Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Footsteps Chapter Ten (Part I)

The airport teamed with life like a coral reef in full, streaming flow. People came and went from all over the world, but the one person I cared about was nowhere to be seen. Then, finally, twenty minutes later than I’d expected, a very tired army medic strode out of customs in his uniform. He was huge, his massive shoulders barely fitting into his uniform anymore, and I wondered fleetingly how on earth my supposed twin had grown so much bigger than me.  And then I flew at him. He dropped his kit bag and all his luggage at his feet and swept me up into the kind of massive embrace that girl will only get from her brother. “Misshtu…” I mumbled, squashed into his chest. It smelled of musty canvas and acrid dust.

“What was that?” he asked, pulling back a moment to let me breathe.

“I missed you,” I grunted as he released me. I was shaking so badly I could hardly stand. The only effect I appeared to have had on him was to knock his beret slightly more askew. He corrected it almost without knowing he was doing it and then laughed, ruffling my hair.

Tall, blond, handsome, and extremely tired, the sight of my brother was a comfort like no other. He smiled and embraced, or crushed, his best friend too, with equal warmth. “Kit, mate, how are you?” he asked.

“I’m good,” he grinned. “All the better for knowing you’re back on home turf…”

He and I smiled our same smile, and Kit picked up one of Luke’s bags, turning away, and saying, “Come on, before they charge me extra for parking…”

Luke put a free arm around my shoulder and yanked me off balance into a walking hug. I, of course, staggered hopelessly, but was borne helplessly along by his massive arm like a teddy under a child’s arm. “So, sis,” he smiled. “How have you been?”

“You know…” I smiled, my hair long and loose as usual, spilling over my face as he marched me along.

“I see you still haven’t learned what makeup is…” he joked, poking me in the ribs.

“Fuck off,” I snarled playfully, attempting to hit him and failing spectacularly. I should have learned by now.

“It’s learned to swear,” he laughed. “My, my, how time flies… Soon it’ll have learned to tie its shoelaces…”

“Shut up,” I mumbled from somewhere under his armpit.

Children,” Kit called back over his shoulder. “Don’t make me come back there and sort you two out… Luke’s only been on UK soil for ten minutes…”

We all shared a laugh and, as much to my neck’s relief as the rest of me, Luke let me go and we headed out to where Kit had parked his rusty little Ford.

It was a long drive home from the airport, and I sat in the back while Luke rode shotgun, telling us all about the guys in his unit, and what he’d been up to – the details he could bear to share with us anyway – before he turned the conversation round to me by saying, “Didn’t you say that this guy you’re seeing is ex-army?”

“I did – what are the chances?” I said, leaning back into the seat, yanked backwards by the over-zealous seatbelt in Kit’s car. “He got injured four years ago and is now a tech journalist…”

He asked me all kinds of military-orientated questions about him, what I knew of his unit, where he had been stationed, what kind of thing he had been up to. I told him what I could, but mostly I had to tell him I didn’t know. “I don’t even know what his company was or anything. It’s not the kind of thing he seems to like talking about…”

“Fair enough,” Luke conceded. “We all have our ways of coping…” He stretched his arms up and out, nearly elbowing Kit in the ear in the restricted space of the tiny car, and said, “God, I’ve had enough of the heat and the sand and travelling… long hot bath and maybe a pint down the local will just about finish me off I think…” He looked out of the window at the countryside flashing by and added with a shiver, “When did it snow? I’ve almost forgotten what being cold feels like!”

“Been like this for a week or so now,” Kit said, the indicator ticking loudly as he moved off the motorway and headed through snow-blanketed fields towards home.

I reached forward and took Luke’s shoulders in my hands and gave them a squeeze. “Missed you,” I said in his ear. He grinned roguishly over his right shoulder at me and said, “You too, kid. Good to be home.”

I noticed he had a lot more nicks and scars than he’d had before he’d left. When I thought that he could have come home in a body bag, I gave him another hug as best I could from the back seat. “I can’t believe you only get two weeks…” I said sullenly from somewhere near his collar.  

“But he’s actually home for Christmas this year,” Kit interjected.

“Kay will be happy,” I smirked, and then outright laughed as I caught Luke’s eye-roll. “You know she’s adored you since she first met you at that party at college…”

“I do,” he said warily. “I do.”

“And you’re such a hulking hunk these days, she’ll practically die just looking at you!” I sat back again with another laugh, but he said nothing, only smiling. I could see the dark circles under his eyes, and looking closer, the white hairs speckling through his dark blond hair. I kept my sad thoughts to myself.

The car eventually drew up outside our little house and Luke heaved his bag from the boot. Heavy black army boots stomped up the path after me and I smiled. I’d only seen Caleb in civvies, and I tried to imagine him in uniform, and that thought gave me a tingle as I pictured him in desert combats, his maroon beret handsomely off to one side, piercing blue eyes staring straight off into the heat haze of the Afghan desert…

“What’s for scoff then?” Luke grinned, popping his head over my shoulder and interrupting my thoughts.

“Huh?” I asked, coming to with a jolt and rattling the key into the lock.

“Scoff, snarf, nomz,” he said, tickling my waist. “Not something you’ve had to worry about by the feel of you,” he added with an extra poke into my side. “You should join the gym again, fatty.”

“Well, I had planned to make mum’s rack of lamb with roast vegetables and gravy for you as a ‘welcome home’,” I sniffed. “But now that you’ve said that, I think I’ll go and eat a stick of celery and you can have nothing…”

“Aww, don’t be like that,” he said, stepping inside after me and stamping all the snow off onto the welcome mat. He put his arms around my shoulders from behind and held me close. “You know I’m only joking.”

“Yeah, well I’m not one of your army boys, ok?” I said, turning on the spot. “No dick-waving here, alright? I’m your sister who’s worried for your life every minute of every day since you first went out there.”

“I know,” he said, with an extra squeeze. “I know. Don’t send me to Coventry for a little joke though, will you?”

I grinned back over my shoulder and said, “They do good roast dinners up north…”

“Not like yours though… And Coventry is hardly north, sis. What happened to your geography?”

“It’s further north than us, so my statement still stands…” I pouted, hanging the keys up and catching him shaking his head out of the corner of my eye.

It was amazing to have him back. His big booming laugh, his green eyes, his sense of humour. It was like having a part of myself back; the better, more confident part. He joked with us at the table, complimenting my cooking and comparing it with Army scoff, joking that the chef’s course has to be even harder than SAS training, because no chef ever seems to have passed. The night wore on and finally he said he was heading to bed. After a very long time in the shower to get rid of all the Afghan sand and dust, he eventually moved to his room, and I heard the house fall silent. Eventually I dropped off to sleep sometime around 1am.

I woke with a jolt to the sound of screaming. It was so incongruous that I couldn’t place it. It was a man’s voice, screaming. Luke. I flung the covers off and raced out of bed, thundering down the corridor and flicking the light on in the hall. He was thrashing around in the bed, tangled in the sheets, sweating a storm, screaming like a child in terror. Kit wasn’t long behind me, but I waved him away. “I’ll deal with it,” I said. This wasn’t the first time he’d had nightmares on coming home from tour. “Shh, Luke, it’s me,” I said. I was reminded of Caleb and his attack, though this wasn’t as bad. He sat up with a roar, shaking all over, his big white t-shirt clinging to him. “Luke,” I said, touching his arm. He stared at me, sweat dripping into his green eyes.

“Fuck, Lyss,” he breathed, still staring at me like a wild animal. “Fuck…”

“It’s alright,” I said, sweeping his blond hair back off his forehead. “You’re alright here.”

Panting wildly, his chest pumped oxygen round his body, fuelling the fire in his brain. “Fuck,” he swore, blinking as a bead of sweat rolled into his eye. He rubbed it until his eye was red and bloodshot and tears mingled with the sweat.

“You with me?” I asked tentatively.

He puffed and looked at me, a very strange and intense expression on his face. His eyes bore into me with the impact of an RPG-7 grenade launcher.

