of which things will happen just the very moment you have unburdened your conscience by telling me all there is to know about you and Fran Rooney. And I mean all.’
‘Ah. Yes. Right.
While she was waiting for Tony to arrive, Merrill rang Alice’s cell phone.
‘You’re joking,’ said Alice.
‘No. He’s on his way as we speak. The knight errant riding to save his lady.’
‘He doesn’t know we told Martin Planer to sling his hook?’
‘He couldn’t know that. I hadn’t told Tony.’
‘So he doesn’t know I’m going to Honfleur on my own? Just to enjoy being free of the threat?’
‘He does not.’
‘Hmm. Pity he couldn’t have acted like a knight errant last night.’
‘Well, perhaps. But don’t be too hard on him, Alice. He loves you.’
‘That’s as may be. But do I love him?’
‘Oh, Alice. You know you do.’
‘Do I know that? I thought I did. What I know, and I’m not sure I knew this before, but what I know now is that I don’t need a man to be complete. I’ve lasted ten years without one and I haven’t done badly.’
‘There aren’t any buts. Any man who wants to get me into a relationship from here on is going to have to satisfy me that there’s some value in it for me. And that I want to be in it with him.’
‘No, Merrill. I’m serious. When I saw John in the lobby last night with you and Tony, my heart sang. It was as though a new life was being offered to me. The whole thing came to me in a second. I’d tell him what I’d done, I’d tell him what was going on, he’d be with me to deal with Martin Planer. We’d go to Honfleur together and make love like no-one had ever made love before. Instead of which…I’m sorry, I’m having trouble getting this out…’
‘Don’t cry, honey…’
‘Instead of which, what happens? He tells me he already knows what I did. He tells me he’s never slapped a woman, but with me he could start. He tells me I never loved him – me, who loved him like no-one was ever loved. Then he clears off and leaves me standing there by the side of the road, broken hearted on what should have been the biggest night of my life.
‘And now you tell me he went down to Brighton and buggered some other woman. No, Merrill, I’m telling you. John Pagan has a lot of work to do if he wants to get back into my life.’
John parked his Jaguar on one of the car decks. The iron stairways were thronged by passengers making their way to the upper floors. John began to push through them, heading for the Purser’s office where he would be able to buy a ticket for the First Class Lounge.
Seeing the look on his face, the crowd parted before him like the bow-wave the ship would soon be making as it ploughed through the Channel towards France. He didn’t even notice.
As he walked, he curled his fists closed. The Lounge normally provided tranquility in which to enjoy a more peaceful, ordered journey than the people on lower floors were having. Perhaps it would not be so today. He intended to set about his old nemesis, Planer. Verbally at first but by force if necessary. Planer had made his beloved Alice’s life a misery for ten years. Planer would pay.
Just wait till he got there, that was all.
Alice was already in the Lounge and had been for half an hour. If tranquillity was what John imagined there, her soul was already filled with it.
It had been like the falling away of years of pain. She had emerged whole, undamaged, at peace.
“Sit down, Alice,” Merrill had said. “Sit down, and let me talk to you one more time.”
And she had. Alice had learned a lesson, and the lesson was simple. What we have most to fear is fear itself. Conquer that and nothing remains.
‘You don’t have to do this for your mother,’ Merrill said for perhaps the fifth time that morning.
‘No. I don’t.’
‘But you weren’t really doing it for your mother.’
‘You’re sure about that, are you?’
‘I’m sure. And so are you if you’ll let yourself be. You’re punishing yourself because you thought you were weak.’
‘I was weak.’
‘You were young, Alice. How many things did you do when you were twenty that you wouldn’t do now?’
‘Think about the very first boy you ever kissed.’
Alice threw her hands over her face – a face that had suddenly turned bright pink. ‘Oh, don’t. Oh, I don’t want to think about that ever again.’
‘Describe him to me.’
‘I’ll describe him to you, then, shall I? Weedy, spotty, bad breath from smoking cigarettes he stole out of his father’s pack. An air of cocky confidence he didn’t feel, but it took you in all right.’
‘Oh, it’s so shaming. And I wanted him to kiss me! I fumed inside with impatience until he got up the courage to do it!’
‘Do you feel you have to let yourself be raped because of that kiss?’
‘No. Of course not.’
‘Why not, Alice? That was far more your fault than what you are letting yourself be raped for. Planer had you over a barrel. He could have sent your mother to jail. And what would that have done to your father?’
‘Yes, but what?’
‘I did wrong. I should have told John what was going on and asked him to help me.’
‘You know that now, Alice. You’re a successful businesswoman who knows how to do things. Is it so criminal not to have known it then? How long are you going to beat yourself up for having been young and innocent?’
Alice hung her head. But she was thinking.
