Saturday, August 17, 2013

Cambridge Connections - Chapter Twenty

Boardwalk Adventure


Alex's alarm paid no heed to the fact that he had a guest, or that it was 6.30am on a weekend. It rudely reminded him with its harsh, electronic beeping, that there was cathing to be done, pills to be taken, and range of motion exercises to be gone through. Sam, by some miracle, didn't seem to have stirred with the sound of his clock; she was lying on her side, curled up in the foetal position with her back to him, breathing softly, her hair spilling out over the pillow in a way that made him want to run his fingers through it. With a sigh, he heaved himself up into a sitting position. The duvet got tugged back off her body as he rose, and he paused for another moment, his eyes drinking in the gentle curve of her neck and the more dramatic swoop of her waist. He also panic-checked the sheets for any dampness, but all was clean and dry. He mused how long it had been since he'd shared his bed with anyone, and smiled this time.

His chair was waiting by his bed, and, as quietly and smoothly as he could, he lowered his right leg to the floor, then reached for the chair and swung his body across, his left leg still under the bottom of the duvet. Once he was settled on the cushion, he freed his left leg and settled his bare feet into place on the narrow footrest and, as they grumpily danced their usual morning spasms, he replaced the covers over Sam's softly breathing form before wheeling silently into the bathroom.

When he was done cathing and pill-popping, he saw that she was still in the same position. He didn't head back through the open door into his room though, going instead along the corridor to Will's room and knocking softly.

Will's shock of blond hair was sticking up from the top of the navy blue cover, looking like a little golden hedgehog nestled between the pillows. "Will," he whispered, shutting the door behind him. His knees were still bobbing a bit, and his left hip flexor felt unusually tight, threatening to set his right off into a cramp. Not a good day, he thought, and not a day for crutches.

"Hmm?" came Will's gravelly, sleepy voice. "Everything alright?" he sat up groggily, his hair standing up in all directions.

"Yeah. Sorry to wake you a bit earlier than usual," he said, pushing further into the room. "Can you help me with my range of motion while Sam's still asleep?"

He nodded, rubbing his stubbly face with his smooth, academic's hands. "You want to do it in here?"

"Yeah..."

"Sure."

After about fifteen minutes, with lying on his back on his brother's bed, Will's hands firmly and gently on Alex’s slender right thigh and calf, coaxing the stubbornly stiff leg to move back and forth, bent and straight, Alex suddenly let out a sharp cry.

"What? What is it?" Will asked, freezing in place, with Alex's leg bent at the knee.

Alex bit down a string of foul curses, and grunted instead, "Cramp, oh fuck... Cramp in my hip..." and he squirmed as best he could, reaching his hand down to his right side. Will managed to cajole the leg straight again, and then brought the knee up towards Alex's chest. Rotating the leg out at the hip, which made Alex wince, Will brought it back down in a gentle circle to lie straight beside his left leg, repeating this motion several times. Finally he set the leg down, releasing it for a moment while it lay there, vibrating like an old clackity steam engine, toes clenching and twitching.

"Any better?" Will asked, his groggy voice tense but his tone even.

Alex nodded in response, sweat beading boldly on his brow. He lay still, breathing heavily for a few more seconds.

“Alex?”

Then he exhaled softly as his toes fell quiet and the surface of his skin stopped twitching, "Yeah, it's gone."

"Carry on?"

Alex gave a dry smile. "Probably best to sort them out properly after that little performance. They're not behaving today."

"You still planning to do that walk?" Will asked, ploughing on through their regular sequence of exercises with the cool, detached air of a doctor. When Alex nodded, he said, "Please don't crutch it. You've been on your feet for her for far too long. Take the chair."

He ground his teeth, deeply resenting Will pointing that out, and he let it show in his face.

Will made a noise and perhaps stretched his leg a little harder than Alex would have liked him to have done. Stubbornly, Alex refused to dignify his brother’s criticism with a comment, and Will spoke again. “Alex, don’t be grumpy with me. You know how I meant that.”

He rolled his eyes and sighed, his stubborn resentment caving. “Yeah. I’m just pissed off that I can’t go tall today, that’s all.”

"You know already that she doesn't mind, though," Will murmured. "I don't understand why you -" Alex silenced him with a thunderous look. Will seemed like he was going to say something else, but he pursed his lips and finished the R.O.M. exercises without any further comment.

When they were done with the R.O.M and a couple of other strength and physio exercises, Alex's chest and back were damp with sweat, his dark t-shirt clinging to his skin. “Fuck,” he breathed, “That was tough today.” His right leg was quivering, tired from all the movement, like a jumped-up teenage rebel.