“Luke?” I pressed gently. “You want to talk about it or not talk about it?”

“I…” he croaked, still fixing me in his green gaze. Then he blinked and shook his head, as though clearing the Afghan dust from the cogs and gears of his brain. “I’m sorry,” he said, reaching for my shoulder with a tremulous hand. “Yeah, I’m ok. I… I just…” he puffed again and continued. “I was just back in the dust, with the lads… that crack of lead in the air, the thud as it hit the guy next to me…” he breathed more evenly, suddenly speaking like he was narrating a documentary rather than reliving a traumatic experience. “I remember snapping into action like they always said it would in training. The way the rest of the unit responded was…” he paused, nibbling his lower lip with a nervous energy, “… inspirational. I had the tourniquet on in seconds, and eventually he was stable, but it took forty five minutes for MERT to turn up…” I vaguely recalled that MERT stood for Medical Emergency Response Team. “My gloves were soaked in his blood…” He looked down at his knees, the damp sheets draped and sticking like cling film to his body. “It was only after all the blur of action, of swearing and shouting at him not to fucking die… when I looked down at my hands and saw all the blood, that I realised what had really happened. How close to death I'd been, in more ways than one...” Suddenly it struck me that he looked like a very small child in a grown up’s body. We were six years old again and he’d had the monster-in-the-cupboard-nightmare again. He brought his hands up to examine the ragged, bitten stumps of his nails and added softly, “I couldn’t get the blood out for days.”

I took his hands in mine and said, “All clean now though,” with a smile. What else could I say? I had no idea if this guy had lived or not, and I wasn’t about to prompt an actual panic attack from him. I clearly wasn't qualified for that yet, as seen by Exhibit A: Caleb's Attack...

He smiled at me and ruffled my sleep-tossed hair. “Yes,” he sighed. Then, with an abruptness that stunned me, he said, “Right, I’m going to go and wash my face, and then I’m going to come back and you’re going to distract me and tell me more about that boy you’re seeing…” He lifted off the sheets and padded away towards the bathroom, his huge, tree-trunk thighs bearing him from the room in three or four massive strides.

I didn’t really want to spend time talking about Caleb to him at half three in the morning, but I gave the sheets a shake and curled up on his pillow. It smelled of him already and it was nice to have him back, though I couldn’t untie that knot of worry in the pit of my stomach. I think he was ok, but you never can tell with men.

He came back in a little while later, massive biceps bulging clearly now that he was out of his baggy white t-shirt, chest muscle rippling in the gloom of the bedroom. “Jesus,” I said.

“Nope,” he grinned. “Just me.”

“What do the feed you boys out there? You’re like a fucking bear now!”

“Watch your language, lady,” he smiled, grabbing a clean shirt before climbing into the bed next to me. “You look shattered. I’m sorry. Tell me about your boy tomorrow, ok? You should go and sleep. Though if you even hint that he’s not treating you properly, I’ll put this bear’s body into action and knock his block off, ok?”

I laughed nervously, and said, “Ok…”

He pointed a finger at me and said, “I mean it,” with a seriousness that wasn’t all comedy.

My brows buckled into a doubting frown.

“I mean it… get to bed and stop worrying about me. It’s weird.”

I cuffed him playfully on the back of the head, but couldn’t help notice his arm twitch as he fought the instinct to block the attack and return it with something of his own.

“Sleep well then,” I said from the doorway, looking back at him. My brother was a life-saver, I knew that, but they’d also turned him into a killer, and that scared me. I just had to trust that he was strong enough to cope with that fact too.

A lopsided grin lurched on his lips and he said, “You too, little one.” And he flicked the light off, plunging everything into darkness.

Sleep didn’t seem to want me, despite how tired my eyes were, so I lay there too tired to read and too awake to sleep. I reached for my phone to check the time, and saw a message notification. That’s odd, I thought. I’d checked it before going to bed only a few hours ago, and my friends rarely texted me late. The only person who ever did was Kay, so I was surprised to see that Caleb had sent me a message.

Hi Lyss, having trouble sleeping and thought I’d message you. Hope you picked your brother up alright and that everything’s ok. I remember what being met at the airport feels like. Can’t wait to see you after work on Monday. Miss you. C xxx

“What a sweetheart,” I said aloud. Typing back a message to say that I was similarly plagued by insomnia gremlins, though I left out Luke’s demons, and described succinctly the pickup and reunion. I added that Monday didn’t seem soon enough, and  then switched off the light and tried to sleep. Four and five o’clock circled by before sleep’s arms reached up for me, making me a total, hideous, caveman wreck in the morning.

I heard Luke’s heavy tread to the shower sometime around seven, and I turned over and slipped back into unconsciousness. I had another message on my phone by the time I surfaced properly at around half nine, feeling like a submarine trying to rise through a swamp. Caleb, true to gentlemanly form, had replied to my message. His response time was getting much better, I mused to myself with a smile as I opened it, thinking of the days-long gulf of silence I’d endured at the start of our relationship.

You sent that pretty late – hope you managed to sleep in the end. Enjoy your day with Luke. See you tomorrow. Xxx

Got a few hours in, I replied. I’ve looked and felt better though… think the last time I felt this rough was after one of Emily’s infamous parties, and I don’t even have the excuse of alcohol this time. I considered whether sending a message to my blind boyfriend about how terrible I looked was really a good idea, but an obnoxiously strong sense of honesty runs through me, so I figured I’d send it. I did add a final chunk to my message to reassure him that I wouldn’t look like the backside of an orangutan next time I saw him, though I didn’t use quite that phrase.

Good thing about being blind is you always look gorgeous to me, he replied almost instantly.

Charmer, I pinged back, adding a quick cheeky-faced emoticon for extra impact. Did his software translate that, or did it just read ‘semicolon capital P’ to him? I giggled at that thought, and then felt a bit guilty. It had to be tough, relying on a computerised voice to read out texts from your girlfriend to you, but I guessed he’d got used to it after four years.

I thought back four years and remembered a very immature young woman, working as a sales assistant in a big jewellery chain, pushing overpriced, poorly-made sparkly things on people who didn’t know better. I had been thinner then, for sure, and Emily and I had done a heck of a lot of partying on our nights off, but that hadn’t been me. I’d taken a while to settle into my skin, or at least the skin I was currently in. I was pretty comfortable with myself now. Myself, and my extra few pounds… I rolled over onto my side and felt a small roll touching another on the curve at my waist. I knew I went in at the waist, but to have bits touching was unnerving. Luke was right: I needed to hit the gym, and stat, before my blind boyfriend ran his hands over my figure properly, in a bedroom situation, and discovered he was actually sleeping with Jabba the Hutt or something…

It’s maybe not that bad, I said to myself as I blinked and moved my body again, taking proper stock of the situation. Still, could do with a few treadmill sessions… I groaned, thinking of the boredom and pain of the gym, and then of Luke’s truly fantastic physique. No one would believe we were really twins at first glance…

“Lyss?” Luke’s voice yelled up the stairs. “Are you ever coming down?”

I returned fire with something equally loud but utterly unintelligible.

“Or do I have to come up there and tickle you?” he added, the first stair creaking as he put his weight on it.

God, please no, I thought, remembering a particularly brutal tickling he’d given me. We'd been thirteen and I wouldn’t get up for school. To get into mum’s good books, he’d been the hound sent to flush me out of my burrow. At least I’d got a good kick in that had coloured his brow purple for a week. I grinned at the thought, then imagined taking him on now. His role may have been to save lives rather than specifically take them, but I wouldn’t want to cross him… “I’m coming…” I mumbled.

The doorknob rattled.

I freaked like it was a zombie apocalypse movie and there were hordes of decaying, brain-hungry undead bashing at my door. “No!” I screamed. “No, please, I’m coming! Don’t be horrible!”

The laugh that roared from the other side of the door made my cheeks sting with embarrassed outrage and alarm. “Well, here I was, being the nice brother,” he said in that tone of voice that parents use sometimes. “Bringing you a cup of tea and breakfast in bed… I wasn’t going to tickle you…”

“Oh in that case,” I chirped, pushing my hair back. “And on those terms, and those terms only, you may enter.”