‘That Alice is gone, honey. She was a young girl who didn’t know how the world functioned and she’s gone. She was another person. You’re not responsible for what she did. And your mother would still have gone to jail, hon. If you didn’t know then how vindictive Planer was, you do now.’
‘Guilt is the most corrosive emotion there is, Alice. Let it go.’
‘It’s given me ten years of hell, I can tell you that.’
‘This weekend won’t satisfy him, Alice.’
‘You don’t think so?’
‘Blackmailers always come back for more. As he has shown. There’s only one way to deal with this man and that’s to say “No.” Now. Today.’
Alice threw her hands in the air. ‘You’re right.’
‘I know I’m right. But will you do it?’
‘Yes, Merrill. I will.’
‘Great. Go and get dressed. And not in that damn basque.’
The doorbell rang. They looked at each other, surprised.
‘You expecting someone?’ asked Merrill.
Alice shook her head.
‘He wouldn’t come up here, would he?’
‘He said not. And it’s too early for him.’
‘I’ll get it.’ Merrill turned as she walked towards the door. ‘We’re agreed?’
‘You’re not going to Honfleur with him? Or anywhere else? Not now, not ever?’
‘That’s what I said.’
Merrill went to the door. When she came back she was holding a copy of the previous night’s Evening Standard. ‘Ben brought this up. He says there’s a story you might like to see.’
Alice looked at the photograph of Planer and the smaller one of herself. ‘Not a very good pic,’ she said. ‘David would have given them a better one if they’d asked him.’
‘Read the story, Alice. Aloud, please.’
Alice did. When it was over, Merrill started to laugh.
‘I don’t see what’s funny,’ Alice said. ‘He as good as tells the world my mother’s a thief.’
‘Your mother is a thief, hon. And you are not responsible for her.’
‘I’ll have to call my Dad.’
‘When you’re dressed.’
‘Okay. Why were you laughing?’
‘Don’t you see? Before this story came out, all Planer had to think about this weekend was what he was going to do to you. He’s got a bit more on his mind now.’
‘If he’s read it.’
‘Oh. Oh, wouldn’t it be fantastic if he hadn’t? If we were the first to tell him?’
And so it had been. Alice came out of her dressing room. ‘How do I look?’
‘Beautiful,’ said Merrill.
‘You’ll come down with me?’
‘Try and stop me.’
As they passed through the lobby, Ben looked on anxiously. ‘That man’s outside, Miss Springer,’ he said. ‘Do you need any help?’
‘Thanks, Ben,’ said Merrill. ‘We’ll be fine.’
Planer had the roof down on his convertible. Better and better. They positively bounced across the sidewalk towards him. Anyone watching would have thought they saw two beautiful young women going to greet an old friend they were delighted to see.
The last bit, at any rate, was true.
Planer glared at them. ‘What the hell is she doing here?’
‘Temper,’ said Alice, smiling radiantly.
‘And what the hell are you doing in jeans? I told you…’
Alice brought forward the hand she had been holding behind her back. High in the air she held the offensive peach and black basque and tiny matching panties. ‘You told me to be wearing these, right?’ She waved them for the passing world to see, then dropped them in his lap. ‘Pooh!’ she exclaimed.
Planer’s face was red with rage. ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’
‘Do you?’ asked Merrill. She held up the newspaper with the photographs of Planer and Alice clearly visible.
‘What’s that?’ shouted Planer.
‘I suggest you read it,’ said Merrill. ‘And then you’d better call your boss. I’m sure he’s going to want to talk to you. As for Honfleur, you can forget it. We’ve called them and cancelled your reservation. Alice isn’t going there with you. Or anywhere else.’
As he scanned LeGrand’s story, Planer’s face had gone from red to white. ‘Who gave them this?’
‘I’ll tell you something else they’re going to get,’ said Merrill. ‘Ben and I,’ and she gestured towards the doorman watching them from just outside the lobby, ‘are going to be in touch with Monsieur LeGrand. We’re going to tell him about the scene we interrupted upstairs in this very building. A scene of attempted rape!’
‘You wouldn’t dare.’
The fight had gone out of Planer. ‘I’ll be destroyed,’ he said.
‘That’s what happens to bullies.’
‘Oh, God help me.’
‘There is an alternative,’ said Merrill. ‘You can drop all idea of charges against Alice’s mother. You can tell the Press there isn’t an ounce of truth in any of this. It’s a tissue of lies. And Alice will back you up.’
Planer looked at Alice. All the threat and menace was gone. What she was seeing was a frightened man. In spite of herself, her heart melted. ‘Why should you do that for me?’ he asked.
‘I’m not doing it for you. I’m doing it for my father.’
‘Do we have a deal?’ asked Merrill.
Planer nodded. ‘We have a deal.’