Lying on his brother’s bed, he felt for a moment like he hadn’t even got the energy to sit up. He puffed the pent up frustration from his lungs and attempted to rise. It wasn’t as tricky as he’d thought it was going to be, and once he got going, the tiredness seeped away from him and his energy returned, filling up the space where the spasms had been, and he smiled at his brother. “Thanks,” he mumbled after completing the transfer and doing a quick shift before setting his hands to his rims and heading for the door.

“No trouble,” Will smiled sleepily, sliding back under the duvet and burrowing into the pillows. He might have actually dozed off again before Alex had even left the room.

With his hair still wet from the shower, Alex snuck into his bedroom with only a towel over him. In his earlier efforts not to disturb Sam, he'd forgotten about something to wear after a shower. He opened a drawer and stuffed his torso into a dark red t-shirt, before grabbing a pair of boxers and bolting back to the bathroom to force them on. Somehow the endorphins from the physio and R.O.M. had given him an extra rush of self-confidence, and instead of throwing on a pair of jeans and getting on with the day, he felt the urge to climb back into bed next to her and share some more of the morning with her like that. He returned to the room and grabbed a pair of loose, knee-length pyjama shorts and quietly wriggled into them while she slept – he was too warm after his shower for those thick trackpants anyway, and that post-exercise self-assuredness was making him a little bit reckless, or maybe a little bit masochistic. My legs will be under the covers, so she probably won't even see them anyway, he thought, tempering the self-confidence with a little dash of realism.

Sam was still asleep and as he neared her, he saw she was now lying on her back with one arm on the pillow beside her face, and she appeared to be dreaming. Her face flickered through different expressions, and she made small whimpering noises as her fingers twitched. He rolled up beside the bed on his side, transferred yet again, his arms feeling a little wobbly, and hauled his aching but quiet legs up onto the mattress. As he propped himself up on his left elbow and quickly drew the covers up over his bare legs with his right hand, Sam woke with a gasp, starting out of her dreams with her dark brown eyes all wide and fearful.

She looked at him unseeingly, a thin film of sweat just misting her brows.

“It’s ok,” he said softly. “It’s just me.”

Then, without warning, her face collapsed into a watery smile of relief and she leaned over and hugged him. He had still been resting on an elbow, and the sudden addition of her weight made him flop over onto his back with a little exhale of surprise. Mercifully there was plenty of bed left behind him and they fell back together with a soft flump. She nuzzled her cheek against his chest in the dip by shoulder and breathed a deep sigh.

“You ok?” he murmured, stroking her hair.

After another sigh, she seemed to rally, and said, “Yeah, sorry, I’m fine. Just a… a weird dream…” She let her dark eyes wander up towards his, and as she raised her cheek off his shoulder to look at him properly, she took in his wet hair and freshly shaved face. “You’ve already showered? What time is it?”

“I’ve been up for a while. My alarm went off at half six. I was afraid it’d wake you, but you sleep like the dead…”

She laughed. “So I've been told." She rubbed her eyes. "Half six is so early! I’m not a morning person at all." She smiled and added, "You do know it’s a weekend, right?” She returned her cheek to his shoulder with a little chuckle.

“Crip mechanics,” he smiled sadly. “I have to get up early to –” he broke off, realising that the next word to trip off his tongue would have been ‘cath’. She probably wouldn’t even know what that meant, let alone that it implied he couldn't even piss without something to help him do it. “To get going with my routine,” he finished rather lamely.

“Oh,” she said lightly. “That sucks.”

“You’re telling me,” he muttered darkly.

“Still,” she added, glancing up at him again, “It does mean that you'll be all ready to get up and out after snuggling, and I'll still have to go and shower and faff around before I can join you.”

He laughed a great, deep laugh that surprised him as much as it did her, and made her head rattle up and down on his chest. “Do you deliberately only ever see the silver lining?”

“It takes some practice,” she joked ruefully. “But yeah, I generally try to see the lighter side of things. It seems to make life better…”

Another chuckle rumbled out of his chest and he let her lie there all sleepily with her arm draped leisurely over him, her hair spilling out over the pillow in a dark sea of autumn colours.

About half an hour later, she stirred from her doze and stretched gently. She shuffled her feet a bit and asked, "What's the plan for today then?"

Her foot suddenly found a sensitive patch on his calf, and the contact made it begin to jump a little. If he hadn't been lying on his back and able to look down and see, he wouldn't have been able to tell which leg she'd found. It was his right, and that must mean she had her leg draped over his, since she was curled up on his left side. Certain that she'd have heard his heartbeat quadruple in tempo, Alex muttered, "I had thought about going for a walk..." he gave a sour little snort and jutted his chin out down to his shivering leg, "Not that I'd be walking today anyway."