Wearing the ugliest, baggiest sweat pants I’d ever seen, and a t-shirt with rips under the armpits, my brother poked his head round the door, carrying a tray in one hand like a waiter. The contrast between hobo fashion and sommelier behaviour was hilarious and I let out a giggle. On the tray was a steaming bowl of crispy bacon and scrambled egg, with a layer of black pepper thick enough to tarmac a road with – just the way I like my eggs – and a humungous mug of earl grey tea. He smiled kindly and said, “Since you put up with my shit last night, I figured you deserved breakfast in bed…”

“You’re my hero,” I smiled, pushing a pillow up against the bedhead and flopping into it. “And yeah, I feel rough…”

His smile flickered and he looked sad. “I’m not always like that,” he said earnestly. “It’s just the transition, you know?”

I nodded. “I know. You said that last time you were home.” Only last time he’d been home, he’d screamed for a week.

“What say you eat that up and then we go to the park and I pelt you with snowballs until you’re blue in the face?”

I blinked, unimpressed, and shovelled egg into my mouth without replying.

He laughed again. “Love you, sis,” he said. “Don’t ever change.” And with that he stood up and left me to my lonely eggs and bacon.

To my great delight, Luke didn’t drag me out of the house or pelt me with snowballs that day. In fact, he played some new car/football mashup game on Kit’s computer most of the day, while I attempted to make a chain mail type necklace that someone had contacted me about and requested through my site. Eventually I got the hang of it and stopped pinging tiny jump rings across the room every time I tried to loop one through another. How blacksmiths in the days of yore had woven and riveted whole shirts out of steel – about a billion times harder than sterling silver – I had no idea, and didn’t want to contemplate. One soldered necklace in precious metal was enough for me, and I gladly put the thing in its little presentation box and stuffed it in a Jiffy bag to post on Monday.

Sometime in the afternoon, just as the snow began to fall again in big flakes like cherry blossom, my phone went. The tone indicated an incoming call rather than a message, so I guessed it wasn’t Caleb. After darting across the room, stubbing my toe on a table leg, I saw Emily’s name on the screen and contemplated leaving it, not really having the energy or the wit to invent a reason why I couldn’t go round for another boozy dinner with her and her long-time partner, Roger. “Oh fuck it,” I said, picking it up and answering with a bright, “Emily, hi! How are you?”

“Big news, babe, big news,” she practically howled at me.

“What?” Promotion? I wondered vaguely.

Nope. “Roger proposed!”

My mind wheeled. I mean, they’d been together since forever – well, five years, but using my statistics as a reference, that might as well have been forever – and Roger had never struck me as the married-with-two-kids-a-dog-and-a-white-picket-fence kind of guy… All that flashed across my mind as I found myself squealing, “Oh my gosh! Congratulations! I’m so happy for you! I didn’t see that coming, did you?” I sank down onto the sofa and nursed my throbbing toe.

“No, not at all!” she giggled. “He’s literally just proposed!”

“What? Where are you?”

“Roger’s just gone to phone his parents,” she said. “He took me for lunch at Sakura, you know, that amazing Japanese restaurant down near the theatre? And we had, like, the most incredible meal. The whole time I was wondering what it was all about – I mean, we often go out for a meal, but not at lunchtime! So then when we were done, he took me out into the garden, you know where that fountain is? And we stood beside it and then he got down on one knee in the snow and proposed!” she finished with the giggle of a small girl told that that shiny white pony really was hers.

“Very romantic,” was all I could find to say. Injected with a bit of enthusiasm, it almost passed for sincere. Emily continued to rabbit on about the event until Roger returned, and she left me with the promise of an engagement party somewhere equally amazing in town in the near future.

“It’s not that I’m not happy for her,” I told Luke later over dinner, “It’s just that… well…”

“Whop?” he asked, his mouth full of spicy stir fry. He swallowed the mass of noodle, pepper and chilli in one fell swoop and continued. “You’re not getting all territorial over her, are you?”

That surprised me. “No! At least, I don’t think so. No what bugs me is that it’s so out of the blue…”

“Maybe all your talk about being so in love with Caleb gave Roger the kick in the nuts that he needed,” Kit suggested playfully.

“What, budding romance made him all soppy?” I asked sarcastically. “Come on…”

Luke grinned and shovelled more food into his face as he said, “Yeah, or made him realise that if he didn’t put a ring on it he might lose it?” I say ‘shovelled’, but ‘bulldozed’ or even ‘JCB digger-ed’ might be more appropriate for the volume of matter he somehow lifted from his plate and dumped in his mouth. It was astonishing. The Army can make you a gentleman and a complete pig at the same time, I thought with a smile.

I raised a sly eyebrow. “Did you just make a Beyoncé reference?”

He parried with an eyebrow of his own, and an accompanying smirk, but said nothing, only troughing down the rest of his stir fry like he’d not eaten in weeks. Finally, after clearing out the wok of any remaining vegetable or noodle matter, he sat back in his chair and put his hands on his belly. “Phew, Kit, that was spectacular. I’ll have to do a 10k tomorrow morning just to shake it down!” That idea sparked a second in his mind, and he turned on me like a wolf, putting his hands on the table and staring me down. “How’s about we drag lil sis on a route march at 5am…”

“How about you get chronic heartburn tonight,” I countered, standing up and beginning to clear. He dug me in the ribs as I passed him and I yelped, the plate slipping from my hand and crashing onto the floor, the cutlery skittering away amid the ragged ceramic shards. “Luke!” I grumbled loudly, feeling a smarting on my toe. “Now look what you’ve done!” I had a small cut on my foot which was beginning to ooze blood slowly.

He made the classic ‘Wallace and Gromit’ guilty grin, cowered and then stood up and put his hands on his hips, Superman style, chest bulging, and said, “Fear not! I have been trained for just such an event!”

Taking the remaining plate from my hands and setting it down on the table again, he bent forward and before I knew what had happened he had yanked me off the ground and thrown me over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift. “Luke! What the fuck, put me down!” I yelped a he carried me out the kitchen and along the corridor towards the front door and the staircase.

“Stop shifting, madam!” he said, still using his Superman voice. “You’re making this heroic act much more difficult by throwing your weight around like a sumo wrestler. Please, keep your hands and legs inside the ride at all times…”

“Seriously,” I warned. I hated being picked up. Maybe it was a weight thing, maybe it was a control thing, but whatever the reason, it panicked me.

“Alright, alright,” he said, stooping down and dumping me on the stairs like a sack of flour. His voice became softer and more gentle as he said, “I’ll go get you a plaster, just… try not to bleed out in the hall, or we’ll have the CSI teams round here asking questions, and they always suspect the military guy first…”

That cut throbbed all the way through work the next day. It was literally the tiniest cut ever, but the impact of the plate had made it bruise too, and to add insult to injury, my shoes, my beloved boots, were disintegrating as well, so I had wet feet by the time I got to work.

Lachlann was there, already looking smarmy, and I was reminded again of myself four years ago, selling jewellery, though Julie’s stuff was far better than the chain I’d worked for. He flashed me a grin from the other side of the empty shop and said, “Morning, how was your weekend?”

“Pretty good – my brother came back from Afghanistan for two weeks leave, so he’ll be here for Christmas which is fantastic!”

“Pretty good indeed!” he smiled. “What’s on the cards for today then? What are the elves up to?”

“The elf – singular, please note – will be making engagement rings.” The thought reminded me of Emily’s engagement, and the upcoming party, but I tried not to let my good mood flicker. “With a side of chain polishing just for funsies…”

“Better than my day I suspect,” he pouted, and I felt kind of sorry for him. “The shop assistant role isn’t all glamour, is it?”

“I know from experience that it isn’t,” I smiled, disappearing into the back and leaving him to prepare the shop for the day.

