(set three years after the events of true love)
They’ve met before. Or rather, they’ve seen each other before. Before, with a capital B, when life was only slightly complicated and Margate was a home, when the crashing waves on the shore and the rising tides weren’t prison walls, locking them in for sins and crimes they’d rather forget.
Before, they used to stop in at the same cafe for espresso every morning at half past six. He’d read the paper, she’d bring her sketch book and (later) lesson plans, they’d sit adjacent to one another by the window, each table with a book under a leg to keep from wobbling about.
And so it went. Until she stopped showing up, and he… well, he had his divorce to pay for—no extra cash for news and coffee.
& & &
She returns to town because her mother is dying. Ovarian cancer. They never quite got on after Karen and the leave-taking, but needs must, and after all, those days are firmly in the past.
Holly is not the esteemed professor her mother wanted her to be, but she is a painter, and that’s something. At least she’s not cradle robbing anymore, a rebellious part of her mind says.
She’s just alone in her little flat with her paints and brushes and canvases littering the place, mattress on the wooden floor and view of the sea through her window (because she’ll never be able to live without the sea) and she watches the sailors walking by as she writes in a journal stories that will never be told, stories of a girl who lives on a boat and rides the waves to freedom, stories of heartache and redemption and anger and mercy, of love gone wrong and youthful indiscretions and hope. Most of all, there’s the hope.
Her mother doesn’t ask if there’s anyone in her life. Holly thinks she might be relieved if she heard the answer.
Instead, it’s all how are your commissions selling? and did you try that vegan strawberry rhubarb pie recipe I sent you?
She can do small talk. She can even watch her mother die on a hospital bed with a disappointed shadow in her eyes.
Karen sends her a text that makes her smile a wistful sort of smile, because she can’t go back to that place again, and so she just replies with a simple I miss you too, and that is the end of it.
& & &
The day her mother dies, she wants a biscotti from their old cafe. Holly’s in tears and begging her mother not to shut her eyes while she’s gone, and she’s sobbing in the cab, and she’s pulling herself together as she enters the coffeehouse, as she orders her mum’s favorite, and then it seems like too much effort to leave this place, when it’s much easier to sit in her old seat and stare out the window and let the clock run.
Of course, there’s someone in her seat.
Someone vaguely familiar.
Someone with sad brown eyes and the weight of worlds on his shoulders.
And he’s staring at her like he knows her but can’t place her (which is good, considering) and she realizes she’s staring, too, and she’s actually crying, and he pulls on her hand to guide her into the opposite seat, and that’s when she drops the biscotti onto the floor.
It breaks into pieces.
“I-I’m sorry, I just used to sit here every morning, and I’m having one of those days, and uh… sorry,” she mutters, bending down to clean her mess. He’s on his knees with her.
“I always thought this table looked a bit lonely when you were gone.”
He looks surprised as he says it, and she stops what she’s doing and remembers a time when she sat here and he sat there, when she drank a double shot and he had decaf, when she’d borrow his paper without asking ‘cause he’d leave it on her table while he ordered, and he’s talking, so she should probably listen.
“…I haven’t seen you around in years, so I figured you’d forfeited the chair, but since you’re back in town you can have it if you’d like—”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she says, waving him off. “I’m just visiting my mum. Getting her a treat.” The biscotti piece in her hand crumbles a bit more. “Sorta.”
“Ah, well, you’ll need another then.”
Holly frowns. “No, she really shouldn’t be eating this rubbish. Although I figured since… erm, look, I’d better be off, and uh, it was nice seein’ you again and all,” she adds, realizing that her mother is on her death bed.
She feels his eyes on her until she hails a cab.
& & &
The funeral is short and fairly boring. She’s never been a religious sort, not like her dearly departed mum—the rare English Catholic—and so the ceremony holds little meaning for her. The woman is dead; her body is cold, her heart has stopped. The cancer won.
She skips the reception because her feet lead her to the cafe and the man with the sad brown eyes.
He’s sitting in her seat (again) and she’s irritated enough by the whole ordeal that she steps right up to the opposite chair and sinks into it without so much as a cheers.
And besides, he’s got a second espresso sitting on the window sill. “Do you wanna talk about it?” he asks from behind his paper.
America’s kicking off with Russia again. Unemployment is at record highs across Europe. The conservative Prime Minister has been caught shtupping his male receptionist.
“My mum died,” she replies quietly. “There’s nothing really to say.”
He breaks off a piece of a chocolate biscotti and passes it to her. “‘m sorry for your loss.”
She shrugs. “We didn’t really get on, me an’ her. And anyway, she was sick and in pain, so I suppose this is better for her.”
“Do you see anyone?”
“Excuse me?” That’s hardly relevant to her rotting mother.
He pulls out a card from his breast pocket. “A therapist. Sometimes there’s nothing better than having someone to listen,” he explains, a glint of something (regret, bitterness, loss?) in his eyes. But it’s gone as soon as it appeared.
“I don’t need a therapist.” And she doesn’t. She’s been fine on her own for two-and-a-half years. If anything, she’s stronger now. Less… prone to accidents. Or falling in love.
There’s been sex—loads and loads of it, if she’s honest; with men and women, because she’s a fair bit freer to be herself in a place where she’s got no history. Good sex, mediocre sex, solo sex, threesomes, even a one-off with Karen a year before. Because she’ll never not love her precious girl.
But she’s more careful now, more guarded. And she’s harder, too; rougher and wittier and colder. She survived a downfall of her own making, after all.