She turned those dark eyes up at him and fixed him with an intense look, before saying, "You know I don't mind whether you're tall or short, don't you?"

After all the physical efforts of the morning already, and the fact that she'd just unknowingly repeated, almost verbatim, Will's earlier comment, and with her lying so close, her eyes so big and full, Alex’s emotions seeped out through his armour and threatened to spill out. He pursed his lips and smiled, if only to keep them from trembling. He gave her shoulders a squeeze with the arm that was under her head, but didn't trust himself to speak.

"And," she added quietly, almost sensuously, and he heard the rustle of the duvet in the silence as she stopped speaking. He had to look down towards their toes again to find out what she was doing, and he knew from the way the covers moved that she was lifting her shin up over his. Then she lowered her leg back down so that it lay draped over both of his, and he just about felt the pressure, but not the surface contact, as she ran her leg over his. Clearly she had enough of an idea about his nerves to know what it would do to him, and sure enough his whole right leg leapt into tight, rapidly-clenching spasms from toe to quad which made him gasp and throw his head back into the pillows. There was no pain, but the sensation of the spasms combined with the presence of her leg over his bare skin was intense to say the least. "And that isn't something that you need to be ashamed of. It doesn't freak me out," she finished.

He knew his fingers were digging into her shoulder, that he might even be hurting her, but he seemed to have frozen in a fit of indecision. Feelings of relief curdled with acute shame as he fought and failed to control his body in front of her. When Sam showed no signs of removing her leg from his, from that little patch of sensitivity on his calf, he risked a look at her face, and saw a fierce, determined light burning in her eyes. Like weak metal, his pride buckled a little before the heat of that gaze, and his torso slumped down, his breath coming a little easier. She reached up, swivelling so that her torso faced his chest more, accidentally jostling his legs a bit with hers as she moved, and she planted a kiss on his lips. The lids of his eyes felt indescribably heavy, and the effort of keeping them more than just half open seemed gargantuan.

"Why?" he whispered, looking at her half savagely from under his lashes as the spasms began to slow again. "Why doesn't this freak you out?"

"Why would it?" she countered with a playful grin.

"Because," he began. "Because I can't even control my own body." The breath left him in a couple of short, shallow, nervous pants and he suddenly couldn't bear to meet that gaze any more.

She backed off, laying her head once more in the nook at his shoulder. Her words were so earnest, and yet so casual. "It doesn't bother me because it's just a part of your injury."

"I don't understand."

"It's just something that comes along with an injury like yours. It's not your fault. And apart from the fact that it hurts you sometimes, it doesn't matter to me."

He couldn't help it. A single tear trickled out of his left eye and disappeared, as if it had never been, into her thick hair. He clutched her tiny frame to him. "My little miracle," he gulped. He couldn't let himself believe what she was saying, and just wait til you find out about cathing, and bowel routines, and medication, infection... he stopped his swirling thoughts, because despite his reservations and doubts, he had to confess to himself that he was deeply touched by what she had said.

She snuggled him back for a bit, her leg now sandwiched between his which had both fallen silent.

After a while he heard her stomach growl, and he asked if she wanted breakfast.

"I should shower first," she murmured from somewhere on his chest. Lingering for another few minutes, she then sighed and heaved herself upright, her dark hair tousled at the back and beautifully dishevelled. Swinging herself gently off the other side of the bed, standing, stretching, and then sighing, she turned back, a little shyly, and smiled. "I'll try not to take too long."

Alex sat up, feeling the pins and needles which had bubbled up in his muscles, left behind as a souvenir of the passing spasms, as they trickled up and down his legs for a bit. When he was alone, he wriggled out of his loose pyjama shorts and heaved the jeans, which were in a pile on the floor, up over his unbraced legs in a series of easy, practised movements. The chair welcomed him with its firm yet soft embrace, and he tried hard, as he headed out to make them some breakfast, to think himself positive, especially about spending the day with her in his chair and not crutching. Six years, he scolded himself, You think you'd have got used to being around girls in your wheelchair by now. In fact, he had thought he was ok with it, until he started to feel that old self-consciousness around Sam.

She was different, no doubt. Only time would tell if it would turn out to be a good difference or a bad one.