Some while later, as I took a white gold forged shank out of the pickle where it had been sitting to clean off the oxides and soldering crap, I heard footsteps coming to the back and saw Lachlann come round the corner with a massive mug of tea. “You want? I didn’t know if you took sugar, so I didn’t put any in…”

I was genuinely surprised by this gesture, and nearly dropped the ring back into the warm acidic bath. “Wow, thank you,” I breathed. “That’s actually just what I needed.”

“No problem,” he smiled, and he set the mug down and left.

Lachlann O’Brien was apparently capable of small acts of kindness. My world had just been turned upside down.

Nothing much else happened that day. I didn’t lose any of the tiny diamonds I was setting (boy, would that have ground production to a halt); I didn’t melt anything unintentionally (endlessly infuriating), and I ended at 4.55pm with a small pile of completed objects on my bench (whoop!), and a definite feeling of satisfaction.

Caleb and I had picked the pub where we’d gone for our first date as a meet up point, and I hurried through the slushy snow, dragging my coat further up around my ears. It was busy inside for a Monday evening, people laughing, glasses chinking, chairs scraping. I wondered if he’d like or loath the noise as I looked around for him. I didn’t see him immediately, and when I approached the bar, I saw that it was the same guy on as before. Tony came over to my end of the bar and smiled, leaning over the counter at me and pointing to the corner where I saw Caleb with a pint, iPhone in hand, earbud in one ear. “What can I get you, love?” he asked while I smiled to myself at the sight of my boyfriend sitting quietly at a table.

“Erm…” I had a look along the draught ales, recognised none of them, picked the one with the prettiest label, paid, and then crossed the room as quietly and subtly as I could without spilling my pint. I drew back the spare chair at his table without saying a word, and sat down.

He frowned, taking the earbud from his ear and cocking his head towards me, listening.

He’d been about to speak, maybe to tell me that that chair was needed. “Hi stranger,” I smiled, not wanting to torture him or make him uncomfortable.

He smiled back, relaxing, exhaling in visible relief, and said, “Hi. How was w-work?” and held out his hand to me over the table, palms upwards, inviting me to rest mine in his.

I did so as I replied, “Yeah, ok. Nothing too exciting - I didn't blow anything up or melt anything, or cut any fingers off, which I'm counting as a plus. How was your day?”

His smile dazzled me for a moment. “Wr-wrote an article for a new bit of software,” he said, “Nothing too exciting either.” I tried to stifle a yawn, but couldn’t, and he squeezed my fingers in his. “Still tired?” he asked, concerned.

His speech was really good I noted, but said nothing about it in case I broke the spell. “Yeah. Luke had a bad night on Saturday, you know how it can be… woke me up at about half three, so I was ragged yesterday. Bit better last night, but I find early mornings hard anyway, so getting up for work didn’t help… Almost feel like I didn’t have a weekend!” I paused. “That sounds really harsh, doesn’t it. I’m sorry, I’m not a heartless bitch really, I promise.”

He laughed his smooth laugh and began to run his fingers over my knuckles. “No,” he said simply, his voice low, even and hoarse. I couldn’t read him at all in that moment, with his glasses firmly stuck over the bridge of his nose, his expression soft but emotionless, his hands just gently playing with mine.

“Caleb?” I eventually had to prompt him.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I got a bit… lost…”

“Lost?”

He laughed and gripped my hands tightly suddenly, almost like we were an old couple, not two people who’d only been going out for a month or so. “Yeah. You know how I said things are about sensations for me these days?”

“Yeah…” I said slowly.

He ran his thumb over an old scar on my forefinger and that enigmatic smile bloomed to a full, if lopsided, grin. “You’re going to l-l-laugh at me,” he said and my stomach flipped as he stuttered on his words.

“I get the feeling I’m not,” I smiled, glad that things were easing up.

“Alr-right,” he all but sighed. “Well, I g-got a bit l-lost here…” and he ran his whole palm in an explorative gesture over my hand. “I’m sorry…”

I did laugh, and he did chide me bashfully for it.

“So,” he said, and I thought he was changing the subject. Turns out he was just returning to it. “How is it having y-your brother back?” he smiled once the blush had settled.

“It's amazing,” I said fondly. “I’d love you to meet him. He’s much more… enthusiastic… than I am though. Louder, maybe even brasher… but he’s got a heart of gold.”

“He must have, to be an Army m-medic,” he smiled. “Only the very best people become Army medics.” 

The genuine admiration in his voice took me by surprise until I remembered that it had been an Army medic who'd saved his life. “I don’t know,” I grinned. “He did try quite hard to pump me for info about you about your military days, but I had to tell him you hadn’t said much to me about it, and I wasn’t about to ask.”

“Y-you know you c-can though, right?” he said with a swift openness that floored me.

“I…” I faltered, my own cheeks flushing pink this time. “I just figured it… you know…”

“No,” he said, “It’s not taboo. It’s painful, but y-you c-can ask me anything y-you w-want to know.”

“Ok,” I said slowly. “What was your regiment?” I asked, starting with the big picture.

“1st Battalion Rifles,” he said, proudly, I noted.

“I think I just melted,” I said, fanning a hand in front of my face. “You’re a chosen man! My brother and I were brought up on the Sharpe books, and when Sean Bean was in that TV series… ok, I’ll stop now. I’m sorry.”

He was laughing fondly at me, leaning back in his chair, looking relaxed and happy. “I’m gl-glad you appr-r-r…approve,” he struggled a little but fought through the word.

“Did you enjoy it?” I found myself asking.

He took longer to reply, but the cheeky glint in his expression said it all. “Immensely,” he said. “The training was brutal, but we also got to w-work with Royal Marines on operations wh-when we g-got to Afghanistan… Also Bastion was gr-great. It was slap-bang in the middle of hell, but it w-was amazing. So many people from different c-c-countries… Americans, Estonians, Dutch, y-you name it… I c-can still hear all the Chinooks, Apaches, Blackhawks and Lynx c-coming and g-g-going, even in my sl-sleep…” He smiled, and I sensed that inside he was pulling back from the topic. "L-let me ask y-you something," he finished, still playing with my hands like you'd stroke a kitten sleeping in your lap or something.

"Sure..."

"What's it l-like on your side of the equation?"

"What do you mean? I asked, not quite fully understanding him.

He licked his lips and said, "I mean, wh-what's it r-really l-like w-waiting on this side knowing that someone that important is in danger?"

My heart plummeted at the reminder of the feeling. "Honestly? It's awful. I hate it. I mean - I'm almost sinfully proud of what he does, and he loves it - thrives on it - so I can't complain from that side of it, but... well... let’s say that I must be the only person on the planet who’s relieved when an out-of-the-blue phone call that turns out to be a double glazing sales pitch..."

Caleb caught my meaning and smiled sadly. He reached for his beer, his hand smoothly skimming the surface of the table like an air hockey puck in slow motion until he found it. Drawing deeply from it, he said, "Deep down most of us felt guilty for putting you lot through all that, you kn-know that, don't you?"

I sighed. "Yeah." My tone was flat.

"Doesn't help though, does it. I'm sorry..."

"What really doesn't help is knowing that 25% of the battalion Luke is attached to come back from Afghan on a stretcher or in a box. That's what doesn't help." A silence hung between us for quite a long time, so much so that I suddenly felt compelled to add, "This is cheerful..."

He laughed loudly, like someone farted at a funeral, and said, "You st-started it, miss..."

I sipped my drink, and commented on the fact that my randomly-selected ale had turned out ok.

"Wh-which one did the fates choose for you then?"

I got a smile for my choice and tried to remember how to form words after I'd seen it. "I had feared it'd be a boring brown bitter... It's actually very nice. You want a try it?" I asked.

"Mmm, please," he said, opening his hand very slightly, ready to take the glass but not eagerly grabbing it off me. "Try mine," he added as an afterthought.

The simple act of swapping beers relaxed us both and we moved naturally onto other topics. After about an hour, when discussing plans for the following week, just before Christmas, I mentioned Emily’s engagement and the party, gauging his reaction when I brought it up, but he seemed ambivalent to it. Mention rings, engagements or marriage, even in the loosest of contexts, to many men, and they get jumpier than a cold-turkey smoker three days in. He seemed more concerned that I wasn't especially excited for her, or about her upcoming party.