‘My mother has to leave, mind,’ said Alice. ‘You have to terminate her employment. Immediately.’
‘I’ll get HR to do it.’
‘Good. Well. Don’t let us detain you, Martin. I’m sure you have things you need to be doing.’
They watched him drive off. ‘I suppose the only shame,’ Merrill said, ‘is that you won’t be going to Honfleur.’
‘Why won’t I? I haven’t really cancelled the reservation. I can ring and change it to a single. Train to Southampton, ferry to Le Havre, taxi to Honfleur—I can be there this afternoon.’
‘Would you do that?’
‘Why not? It’s one of my favorite spots in the whole world. Where better to celebrate the beginning of a new life?’
‘Go, gal. Will you ring John and get him to go with you?’
‘John removed himself from my life, Merrill,’ said Alice quietly. ‘I’m not inviting him back. I suppose you don’t fancy a trip to the French seaside?’
‘I do, hon. Enormously. But I think I owe it to Tony to spend a bit of time with him.’
So here she was, in the First Class Lounge of the Southampton to Le Havre Ferry, sipping a glass of champagne and reading the Times. Anyone glancing at her, and several male passengers did, would have seen a beautiful young woman but they would also have seen a contented young woman. A young woman who bore the glow of a smile that was both there on her face and deep inside her heart.
She looked up. There, at the entrance to the Lounge and looking straight at her, stood John Pagan. How recently that sight would have thrilled her to the very core! How recently, at Gatwick Airport, it had thrilled her in just that way. The smile did not leave her face, but nor did its quality change. It was not, particularly, a smile of welcome.
John looked across the room. There was Alice. Alone. And, he had to say, calm. Not just calm but radiant. Where was the fear he had expected to see etched into her face? And where the source of that fear?
He crossed the floor towards her. He watched her, watching him come. As he drew closer, her face came up so that she could keep him in view.
‘Where is he?’
Alice watched him with the same calmness. ‘Where is who, John?’
‘Planer. Martin Planer. I’ve come here to…to…where is he?’
‘You’ve come here to what, John? Save me from Martin? That’s very sweet, but I saved myself. I could hardly rely on you, could I? Not after yesterday.’
He made to sit, then stopped himself. ‘May I join you?’
She nodded at the seat beside her. ‘Sure. Why not?’
Now he did sit, conscious of envious glances cast in his direction by some of the men present. ‘You want to tell me what happened?’
‘I thought things through, John. Rationally. I realized I hadn’t been doing that. Let me finish,’ she said as he made to interrupt. ‘You know I was supposed to be coming here with Martin. I know you do, because Tony told you. And then he told Merrill he had told you and Merrill told me. But this morning, I decided I wasn’t going to do that. I was sacrificing myself for my mother, and for my father’s peace of mind, and I decided I didn’t want to sacrifice myself any more. Not for my mother. Not for my father. Not for anyone.
‘I did you terrible damage once, John. I’m truly sorry for it. But I have paid the price.’ Her lower lip began to quiver but she fought to control her emotions and won. ‘I lost the great love of my life. I have paid and paid and I’m sorry for the damage I did you and the hurt I caused you but I will pay no more. Do you understand?’
‘I think so.’
‘I’m still going to Honfleur, because why wouldn’t I? I’m going because I’m a woman and I have needs and those needs include being good to myself, pampering myself, caring for myself. I have no-one else in my life to do those things for me.’
‘Can I apply for the post?’
Her smile was rueful. ‘Are you planning to woo me, Johnny Planer?’
‘Is that out of the question?’
It took her a while to answer. ‘No,’ she said at last. ‘But you’ll need to be good. A good wooer. You’d better not take anything for granted.’
‘I heard a wonderful thing the other day. One woman said to another, “You still need a man for some things.” And the other woman said, “Yes. But how often do you need to parallel park?” She laughed. ‘There’s been no man in my life for ten years now, John. And you know what? I don’t need a man I my life. I’d like one, just so long as it’s the right one, but I don’t need one.’
‘I hear you.’
‘I’m immensely grateful for what you did for Young Alice, when Young Alice was who I was. But I’m not Young Alice any more, John. I’m a successful confident woman and I don’t need anyone to show me the world and how to behave in it. Not any more. I don’t even need someone to parallel park for me, because I don’t have a car. Don’t need one.’
‘How are you planning to get to Honfleur?’
‘By taxi, John. How else?’
‘I could drive you there.’
She looked at him coolly. ‘My reservation’s a single. I want to make that clear.’
‘I’ll find a room.’
She thought about it. ‘Okay.’
‘And I could buy you dinner.’
‘Well, you could. But you’re not going to.’
‘Don’t look so crestfallen, John. I’ll buy dinner. For both of us.’