***


"I was right to be that forward, wasn't I?" she whispered to herself as the hot water plunged down around her. The first time she'd seen them, the leaping spasms had freaked her out, no doubt, but she'd done a little googling in her spare time that week, and after reading more about spinal cord injuries, the spasms didn't seem so strange. It was normal for people with damaged nerves to have spasms. She guessed, however, that it was because it drew attention to his disability that he hated for her to see it, and that made her unspeakably sad. His desire for privacy was not the problem, but this felt like he didn’t trust her with his body. "Why should he though?" she hissed crossly, spitting shampoo out as the bubbles slithered into her mouth, leaving a nasty taste on her tongue. "Just because I’m letting him in – it's not sob-story-pro-sob-story..."

There was a smell of bacon cooking as she opened the bathroom door and peered gingerly out. Returning to his room in her pyjamas in case she met Will in the corridor, she closed the door behind her and donned her thin and fairly tight jeans as it wasn't a particularly sunny day, and put on a simple black airtex shirt. The smell drifting from the kitchen was fantastic, and, opening his bedroom door again, she caught sight of Alex sitting in his chair, left arm raised, stirring a frying pan with bacon and eggs sizzling away. There was something so incredibly sexy about seeing him doing something so ordinary. Over the noise from hob, he didn't hear her coming, and he didn't see her because the entrance to his room was on his blind side. Dorkishly imagining she was sneaking like her character in Skyrim, she tiptoed around the room, and as he flipped the bacon, she looped one arm under his outstretched left arm and her other over his right shoulder, forming a diagonal loop around his torso and planting a kiss smack in the middle of his left cheek.

He started as she surprised him, and laughed at his reaction. "Bloody hell," he exclaimed with a good-natured chuckle, "You made me jump!"

She kissed him again and then released him, whispering, "Ninja!" in his ear which made him shiver with pleasure.

"Will you be pretty much ready to go straight after breakfast?" he asked, apparently now having to concentrate very hard on the simple task of putting the crispy bacon and the eggs onto some slices of sourdough. He handed the plates to her with a smile.

"Give me a few minutes to brush my teeth, and yeah, I'll be ready," she replied, heading for the table and adding over her shoulder as he followed her, "It's not like I'm some supermodel who needs at least four hours to get ready, even for a night out..."

"Ok," he nodded, grinning widely.

She was glad his mood was picking up, though she couldn't help but notice the slight, yet fairly frequent, weight shifts he kept doing, lifting his body up and adjusting himself in the blink of an eye. Was he uncomfortable?

Just as they were preparing to leave, Will emerged and spoke to Alex while she was busy putting her shoes on by the door. His voice was hushed and intense, but not quite low enough that she couldn't hear it. "Are you sure you should be going?" he hissed.

"Yes, I'm fine, Will," Alex said flatly. He added, with a sarcastic smile growing in his tone, "I've maxxed out on all my drugs, so I'll be fine. I've got my phone, and enough supplies in my bag to open a small pharmacy..."

"Just be -"

"I will."

Will rolled his blue eyes and backed off, clearly familiar with the trajectory of the conversation. "Enjoy yourselves," he said, a little louder, including Sam without looking at her.

"We will," Alex answered, rolling towards her with a pale and strange expression. "Ready?" he asked, fishing his keys out of the wooden bowl by the door.

"Yup," she chirped.

It was becoming more and more fascinating to watch him move, and it was actually an unexpected pleasure to watch him. She'd not got much of a chance to see him in his chair, as he'd always crutched when they'd been outside together, and even in his flat he seemed to use his sticks over his chair. Was that for her benefit? She didn't like the thought of him hauling his six foot frame around on his hands just for her benefit.

His self-assured strokes as he manoeuvred the chair towards the top of the staircase; the confident way he lifted his body from the chair to the white seat of the stair lift; the strength with which he heaved the black, compact, rigid-frame wheelchair aloft and carried it all the way to the bottom of the steep steps: they were all demonstrations of his skill, and she found this practised self-reliance deeply attractive. "Where exactly are we going then?" she asked as he inched along just a bit below her on the grinding lift, his chair gliding down beside him in front of her.

"You heard of Wicken Fen?" he asked. She shook her head, her ponytail tickling the back of her neck. "It's a wildlife reserve, about twenty minutes from here. It’s not exactly Yellowstone, but it’s pretty. There's a board walk all the way round it, so I shouldn't have too many access issues. Last time I was there I saw so many dragonflies, it was incredible."

He was rambling like a small child who was nervous to please. "Sounds great," she said, smiling freely.

The tyres of his BMW crunched on the gravel as he pulled up in the car park after the short drive. Banks of bulrushes and tall reeds swayed in the gentle breeze, forming a continuous palisade around sparkling water. She stepped out and leaned against the car while he swiftly assembled his chair. At the clicking of the remote door-lock, she pushed her hips off the chassis and stood up straight.