"Why not?" he asked when I said I didn't want to go. "I thought you said she w-was your oldest friend?"

"She is... And she and I used to do that kind of thing all the time -"

"- what, get engaged?" he interjected with a half-joke.

"No, party, drink... It's just that that was then, you know? It's been a long time since that was me, and I like who I am now, for the most part..."

"So do I," he interrupted again, in a low, even voice. "It's only one evening though..."

"It's next Friday," I said grimly.

"Y-you'll have the whole w-w-w-w..." suddenly he ground to a halt and blushed delicately. "Excuse me, the whole w-weekend to re-re-recover before Chr-Chr-Ch-Chr…. ugh excuse me, Chr-Christmas Eve..."

I sighed. "Thank God it’s always a low key event in the Bowmore household," I said, feeling like the party-pooping Grinch from a month ago after that house party, old lady tendencies surfacing again.

"Really? Christmas - there, said it no problem this time - is always a big deal with us St-Starlings... Big meal, big tree, big load of presents for everyone..."

“Speaking of presents,” I said coyly. “Is there anything you’ve been wanting, or that you particularly like? I know we’ve not been seeing each other all that long, and I’m still getting to know you, but I want to get you a little something…”

He hitched yet another spectacular half-smile, which knocked me for six for a few moments. “Well, I don’t w-want y-you spending too much money on me – that’s alw-w-ways made me uncomfortable…”

“What, people spending lots on you?” I didn’t feel the least bit guilty if people chose to spend money on me. Did that make me a bad person, or Caleb a saint? Fuck it, he already looked like an angel to me, why not canonise him now too?

Caleb’s chocolatey laugh rippled above the clatter and noise in the pub. “Yeah…” he smiled humbly and looked embarrassed. “I don’t know. What about you? What would you l-like if someone w-were to g-get you something?”

“Something meaningful,” I said immediately. “It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it means something to the giver or the receiver.”

His smile flashed into a broad, white grin, and I knew that what I’d said had been horribly cheesy. I cringed and said so. “Not at all,” he reassured me, “But it does m-make finding you something impossible…”

“Then just give me you,” I said.

“What, wr-wrapped up in a r-ribbon,” he said with surprising forwardness.

I reached for his free hand with my spare one and giggled, “In just a ribbon…”

He threw his head back and laughed before finishing the dregs of his beer and asking how much I had left.

“Why, you eyeing up my drink now?” I asked, unthinkingly using that expression. I froze, not knowing whether to apologise or not.

His smile flickered ever so slightly at the corners, but he held it, valiantly protecting my feelings. “No,” he said softly. “I just w-wondered if y-you w-wanted to g-g-g-g… excuse me, to g-g-get out of here. I didn’t w-want to r-rush you though. Since I c-can’t see you, I k-kind of had to ask…”

“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling my palms beginning to sweat nervously. Seriously, it was like an anime where a massive drop of sweat suddenly bursts forth from the embarrassed character. My hands were anime hands. I became acutely aware that I was definitely becoming ‘tree-frog’ again and wanted to pull back so that he wouldn’t have to feel my clammy hands.

His handsome face was reassuring, but it didn’t make me feel any less chagrined. “It’s ok,” he said softly. “I have to r-r-remember that y-you’re new to this…”

“To what, dating?” I blathered with innocent quickness. “I’m not new to that, per se, but still, you don’t have to remind me of that…”

“No,” he laughed, “Well, maybe to disabled dating anyway.”

Disabled. The word sounded strange to my ears, out of place, almost out of context. Caleb wasn’t disabled… he was just… Caleb… Then I looked at the few scars which flecked his face, splaying out from under his dark glasses, and turned my eyes to the grip of the handle of his black cane which hung off the edge of the table, and then I thought of the white cane which was folded up quietly and stowed in his jacket pocket, hanging on the back of his chair. Yes, Alyssa, Caleb is disabled. I had no idea what that would mean for me in the future, and then, as I felt his hands begin to slide back from mine, I realised I didn’t care. This man was mine. I grabbed at him, almost panicky, and said, “And you’re very patient with the rookie,” I smiled. “Thank you.”

He dipped his head and chuckled. “So, how is the beer drinking going?”

“Help me out?” I said, pushing the glass into his hand. “There’s not much left, but I don’t really want any more.”

Celeb lifted the big pint glass to his lips and carefully drained the remnants, and then said, “Fancy w-walking home instead of taking the bus? It’s not that far, and…” he flipped the dial of his watch up and read the time on the hands with his fingertip, “It’s only half seven…”

Was he up to that? Oh fucking hell, Alyssa, he’s twenty nine, and has been disabled – yes, disabled, Alyssa – for four years now. He knows how far it is. “Love to,” I said quietly, my cheeks glowing a brilliant rose colour in utter shame at my thoughts. “I didn’t realise we’d been here that long!”

He pushed his chair back and used the tabletop to help him to reach verticality. He winced and sucked his breath in through his teeth, knuckles blanching as he gripped the surface, but otherwise hid his pain from me. With a deft flick of his leg, the brace’s knee mechanism caught and locked – yes, I thought, Alyssa’s done her homework, and knows vaguely how orthotic braces work now. “You g-going to offer me a l-lift out of here then?” he asked good-naturedly as he straightened up properly and began to make his way around to my side of the table. He really hobbled for a few paces as he brushed the back of his fingers along the rim of the tabletop, feeling his way round to my side and using the edge to guide him. “Oh, I’ve really seized up…” he muttered, digging his fist into the hip abductor on the outside of his pelvis for a moment.

“Sure, though you might want to get your white cane out," I said. I tried not to make a big deal of his 'seizing up' comment, and ended up ignoring it all together by default. "There are a lot of chairs, and people and stuff... And I've still got my 'L' plates on when it comes to guiding..."

He chuckled good-naturedly, released his hip, and ran his fingers up my arm, squeezing me once between his fingers. "Well it's either you or the white stick, I'm afraid. C-can’t have both," he grinned. "If I’m holding you, I need my other hand for his one..." he briefly held up the black cane, rocking slightly as his damaged leg took more of his weight while the cane was ‘off-duty’ in the air.

"I'll just have to rise to the occasion then," I said spiritedly, trying to ignite some confidence, and stepped forward. In all my apprehension about guiding someone, I'd forgotten sheer pleasure of it.

"Night you two," Tony called from behind the bar as we passed.

"See you, Tony," Caleb grinned, taking his hand unexpectedly off my arm and raising it in a gesture of farewell. Because I'd not anticipated the break in contact, I'd gone on a step or two, so he couldn't find me again with ease, and fumbled, looking unsure, until I nudged his hand with my elbow and he latched onto it like an electromagnet at a scrap yard.

I led him without fault to the doorway, but forgot about the tiny, tiny step, where the welcome mat was anchored to the wooden boards of the pub floor. It was maybe only a centimetre high, so my eyes alerted my legs to it without my brain ever knowing they’d done so, but Caleb didn’t have eyes to do that for him. I was supposed to be doing that for him, and he caught his bad leg on that tiny step and lurched forwards. His fingers closed painfully tight on my upper arm while he steadied himself.

He was laughing softly in my ear when I turned to look at him. “I can feel the heat of that blush from here,” he chuckled.

“I’m sorry…”

“You’re supposed to be my eyes,” he said in a mock-angry tone that just made me grin gratefully.

“Well, I didn’t see it either, if that makes you feel any better,” I said sheepishly.

His laugh boomed for a moment, and then he leaned close to my ear and said in a low, whispering voice that was gravelly and almost harsh, “Just get me outside so that I can k-kiss you without m-making more of a spectacle out of myself in front of our friendly audience behind us…”

“Yes sir,” I replied in a stage whisper. “Two steps down,” I said once we’d made it through the pub’s door and were about to get onto the street.