Alice raised her hand to call for another glass of champagne. ‘You’d better not have one of these. Not if you’re driving.’
They drove to Honfleur. Alice checked into her room, and John found another. They met in the cobbled alleyway between restaurant and rooms and went for a stroll along the Quai towards the Vieux Bassin. On the way, they looked into every art gallery window.
‘There’s some fearsome tat here,’ said Alice.
‘Always was. It’s a tourist trap. The French like to believe they’re the ultimate People Of Taste, but it isn’t true.’
‘Know what? I’m going to buy something hopelessly naff and over the top. Just for a laugh.’ She looked at his arm hanging by his side. He hadn’t tried to take her hand and he wasn’t going to. He’d accepted her rules. She smiled into his face. Her hand moved forward and slipped into his. ‘Kiss me.’
His lips on hers were warm and dry…and hesitant. She opened hers and pushed her tongue forward. In an instant, the kiss turned from sisterly to passionate. She put her free hand around him, hugging him to her. His followed suit.
She stepped back. ‘You give good woo.’
‘But you’re a swine.’
He stepped back. ‘Darling! Why?’
‘Because I’m falling in love with you all over again, you bastard.’
‘Oh. Well, don’t expect me to apologize. I want you to be in love with me. Just as I am with you.’
She led him to one of the outside tables by a bar overlooking the Bassin. ‘I’m going to have coffee,’ she said. ‘You deserve a beer. And while you’re drinking it you can tell me everything you’ve been doing for the last ten years.’
The coffee and beer turned into two coffees and a glass of red wine for her and two beers for him. When it was over, ten years of two lives had been exhaustively worked over. Alice put some euros on the table and stood up.
‘Two hours before dinner,’ John said.
‘And I can think of just the way to spend them.
They walked hand in hand back to l’Absinthe – not hurrying, but not dawdling, either. When they reached the entrance to the old presbytery, where the bedrooms are, John turned to make for his own room but Alice kept tight hold of his hand. ‘This way,’ she said.
In her room, she hung her jacket on a hanger and gestured for him to do the same. ‘Sit in that chair,’ she said.
When he was sitting, she stood in front of him. Without taking her eyes off him, she peeled off her blouse and dropped it on the floor. She unzipped her jeans and pushed them down to lie with the blouse. Reaching behind her, she unhooked her bra and threw it away. Dressed only in her panties she sat on his lap, facing him, one leg on either side of his. His hands came up onto her back. She was acutely aware of the stiff and powerful bulge that threatened to bore up into her from below.
‘Do you like my breasts?’ she asked.
‘They’re beautiful. The sweetest breasts in all the world.’
‘Kiss them.’ She moaned as his warm lips grazed her erect nipples, his tongue sending shocks of fire through the core of her being as it played teasingly over the pink tips now aching with desire. She pressed herself against him. ‘Oh, Johnny Pagan,’ she murmured. ‘I still love you so. God, how I love you.’
‘I love you, too, my own angel.’
‘I should damn well hope you do.’ She slipped down off his lap, pressed his knees apart and knelt between them. She unhooked the top of his pants. She pulled the zipper down. Now it was his turn to moan as her hands reached through the tight place at the front of his boxer briefs and brought his rapidly uncoiling penis into the light of day. She lowered her head and took the hot tip into her mouth, running her tongue over the opening slit.
‘This is the first cock I’ve held for ten years,’ she murmured. ‘Strangely enough, the last one belonged to a guy who looked just like you.’ She giggled. Returning to her task, she swallowed as much of the immense penis as she could, then removed her mouth again. ‘You’re lucky I’m doing this,’ she said. ‘Considering what you had it up not twenty-four hours ago.’
He looked astonished. ‘How can you possibly know about that?’
She laughed. ‘I know everything. And you really are astounding, you know that? I only mentioned it to see if it would make you go limp. And look at you! Still as stiff and rampant as a stud horse with a mare to cover.’
He wrapped his strong arms around her and she let him lift her high in the air, laying her gently on the bed. He began hurriedly to strip his own clothes off. She watched him calmly, her hands playing gently over her breasts. ‘You do love me, don’t you?’ she asked. ‘This isn’t just for the sex?’
‘I love you with all my heart.’ He was now naked. ‘Tony’s going to ask Merrill to marry him.’
‘She’ll say yes.’
‘Why don’t we make it a double wedding?’
‘They can have theirs and we can have ours. Double the fun.’
‘But you will marry me?’
‘Oh, yes, my darling. I will marry you. Ten years too late, but I’ll marry you all right.’
He rolled her panties down her legs and threw them into the corner. Her legs spread wide to receive him.
‘Here I come, ready or not,’ he said.
She threw her arms round his neck and hugged him as he slid into her moist and willing body. ‘Ready,’ she said, ‘does not begin to describe it.’