The tyres of his chair made a softer crunch, adding their whispering voices to the rushes and reeds. Sam smiled and rested her hand on his right shoulder as he passed her. Because of his lack of sight on that side, he hadn't seen her move, and his head snapped round, thinking she wanted his attention. She squeezed the concrete muscles of that shoulder and released him, stepping round to his left side so as not to make him strain to look at her. He smiled his mute thanks and headed towards the wooden building which gave access to the fen and its boardwalk.

She paused at a wooden information board that told visitors that the fen was an ancient piece of marshland, and that it was one of the first nature reserves to be created in Britain. It went on to inform her, in a series of illustrations, of the various types of wildlife it was possible to glimpse at the site. Alex had continued on, and when he realised she was no longer at his side, he halted, swivelling nimbly on the spot so that he was sitting sideways across the path, spoked wheels flashing in the sun like the broadside of a ship. My Napoleonic lieutenant, she smiled to herself, as she jogged up the path to join him.

His onyx eyes were huge as he gazed up at her when she reached him. "You are so beautiful," he murmured, reaching out for her hand. His palm was so rough and hard beneath her fingers that when he drew her hand to his soft lips and kissed it once, the contrast between sandpaper and silk was exquisite. Before she knew it he was returning those palms to his rims and rolling away through the open doors of the entrance building. After a compliment like that, it took her a while to return to reality.

On the other side of the building, the boardwalk stretched evenly away through the pale stalks of the rushes. Small birds flitted and wheeled around them, and butterflies scurried through the air. They made their way around miles of winding wetland canals and pathways, with wild flowers, dancing reeds, and pockets of glittering, open water. Alex was deceptively fast in his chair, and as Sam felt herself heading towards the hotter side of warm, she was forced to say, laughing, "Alex, slow down! You're going to make me all hot if you carry on at that pace." And in more ways than one, she thought with a secret smile.

He pressed his palm to the rims and slowed, looking at her over his shoulder, twisting all the way round to the right before turning the wheels to catch up with his torso. Was that a hint of mischievous fun she now saw in his dark eyes? The whole movement of the turn was organic, smooth, sexy, like a dancer turning slowly on the spot, and she really saw for the first time in that moment how he and his chair had become one entity in the six years after the accident. "I'm sorry," he said. "It's been all downhill so far, and it's easy to zoom off."

"So I see!" she chuckled. "I'll have to hire you as a coach to boost my fitness before grading if you keep this up." He looked a little confused, and so she elaborated. "My red belt grading is next weekend."

"Oh!" he exclaimed. "I'd forgotten you were so dangerous."

"About to become more dangerous, I hope," she grinned, skipping lightly into a sparring stance and bringing her fists up to guard her chin.

He held his hands up and laughed. "Mercy. I'm yours."

She glanced along the path to make sure they were alone, and then climbed right onto his lap, facing him. His legs shuddered once beneath her, but he didn't seem to notice. "Are you?" she smiled playfully, running her hands behind his ears, tucking the thick waves of hair back which forced a quivering exhalation of pleasure out of him.

"Yes."

"Good," she said, and she leaned in, pressed her lips onto his kissed him with a fierce passion.


***


Great stretches of time passed that morning when Alex actually forgot that he was in his chair. He was just Alex, and she was just Sam.

It was not until they reached a small jetty which stuck out into the sparkling water bordered by thinner, more delicate reeds, that the reality of his situation was brought home to him. Opposite the jetty was a tall hide, a wooden shelter built high up and nestling in the trees, from which nature lovers could observe the wildlife without intruding in any way. A steep, elegant spiral of stairs gave access to the small wooden building, and he glimpsed Sam looking longingly at it, unaware that he had seen. She didn't mention going up it though, and neither did he. He saw the ghost of a small boy with black hair scurrying up the staircase, a slightly smaller, thinner, blond boy following him until they disappeared into the wooden shelter at the top. He sighed. The ghostly figure of a woman was standing in his imagination at the base of the steps, hands on hips, dark hair twisted up and held in a clip.

He turned his gaze away from the empty space filled with memories, and back to Sam, who was now looking down at him, her hair falling softly around her beautiful face. There is an antidote to anything, he thought as he gazed at her.

Alex set his brakes - it wouldn't do to go rolling off into the murky depths of the water because he was too busy gazing at Sam like a high schooler with a crush - and he turned his head to look out through the gap in the reeds where the jetty sliced through the bank. On the other side of the river was a pasture with chestnut horses grazing peacefully, and as the sun poked out from the thin sheets of summer clouds in the sky, it gilded the backs of the animals with a stunning, rich hue.