His fingers clenched again around the muscles of my upper arm and he said, “Hang on.” He walked ever so slightly behind me when he held my arm, so I turned my head over my shoulder to see him better, thinking that something was wrong, but at that moment he slid his hand up my arm and cradled the back of my head, drawing me in for a kiss.

He fairly crushed his lips against mine, that urgency and fire still coming as a surprise to me, out of this calm, dignified, self-controlled man. I loved that side of him; that impulsive, energetic, self-assured man, and it was when he kissed me that I saw the captain he had been.

When he broke the kiss, he grinned roguishly and released me gently. He fished his white cane out of his left pocket and began to unfold all the sections, tapping it as usual to make sure it was all aligned. I walked slowly down the steps, enjoying getting to watch him gauge the depth with his cane, impressed at the deft skill he used to work out his surroundings. Once satisfied that he wasn't going to go tumbling off into oblivion, he stepped down with his left leg and hauled his stiff right leg down afterwards, swinging the whole leg from the hip. It was kind of hypnotic watching him move. 

Though our walk home was slow, perhaps made slower by the slushy pavement, it confirmed to me that I had been entirely naive about just what Caleb was capable of, and I felt awful for patronising him with my ignorance.   

He continued to use his cane, and I sensed that he felt more secure that way, which disappointed me, but he was right: I was seriously new to this. I knew I shouldn’t feel personal offence – hadn’t he told me himself that he hated the feeling of being led anyway? – but somehow I resented that there was something that I could do for him that he wouldn’t let me, wouldn’t trust me to do, though whether it was his pride or his fear that kept him back, I didn't know. 

“Y-you’ve gone awfully qu-quiet,” he commented, about half way back to his. “Was it something I stuttered?”

Ah, Caleb, self-effacing as ever. I sighed a smile and scooped my arm briefly through his left in a kind of awkward, arms-only cuddle, and then let him go. “No, it’s nothing to do with anything you’ve said or done…” I sighed again. “I was just getting thinky…”

“Thinky…” he said seriously, halting his rolling walk, “Uh-oh, that doesn’t sound good. Pl-please don’t get thinky…” adding, with his ear facing me more than anything else, he said, “Y-you might start to r-realise that your boyfriend’s a st-stuttering g-gimp, and then –”

“Stop it,” I said, patting him affectionately on the chest in a mock-smack. “Seriously, don’t.”

“What?” he asked, seeming confused that his joke hadn’t gone down too well. “Too close to the mark?” he added softly.

“No, stop it,” I said. “You always seem to think I’m suddenly going to turn round and run when I realise that you’re…” I cursed myself for choking on the word.

He dipped his head and said conspiratorially, “You can say it, you know… it’s ok…”

I sighed and turned away. I couldn't bare to look at him.“That’s not the issue here,” I said glumly. “It’s almost hurtful the way you just assume that your being disabled is somehow suddenly going to dawn on me and I’m then going to bolt… I’m not, but if you keep metaphorically poking at me like that, I might…”

“Please,” he said, reaching for where I had been just before I’d taken a step away. His hand clutched at empty air and he returned it nervously to the grip of his white cane. “Please, I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s a defence m-mechanism of mine. I sh-shouldn’t joke l-like that, and I do tr-trust you, it’s just… kind of… miraculous that you w-want this, that’s all.”

“But you’re gorgeous,” I said, knowing I was gushing but unable to stop myself. “And you’re a total sweetheart, and also a serious badass as well... How could anyone not love you?”

What started out as a little embarrassed chuckle slipped rapidly into a big, full-bellied laugh, and he held out his whole arm, cane and all, and said, “C-come here…”

I knew it was a request, and not a command, and I stepped into his hug and bopped him lightly on the nose with the tip of my finger. He jumped slightly at the unexpected gesture. “No more poking fun at the newbie, ok?” I said with an exaggerated pout.

Still laughing, he said, “Pr-promise.” He tugged me right close to him for a moment and then released me, saying, “Come on, we’ll fr-freeze to death if we stand here much l-longer. C-come back to mine?”

I was beginning to learn that his clipped questions were really just the précis versions of the full thing; that for instance, his question ‘come back to mine?’ was in fact a stutterer's shorthand for ‘would you like to come back to mine for a while, or would you rather head home because you’re tired and have to get up early work tomorrow?’. “Love to,” I said.

“We’ll have to be qu-quiet, because Amy will pr-probably be in bed soon.”

“I can be quiet,” I said in a way that carried way more meaning than I’d intended, but I left it there while he grinned wolfishly and also said nothing.

There was an overturned dustbin lying in the snow, blocking most of the path ahead, and when I halted and said so, he smiled his thanks and then said with a laugh that carried the weight of a hundred sentences, “Help me r-round it?” he carried on chuckling as he added, "Think of it as a training mission, newbie..."

Without saying anything, I touched his hand softly with the back of mine and almost shivered when he ran his hand slowly up my arm with a sensuousness that blurred the lines from accepting help into giving something considerably sexier. “I would ask you back to mine,” I said, “But with two boys in the house, I’d never live it down…”

Caleb smirked, and added, “And I’m afraid I c-can’t be qu-quite that spontaneous any more anyway…”

“Oh?” I asked, leading him carefully around the obstacle. We were walking straight again in no time, but to my pleasant surprise, he didn’t break the contact with me. There’s just no telling with this guy, I thought.

I thought I heard him sigh, and as I turned my chin back slightly, I saw the billowing mist of breath in the cold night air. “Yeah,” he said emotionlessly. “The meds I have to take and stuff are all at home, so…”

“I see,” I said. “Yours it is then.”

“I’m sorry you have to keep coming over to mine,” he said miserably. “Can’t be too convenient…”

“Yeah," I grinned sarcastically. "Yeah, the journey is just awful. I mean, I have to take a bus to the station, and then a train to the airport... It's just so far..." He grinned and tapped me playfully on the back of the head without breaking stride. 

I’ve always been kind of private anyway, so going round to his suited me just fine. I remembered that uncomfortable, jarring feeling of having a boyfriend sitting in a chair that wasn’t his to sit in, or flopping down casually – which felt kind of disrespectful almost – all over your freshly-made bed… petty things, but they’d always got on my nerves. Better for me that I was the one doing that at someone else’s house, because other people never seemed to mind. Just me.

“I guess it’s not so bad then,” he grinned, stroking my arm quickly with his thumb, and making me shudder again. “You c-cold?” he asked innocently.

“Mmph,” was all I had to say.

“Wh-where are we, anyway?” he asked. “I’ve k-kind of got distracted…”

“We’re on the corner of the road where we first met.”

“That’s about wh-where I’d have g-guessed we were…” he said. “That’s g-good.”

Suddenly, as we passed the spot where I'd first found him, an idea flashed into my head about something I could make him for Christmas. “What was the first thing you thought when we met?” I asked.

He laughed loudly again, too loudly for the quiet frosty street, and he almost had to stop walking for a moment.

“What?”

“You don’t really w-want to know…” he chuckled. “It’s not all that polite…”

“Seriously?” I quizzed.

He was still laughing as he said, “If y-you r-really w-want to know, I thought ‘Oh shit, no…’ wh-when I heard your voice…”

Then I laughed too. “What? That's so random! Why?”

His smile was beautiful and I wanted to do everything in my power to make it stay there as he said, “C-come on, think about it… Bl-blind, cr-crippled, ex-Army c-captain, lying on the floor, having been beaten up… all he w-wants to do is sl-slink home unnoticed, but then he hears these sexy heels m-marching up to him, and this soft voice that asks, 'Can I help?'” he paused to huff another laugh. “So yeah, the first thing I thought was, ‘oh shit, no…’. Why d'you ask?"

I made the noise that accompanies the sly tapping of one's nose with a secret and said loftily, "Oh, no reason..."

"Lyssa..." he said sternly. "Wh-what are you pl-plotting?"

"Christmas present," I said flatly. "And that's all you're getting from me, Caleb Starling."