“Everyone needs someone,” he murmurs, and she bites her lip. Holly does not want to need someone. She wants to tell this man who thinks he knows so much about her—and he probably does, if he’s a parent or hasn’t been living under a rock for the past three years—to shove off, to turn his eyes to his wife (he’s got a ring on his finger) and perhaps he sees what she’s thinking in her hazel eyes because he fingers his ring.
“The divorce was finalized a month ago. Haven’t had the time to get rid of this old thing.”
“I’m sorry.” She’s not. He doesn’t seem the type to relish being a married man. And she knows married men. Intimately.
“Yeah.” He smiles sadly. “But it was a long time coming. And… well, never mind that now.”
She grins. “Maybe you need someone to talk to.”
He sips his espresso thoughtfully. “That’s what I pay my therapist for.”
& & &
They meet for coffee and conversation every morning.
She’s staying in her mum’s old house, dealing with the reams of useless stuff the batty woman kept around—doilies and antique china coated with inches of dust, relics from the Vatican and a huge (tacky) portrait of Pope John Paul II. Everything goes to Holly, the wayward daughter, and as such, everything needs sorting.
He’s Scottish (and Catholic) so she offers him a look around the place, because in her experience, all Catholic people like the same trinkets and such. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in her mum’s collection of rosaries (pink and green and plastic and oh, there’s a honking great blinking cross in there, too) but he helps her box things up nonetheless, and they laugh at the old photos of people they both knew as children, and they eat pizza from the parlor down the street, and they share a bottle of her mother’s favorite wine (a vintage Rosé) as the sun sets over the shore.
She falls asleep with her head on his shoulder and misses the way he gazes at her as he lifts her into his arms and carries her into the house.
& & &
Nick does know about her history at the school, seeing as his daughter was the one who spread the story around the student population. Holly yells at him, angry tears spilling down her cheeks, asking why why why would he try to be her friend if he knows that horrible thing about her? And she walks away from him, locks herself in the bedroom and he just makes her a cup of cocoa (the way she likes it, with that awful almond milk and a heaping pile of vegan marshmellows), sets it on the floor outside her door and leaves.
He knows what she did. And she can’t understand how he can even look at her.
Until one day, he invites her over to his flat, a bottle of Merlot in one hand and a plate of chips in the other as she walks through the door.
“I can’t find it in myself to judge you since, in my opinion, I did something far worse.” Holly frowns around a chip. “Three years ago, there was this woman. I’d been with her a long time before then, but things didn’t work out and… well, anyway, she came back. And I just… I lost control and felt things I hadn’t felt in years and I… was gonna run away with her.”
His eyes flash with something harsh. “I ruined my marriage, devastated my children and in the end, she wasn’t ever gonna stay with me, anyway. And I knew that, ‘course I did, but I was so fucking selfish, Holl. And that’s what love can do to people, sometimes. Turn ‘em into sorry bastards.”
Holly flinches, thinking of taking a hand and running away, damn the consequences, damn the critics, damn the bloody ethics. Of a girl and a woman making a home together. Of course, girls grow up and leave home, in the end.
“My wife and I tried to make it work for a while, but I mean, she never quite trusted me again.”
“I didn’t know.”
He smiles softly. “You never asked. I don’t wear the ring anymore, you know. I lost it in your mum’s house. Never felt like looking for it.”
She feels the wine hot in her veins. “You can come over and we’ll search, if you want.”
His hand is so warm as he takes hers. But his eyes are hotter. “I don’t want to need an excuse for a visit.”
There are implications in his words. Implications that coil nicely in her abdomen.
“What do you want then, Nick?” she asks on a low hum.
Setting his glass of wine down on the floor beside them, he raises his now free hand to her cheek and stares at her lips.
“A new start.” He pulls back and sighs.
& & &
They lie together on the beach as the stars populate the heavens. He’s a bit of an astronomy aficionado, and so he points out constellations and tells her their stories and mythos, and she watches his tongue form the shapes of words and shifts closer to him, her hand barely touching his, and it’s erotic in its innocence, in its abstinence. She presses her thighs together as discreetly as she can.
And her little gasp keeps him company that night, when he lies in his bed with his hand around his cock and he whispers her name like a prayer.
& & &
It all comes to a head when she remembers that she doesn’t want to live in Margate anymore. That she hasn’t for a lifetime. But Margate is where Nick lives, and that makes things… complicated.
Of course, what she wants right now is a bed. And for Nick to keep doing what he’s doing with his lips and tongue and fingers. Oh, but she loves this man, and she loves him even more when he carries her into his bedroom and drapes her over his bed and she loves him so much that she helps him with his belt and tugs on his hair to bring his mouth to hers, and she reaches for him gently to line him up with herself and then he pulls her legs up to wrap around his slender hips and he stops.
Just watches her as he pushes inside. And she tries to keep her eyes open, but it’s been so long since she’s felt like this—and she’s never felt exactly like this, close but dissimilar, and this is what it is to love and be loved in return, she thinks, because he’s babbling in her ear about how he can’t believe he gets another chance, about how he wants her to be his last, his until he dies and his ashes are spread around the Highlands, his every morning and every afternoon and every night, and if she wants to run then he’ll run too, and he’ll go this time because he’s got nothing left here, and he needs her, and everything goes silent and her focus narrows to the point at which their bodies connect.
Flesh pushing against flesh.
Wet and tight and clenching and oh—
He groans lowly as he follows her into blessed release.
& & &
She feels herself easing into sleep when he tells her he loves her.
In return, he gets a snore.
& & &
The next morning, they pack up their lives and drive away.
To a little flat with paint all over the walls and a town where they have no names.
To a place where Nick and Holly can be alive.