He heard her sigh above the whispering reeds. "What's wrong?" he asked, turning to look up at her with his good eye.

She didn't seem to have heard him for a few seconds, but continued to stare out at the horses, her mind clearly fixing on some idea. Then she said, her voice sounding somehow different, even strained with some unidentifiable emotion, "It's so timeless here."

This place was not timeless for Alex. This is where he, his brother and his mum had frequently come, after their move from Glasgow, to get their fix of fresh air and wilderness; this tiny pocket of marshland wedged between enormous agricultural farm fields. In those days, the hide behind them had been their fortified watchtower, this jetty the bustling docks, the horses the noble destriers of the knights in their castle... He sighed. "I guess so."

"You don't think so?" she asked, turning to look at him now. Her eyes were dark as ever, but strangely glassy.

He smiled sadly. "It's full of memories for me."

"Tell me?" she asked.

"Where to start?" he huffed a soft laugh, fiddling back and forth with the smooth rims of his chair.

"Start with the first memory..." she said gently with her sense of humour returning like the summer sun.

"It's a long set of memories," he cautioned as began, and to his surprise, she sat down cross-legged on the wood of jetty and faced him, leaning back a bit and propping herself up on her arms, happy and relaxed as some marsh spirit.

Finding himself feeling a good kind of pain in his chest, like the endorphin rush of pressing a bruise, he told her everything he could remember about the games they'd played there. After a while, she shifted herself on the jetty so that she sat at his feet, leaning her body against his legs and the vertical bar by his locked wheels. With her leaning on him like that, Alex was suddenly almost overcome with emotion. It felt like such a natural thing for her to do, to rest her weight against him while he spoke, but the fact that she was resting against a combination of him and the chair without making any kind of distinction between them, was almost too much for him. He stroked her hair nonchalantly with his left hand while she stared out at the horses and listened to a selection of his memories. "Mum was always the queen, and we were the rascal princes she could never catch..." he finished, his eyes tracing the shifting patterns in the water.

"You're still a rascal prince," Sam chuckled. She looked up at his face and added with a cheeky grin, "And I'd wager you'd still be hard to catch."

After all the serious fondness of his memories, a sudden rush of reckless fun descended on him. "You're on," he said, swiftly unlocking the scissor brakes and he shot backwards, which made her collapse sideways onto the dry wood of the dock, before he swivelled the wheels, mindful of her fingers on the jetty as zoomed off down the boardwalk with her delighted and indignant shriek ringing in his ears.

There was no way she was going to catch him so quickly after his surprise start, and when he reached a long, straight section, he felt like an F1 driver with a track stretching before him. He leaned down a little way and flicked the forward part of the rims with familiar ease and skill, and his arms pumped like pistons, propelling him easily into a fantastically free speed. Sam's laughter faded behind him, and the drumming of her shoes on the wood dwindled into the rushing wind in his ears.

At the end of the little runway, he clamped his palms to the rims and slowed. Finally he turned around, expecting to see her running behind him, laughing, her hair flailing around her in the breeze, but the boardwalk was empty. She couldn't have been far behind him when he'd last heard her footfalls on the wood, and he was puzzled. He called her name, but only the reeds answered him. He couldn't understand the rustling messages they gave him in answer. "Sam?" he called again, heading back along the path. He didn’t think there were any trails joining their boardwalk, and he had no idea where she could have vanished.

My little marsh fairy has flitted away, he thought as he rolled swiftly back. No sooner had the thought crossed his mind, than something much more corporeal than a spirit came hurtling from a hidden path to his right with a shout.

"Bandits ambush the unsuspecting prince!" Sam cried, leaping out and landing square in front of him. "Avast and surrender," she commanded with a triumphant grin on her stunning face, hair whipping around her like a banner.

He had to laugh. "You are such a dork," he grinned. "Come here. And don't you do that to me again!"

"Did I worry you?" she smiled playfully, taking a step or two towards him.

He held his thumb and index finger up signifying a small amount, and said, "Little bit."

He knew she was going to do it again before she even moved. Her whole face told him she was about to climb onto his lap once more, and he was impatient to feel her perfect form land on his weak legs and force them down into the hard cushion beneath him. It was intoxicating to feel the effect of her presence without being able to feel much of the surface contact. Shame about the spasms it would probably prompt, but it seemed like a small price to pay in that moment, and he didn't even care that they were acting like two horny teenagers.

Sure enough, her legs were soon wrapping around him, ass landing neatly and gently in his lap, and her arms looped up around his neck. She pulled herself in towards him and his torso constricted in pleasure, forcing an uneven breath out of his lungs as she brought her lips to his ear and whispered, "Got you."