He laughed and as we carried on our way, I could see the cogs going as he tried to figure out what I had in mind. Keep guessing, Captain, keep guessing, I smiled to myself.

It had taken us nearly an hour to walk a distance that I could cover at a fast walk in thirty minutes, and his limp was more pronounced by the time we were walking through the front door into the warmth of his house. To my surprise, I saw his Nan in a fluffy pink dressing gown just leaving the kitchen with a glass of water in her hand as we arrived. She didn’t seem in the lease bit embarrassed by being seen in her current state, and gave me a warm smile. “Alyssa!” she said. “I didn’t know I’d be seeing you today. How lovely! How are you?”

“I’m well, thank you,” I said, conscious to keep my voice down because of the sleeping Amy upstairs. I took my coat and boots off, leaving both by the door.

“Oh, you can put that coat on the pegs up there,” Jean said in a tone of voice that was definitely a command and not a request.

“Sure,” I peeped like a startled gosling.

Caleb chuckled, also hanging his coat and cane up together, but he kept his thoguhts to himself. “Is our pr-princess upstairs and asleep?” he asked Jean, limping forward and kissing her softly on the cheek in an affectionate greeting.

Quite how he’d honed in on her was a mystery to me, but I was learning that I shouldn’t be surprised any more.

“Yes,” Jean said. “She had a nasty cold when she came back from school, so I gave her some Calpol and sent her to bed. So don’t wake her up. I’ll have my hearing aids out, but you mustn’t wake sleeping beauty, alright?”

We both agreed with a nervous laugh, both, I think, feeling like teenagers again as she bade us a good night and took herself off to her room, saying she had a good book she wanted to get back to. It was so awkward having other people sharing a house with you, and I suddenly longed for the days before Kit had moved in with me, when I’d had the house to myself and could do what I liked. I sighed louder than I’d intended, and Caleb’s ear picked up the sound instantly.

He held out his hand behind him for me, and I slid mine into his, interlacing fingers. “You w-want anything? Gl-glass of w-wine or something?”

“I’m ok, actually,” I said, squeezing his fingers gently.

He seemed to detect an undercurrent of something else in my gesture, and he said, “Well, w-we c-could go in the l-living room for a bit, or w-we c-could go upstairs…”

I ran my thumb around the soft bundle of veins on the inside of his wrist and he actually let out a rasping breath.

“Upstairs then,” he smiled. 

He was forced to let go of me to climb the stairs successfully, and again I noticed the puff he gave when he reached the top, despite the fact that he deliberately turned away from me to hide it as I caught up with him. 

I loved the way he ran his hand along the corridor wall as he passed along it, fingertips just barely brushing the painted surface.

He passed through his bedroom door and lingered while I came in behind him. My bare feet were really quiet on the carpet and he listened keenly for my footfalls before closing the door with a soft click.

I lay back on his perfectly-made bed, stretching out with a sigh as the I felt the tension in my shoulders for the first time that evening. I rolled them with a grunt and, while he drew the curtains, he asked me what was wrong. “Just knotty from too much time at the jewellers’ bench… it wouldn’t be a problem if my posture were better…” I admitted.

“You want me to g-give them a rub?” he asked, his voice hoarse as he kept the volume down for the benefit of his sick sister next door. “I g-give a mean massage if I say so myself…”

“Oh yes please,” I fairly growled.

His answering smile was a thing of beauty, and Daphne du Maurier’s description of Maxim de Winter dropped into my mind. He belonged to a walled city of the fifteenth century, a city of narrow, cobbled streets, and thin spires… His face was arresting, sensitive, medieval in some strange inexplicable way, and I was reminded of a portrait seen in a gallery I had forgotten where, of a certain Gentleman Unknown. Could one but…put him in black, with lace at his throat and wrists, he would stare down at us in our new world from a long distant past – a past where men walked cloaked at night, and stood in the shadow of old doorways, a past of narrow stairways and dim dungeons, of shimmering rapier blades, of silent, exquisite courtesy…

“Lyss?” he murmured and I realised he was no longer by the door, but had stepped over to the bed, and was setting his cane down against the bedside table. “Did you hear me?”

“Hmm?” I asked, sounding startled as a dozing pupil in class. “What, I’m sorry… it was my turn to get distracted then.”

Caleb’s throaty chuckle made my eyes roll with pleasure, and he said, “I said it’ll w-work best if you take some cl-clothes off…”

“Only if you do,” I said playfully.

His confidence only faltered a little, and then, to my surprise, he removed his glasses, set them on the table and fairly ripped his shirt and jumper off over his head in one go. “Better?” he asked, his abs rippling in the dim light in the room.

“Infinitely.”

“Y-your turn,” he said, his chin bucking upwards slightly.

He listened with apparent pleasure to the sound of my top rustling off over my head, to the swish of my hair down my back, and he stepped closer to me, sitting down on the bed and reaching out for me. “Where are you?” he whispered.

I stood up, and he frowned as he felt my weight fleetingly leave the bed, but it soon melted into a new expression when he heard the buckle of my jeans go, and the soft flump as they hit the floor. I’d deliberately chosen the slinkiest, laciest set of underwear I owned – which wasn’t exactly Victoria’s Secret material or anything, but still, we were a long way from Bridget Jones territory…

I climbed back onto the bed, feeling horribly self-conscious as I lay on my front, ankles crossed protectively. His hand slid over the covers and my confidence returned as I found that I very much liked the smile he gave when he discovered just where he’d made contact with my body. He politely, but with underlying urgency, circled my ass with the flat of his palm, letting out a soft groan as he ran over the intricacies of the lace design. “Colour?” he asked, savouring the soft satin around the lace.

“Dark teal,” I mumbled, “With black lace. Matching bra.”

Pressing down into my spine, he worked his hand up my back and found the back of my bra strap. His hand hitched there, as if he were contemplating unhooking it, but he moved on and dug an exploratory thumb into my shoulder blade. “You are a mess,” he smiled.

“Mmmhmmm…” I said from somewhere in the pillows.

He laughed, and then to my horror, withdrew his touch and stood. When I grumbled my protest with an incoherent noise, he chuckled. “I’m coming back,” he reassured me, and I peered out from behind my arm, trying not to move too much because my shoulder suddenly felt like it was going to dislocate itself if I moved any more. To my delighted surprise, I saw that he was undoing the belt on his dark jeans too, and had slipped them off to reveal his lower body, one leg encased in the brace. 

The only light was the street lights outside, and they cast a soft, golden glow through the pulled curtains. His silhouette was one of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen, with the curves of his defined – positively sculpted – shoulders and upper arms melting into the straight, sinuous lines of his lean back and down to his hips which seemed surprisingly narrow compared to the width of his shoulders. Tight black boxers hugged his perfect ass, and the struts of the brace hugged his right leg tightly, securely. He had a long sock on under the brace this time, and he leaned back, sitting himself down with a soft grunt as he released the straps of the brace and drew it off his leg, letting it fall onto the floor with a clink and a clatter. Once the long sock was off, I could just see the withered areas of missing muscle on his leg, and once again felt the urge to run my hands over him. He picked his right leg up carefully in his hands and helped it up onto the bed, manoeuvring himself up afterwards so that he was lying next to me, and then he began to work my shoulders with one hand, while he reclined like a Parthenon statue, half propped up on his right arm.

As if his thoughts kept pace with mine, he said a little while later, “It’s probably easier for me to do it l-like this since I c-can’t kneel… if y-you wanted both hands, y-you’d have to sit up and lean on me…”

“I’m in heaven either way,” I mumbled. “So as long as you’re comfy, I’m happy.”

He smiled and said nothing, so I closed my eyes, concentrating on his touch as he worked the muscles loose, teasing out the knots. God he was good with his hands.

Inevitably, he eventually began to move those hands further and further down my back, and then when he reached the base of my spine, he slid under the satin and gently caressed my cheek. I let out a soft moan and he knew he had permission. His hand was at the back of my bra, and he had it undone in a flash. “Roll over,” he whispered, and I knew it wasn't a question. 