The tingling, which began in his ear, shot down his neck, danced through his ribcage and shot down the rest of his body. He felt his right leg pick up the signal in the relay race down his body, and it entered its usual maze of confusion there, as though the sensation had panicked and spent the next minute or so looking for way to get out; his knee began to bob beneath her. She rolled her hips slightly as she leaned forward and planted a kiss on the junction of his jawline and his neck. "God, Sam," he breathed. "How do you do that?"

She laughed softly. "Do what?"

"Make me feel again," he murmured without thinking.

Her arms closed around him and she buried her face in his neck.

"I'm serious, Sam. I know it's corny, but..." He knew he was getting soppy, maybe even a little heavy, but the words had tumbled from him before he'd been able to filter them out.

Sam said something but it was swallowed by his shirt and he asked her what she said. She pulled back a little. Her eyes had lost that glassy, distant look, and at this close range they showed all the hues of sunset in the golden flecks which seared through her dark brown irises. She smiled prettily, abandoning her earlier, unheard words, and then said, "Come on. If we get any mushier, I think we'll dissolve..."

"Let's go," he agreed.

As she climbed from his lap, she caught her knee on his side guard and staggered sideways. Reflexively, he grabbed her arm with his right hand to stop her toppling into the soggy reed bed behind her. He felt her muscles tense beneath his grip, and she gasped as her feet found the stable ground, clear and obvious fear flashing in her eyes as she involuntarily jerked her hand back.

The panic passed in a heartbeat, and she closed her eyes in embarrassment. "Smooth," she muttered. "I'm sorry." She looked as though she might cry.

"Hey," he offered gently, "It's ok..."

She smiled, and turned her back on him, searching for a moment alone. Her shoulders were high and her face as she moved away was hard, stern, and full of shame. Then she breathed the tension out, looked over her shoulder at him and held out her hand again - the same hand he had just grabbed. He took it gently and caressed it for a moment.

"See what I mean?" she asked. "I do trust you, and your strength, I just... have a small tendency to panic..."

"I know. I understand. I'm sorry." Relinquishing her hand to the air, he returned his palms to the push rims, and headed slowly along the smooth path. “Let's get going.”

To his surprise she let out a loud, raucous peal of laughter and he stopped before he’d gone more than a foot along the boardwalk, looking back over his left shoulder. "Don't be sorry!” she giggled, a wonderfully mischievous light in her eyes. “If you hadn't grabbed me, I'd be in the drink right now, with a muddy arse and a load of reeds in my hair!"

He had to admit that that image was pretty funny, and his own laughter rose up and joined hers, filling the warm summer air with the sound of two people just having fun. They continued, down the boardwalk, side by side this time, leaving the little incident far behind them as the cafe and entrance building slid into view out of the tall beds of reeds like a small cruise liner on a calm ocean. "You want a drink or something before we head back?" he asked.

She grinned and said, "You know what I actually fancy?"

He shook his head and heard the sound of children laughing and screeching from the picnic area.

"If they have those little tubs of ice cream, like the ones you get at the theatre..."

"Oh yeah...?" he asked. "Now, you realise that 'favourite ice cream flavours' are pretty much deal breakers...? I mean, if your favourite flavour turns out to be something revolting like mint choc chip, I'm not sure we can continue with this relationship..."

Her laughter was intoxicating - the way it lit up her eyes and chased away the fear that had flared there earlier, if only for a moment, filled him with a kind of joy he hadn't known existed until now. She narrowed those glittering eyes and pursed her lips, feigning deep thought. "I prefer my ice cream not to taste of toothpaste, so I think I'm safe on that count," she grinned. "But I'm afraid my favourite is quite boring really: vanilla..." after a nanosecond’s more thought, she added, "Though if they have fancy flavours, then tiramisu..."

"I like it," he said, grunting a little with effort as they left the smooth planks of the boardwalk and joined the gravelled pathway which led to the small, rustic cafe beside the main entrance building. "A favourite for every occasion." He glanced up and saw that she was still smiling, adding with a lopsided smirk, "But you were safe all along anyway."

"But you might not be, Alex Norwood," she jested. "What are you going to have..." and she raised her eyebrows to form an expression that might have been a dangerous warning in a different context.

He did a gulp worthy of a pantomime and said, "Golly, well, um..." blustering like a caricature of an old man, "Now you've made me nervous..." Sam smacked him lightly on the top of his arm and his heart leapt again at the brief contact. He said, "Well, I usually can't say no to a good, rich chocolate, but I think I actually prefer sorbets..."