I obeyed and, heart thudding, let him lift my bra free of my body. He tossed it aside, and as his hand caressed my breasts roughly and with that same urgency I’d experienced in his kiss, I let out a gasp that was a little louder than I’d intended, but it made him smile too, so it wasn’t all bad. "Shh," he warned me softly, and I shivered as he pinched my hard nipple between his thumb and forefinger.

His hands were incredible, nothing quite like anything I’d ever experienced. “I love your touch,” I whispered as his fingertips danced over my thighs. I was so fucking wet too.

Any movement he made with his own body was careful, measured, controlled, and I savoured the privilege of watching him. Then I tore my eyes from his muscled chest and arms and looked down at his dark boxers and saw his erection tenting the material.

“I want you,” I found myself whispering.

He smiled again and leaned forward, close to me, arms tense and braced on either side of my body, and began to kiss and nip alternately at my collarbones while my body bucked with pleasure beneath him. I tried hard not to knock into him but he didn't make it easy for me

His soft breath hot on my skin, Caleb kissed my neck and my earlobes, which made me writhe with pleasure, before lifting his left leg over mine, using it to hold me still, clamping me between his legs like a vice. And that was when I felt his strength. I don’t know if his disability had distracted me from it, but until then I’d assumed his legs were weak. How wrong I had been, I thought as he gripped me, and I groaned again when I felt how hard he’d got. It was difficult not to notice as he ground his hips into mine. 

“I want you,” he said back, running his fingers through my hair and tugging almost painfully. He dipped low in a slightly collapsed press-up, arms taking the strain of his weight with ease. His right leg, his shattered knee and weak calf, were suddenly pressed into my own knee, driving my joint into a tender area of damage, and as a flash of pain crossed his face in a grimace, he growled in my ear, “I want you." 




To be continued.....

38 comments:

  1. OMIGOD that was awesome!!! Caleb is so freaking hot. LUke seems pretty hot too, and I love the way he is with his sister, but Caleb just wins my heart. Your writing is superb and I cant wait for more -- I hope the story picks up where you left off there........

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    1. Thank you so much. Glad you like Luke too.

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  2. My god ! Cant form coherent thought after that last paragraph but MY GOD I won't survive a week of waiting... An excellent chapter all around :-)

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    1. I'm sorry(?) Anonymous :P (blatantly not). Glad you liked it that much, and thank you for commenting.

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  3. Mmmmmmm that was mmmmm.... Caleb is HOT!!! Pls update soooooonn

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  4. Thank you for NOT letting us wait too long for the next chapter which was amazing!! Although the scenes with Caleb were great as usual, I liked the first part - Alyssa's interaction with Luke - even better! I think that every girl has dreamed at least once about having an older protective brother and your description of their domestic affairs was like this dream come true!! I can't wait what will happen when Luke and Caleb first meet!

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    1. I was really touched by your comment, Anonymous. I'm so happy you like the Luke-Alyssa time. They're twins, but he technically older than her and loves to protect her, and wind her up too...

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  5. That was so deliciously amazing... just wow.

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  6. Thank you Rose for such a perfect chapter. I have to admit I am really in love with Caleb and your story is really among the best ones I have read here....

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    1. Anonymous, I'm so happy that you said that - it's very generous of you! Glad you love Caleb too.

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  7. Wowzer. What a brilliant chapter. Love Caleb, love Luke, love your writing. Was ridiculously excited when I saw another chapter was up and it didn't disappoint. Please PLEASE don't make us wait too long for the continuation, and please PLEASE don't cut to the morning? Oh. And thank you :)

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    1. Mwin, would I? Would I tease you like that? (don't answer that...) All I can say is there were a lot of 'please PLEASE's in there, which may have influenced me either way... :D. See the value of commenting, people...

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  8. Oh. My. God.

    This was the best chapter ever. I loved meeting Luke, and the moments with Caleb were so amazingly perfect, I felt almost like I was there. They're such a great couple and I can't wait to see what happens next.

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    1. Chie, you've made me the happiest author in the world, again. I was worried that this chapter wouldn't follow nicely from the last one, and you (and the other commenters) have put those fears firmly away. I'm so happy I took you there...!!

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  9. Incredible! What more can I say? Yummier than a well prepared Christmas dinner . . .

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    1. Pepper, you're a hero. Hold fast for dessert then...

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  10. Wallace and gromit guilty smile---oh boy what a description. I know EXACTLY the smile you're talking about. Great chapter!

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    1. Yes! Mission accomplished - tiny details noted by readers. WIN! Also, thank you.

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  11. OooooOOOOooooh... After that last paragraph, don't make us wait too long. My goodness, I just loved this chapter too! You are a freakin' fantastic writer and I look forward to every new chapter you write. I'm so in love with Caleb! Do you think he will ever be comfortable enough to open his eyes around Alyssa? It seems that he has come so far and revealed so much to her, that this may be around the corner... Perhaps he will have a moment where he is so comfortable that he forgets about keeping his eyes shut, has them open and suddenly realizes that he had them open. That would be interesting to see how he would deal with that, would he realize that he had let his guard down and just go with it, trusting that he and Alyssa are at a point where it doesn't matter to her or would he suddenly feel uncomfortable and apologize chastising himself for letting his guard down that much and back pedal a bit and worry that Alyssa is being polite to him but is repulsed by it, or somewhere in between?

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    1. Lu5 - I have to ask this, but ARE YOU ME????? SERIOUSLY... Your thoughts are exactly mine about the eyes... I know the scene where I want her to see them, but literally all that agonising about how he reacts could have been written by me... You'll have to see what felt right at the time it goes to print, as it were.
      I'm so glad you appreciate my little story and that you're in love with the hero :). Thanks, as ever, for sharing your thoughts and feedback on it - it's reassuring and helpful, and tells me where people want it to go. I have a skeleton outline of the story, but you guys make all the detail happen.

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    2. Lol! Nope, not you, other wise I'd be the one writing the awesome story instead of just reading it! Perhaps that is why I enjoy your stories so much, we are just on the same page figuratively speaking! Glad that me sharing ideas and thoughts is helpful, because I'm always full of ideas and very imaginative! Now, I'm off to do a retread, and see if anything else pops up in my little brain!

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    3. Oh, one more little thing, I could totally see Alyssa giving sweet little kisses on his eyelids in a moment of tenderness between the two of them in a moment where Caleb is insists that she truly can't love him in his state and is maybe upset about something that happens out in public or between the two of them....

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    4. Mmmmm, food for thought indeed... Watch out for your ideas then... :D

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    5. Ok, I lied - the place where I was going to have 'the reveal' of the eyes is no longer happening. It's happening elsewhere... Just feels right to me... Hope you agree!!

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    6. You're the writer! If it feels right, then it feels right! I'll take it! If my little ideas changed things, so be it :) All in good time, all in good time. I'll happily wait

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  12. Rose, that was beautiful... I love the sister-brother scenes, but with massage scene you`ve made my day - thank you :-)

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    1. Kathleen, it is a pleasure to write this story, and I'm so glad that I made your day. Your comment has made mine :).

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  13. Wow! Thank you for this long chapter! I am very much enjoying all of the detail in the story, it's very engaging. I've always loved reading stories set in the UK. The story flows so well. I cannot wait to read the next chapter to find out what happens! One request, please keep Luke safe when he returns to Afghanistan!

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    1. Anonymous, thank you! Glad you appreciate the detail too, and that it flows well - that's something I'm always worrying about! As for the rest, I make no promises to people about what happens to my characters...

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  14. I looooove this story! Thank you so much for this deliciously long chapter. Don't hesitate to post another one like it. I don't think any of your readers would mind. :)

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    1. Thank you! New one is up, and it's even more... um... yeah... :) Hope you like it!

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  15. OK ENOUGH WAITING PLEASE GIVE US THE NEXT BIT I AM LITERALLY GOING TO PASS OUT WITH WAITING..........!!

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    1. *hands paper bag to stop hyperventilation and takes step back, pointing wildly at new chapter*

      (your enthusiasm did make me smile though...!)

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