"Unusual," she said as they wove through the picnic tables, dodging families with small and unpredictable toddlers darting around the benches. She looked askance at him. "You become more interesting by the minute."

The ice creams were in a deep chest freezer with a sliding top, and Alex discovered that while he could just see into it to browse through the flavours, he would not be able to reach over the high side and down into the freezing depths to pick out his chosen mini tub. Sam smoothly tugged the top back and while she leaned down and fished a small vanilla pot out, asked, "No sorbet - what can I get you?"

Trying not to stare publicly at her backside as she bent over, he attempted to refocus his attention and said, "It'll have to be chocolate then..." with a smile that was not wholly due to the approaching ice cream. The second outward sign of his arousal was that his knees began to bob in synchrony. 

They joined a small queue for the till behind a mother with a small boy of about six years old in tow. As Alex reached behind him for the small rucksack that dangled from the back of his chair, his right leg danced itself suddenly into a bigger spasm and his foot slithered from the footplate as it straightened a bit at the knee. He left it there, hovering above the floor while he dug his wallet from the front pocket of the bag, careful to make sure he got the right compartment, as the main hold of the rucksack was full of meds and equipment.

When he'd zipped it up again, he picked his leg up, hands cupping gently but firmly under his thigh, thumbs giving it a quick massage to calm it down a bit, and returned his foot to the footplate. The black bag sat jiggling in his lap as his quad continued to pulse, and he decided there was nothing he could do about it. His attention was drawn to two massive blue eyes staring at him from beside the linen-trousered legs of the young mother in front of them. The child was staring in a way that only small children can; with unabashed, innocent fascination. Or horror. He never could decide which. And then it opened its mouth and asked with painful bluntness, "What's wrong with your legs?"

Its mother was horrified. She leapt around and grabbed the child by the wrist, almost dragging it backwards. "Honey, leave the poor man alone," she said to the child. She then turned to Alex. "I'm so sorry," she gushed, her cheeks turning a violent shade of crimson.

"That's ok," he smiled, keeping his eyes open and friendly, despite his annoyance with its mother over her patronising choice of adjective, and he tilted his head down to look directly at the child. "I was in an accident, and they don't work properly any more. That's why I need to use this wheelchair to get around." He popped a quick wheelie which never failed to impress anyone - except Will.

The child blinked and stepped around its force-field of a mother. It blinked again, eyes first of all on his jumping knees, and then it seemed to be formulating another question as it eyed the wheels next. Eventually, it asked, "How fast can it go?" which made the mother gulp again, but Alex laughed before she could embarrass herself any further.

"Well, it's no racing car, but I did just beat my girlfriend here in a race along the wooden path outside..." He cast a sly look up at Sam and saw her smiling too. "And she's pretty fast."

"It's true, he did," she confirmed. "I think it's turbo charged or something..." she grinned at Alex.

"She plays race cars with you?" the young child asked, those big blue eyes widening even further. "None of the girls at school ever want to play racing cars. That's so cool!"

"Yeah, I think so too," Alex said, reaching for Sam's free hand.




To be continued...

9 comments:

  1. I love the kid at the end!!!

    Seriously though, I love the whole story and still can't wait for the next instalment.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Such a delightful way to close this episode! I love this story and its characters.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I love you and I love your story!
    Thank you very much for the new chapter! I was such a delightful read after an extremely stressful week - it helped to relax and get my mind off the daily nuisances!
    You are a great writer, with much insight to the detail and it's easy to get lost in your wonderfully crafted world and characters!
    Cheers,
    Anne

    ReplyDelete
  4. So many "melt your heart" moments. Truly lovely. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This was lovely. I loved the part where they raced each other, and of course, this got me, big time:

    "God, Sam," he breathed. "How do you do that?"

    She laughed softly. "Do what?"

    "Make me feel again," he murmured without thinking.

    ***swoon***

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Chie - I very nearly took that bit out, but I'm kind of glad I didn't now! You know how 'they' say how if you like something, you should probably delete it ...

      Delete
  6. Thank you for the update! I like your style and your characters, but with the single tear and Alex "my little miracle"-comment you are going over the top. That`s just a bit too cliche for my taste. Otherwise, the story is perfect!
    Nicole

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you - it's so hard, when you're wrapped up in writing it, to know what's right. I'll watch out for that in the next ones...!

      Delete
  7. I look forward to this all week! Thank you, thank you for another chapter together... the ones where they're apart is sad... well for me. I know, I know, if they were together all the time they'd get nothing done. Thank you for taking your time with writing and with the two of them. As much as I want more, more, more...
    Tc

    ReplyDelete