Authors: Rebecca Barber
Copyright © 2015 by Rebecca Barber.
All rights reserved.
First Print Edition: March 2016
Limitless Publishing, LLC
Kailua, HI 96734
Formatting: Limitless Publishing
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.
To women everywhere, and one in particular.
You are stronger than you believe!
Table of Contents
The scowl on his leathery face should have been enough warning to shut me up, but tonight I wasn’t in the mood to back down. I was ready for a fight. Whatever he dished out would come back at him twofold. He came through the door, ripping it almost off its hinges and letting it slam behind him. He took one look at me, sitting on the lounge quietly watching television and sipping my coffee, and rolled his eyes in disgust. I didn’t say a word. This was the game we played these days. After more than a decade of marriage, this is all we had left.
“What’s for dinner?” he snarled, his eyes filled with hatred and disgust. I just shrugged apathetically. What was I supposed to say?‘Hi honey, how was your day? You look tired. Why don’t I just whip you up a nice, juicy T-bone steak and fresh steamed veggies?’The truth was, I would probably be having home-brand crackers with what was left of the vegemite.
“Not sure. We don’t have much,” I admitted, instantly feeling ashamed.
I hated the fact he could make me cower like that. Once upon a time, in another lifetime far away from this one, I felt different. I felt worthwhile and even happy. We were happy at one point, weren’t we? Somewhere along the line, I must have loved him. Otherwise I wouldn’t have married him. I can’t be that stupid, can I?
“For God’s sake, didn’t you even bother to do the shopping?” he snarled from the kitchen.
I heard him muttering to himself as he shuffled the near-empty boxes about in the pantry. Much as I hate to admit it, the profanity spraying from his lips was mighty impressive.
Stomping back into the lounge, he planted himself deliberately in front of the television, hands on his hips and a scowl on his face. Knowing what was coming, I was glad the kids were out with their godmother Heidi tonight. That was the only positive in this nightmare.
“For fuck’s sake, Gillian. I give you money. What the fucking hell do you spend it on?” he demanded, tiny bits of spittle flying from his mouth.
We had danced around this confrontation for weeks now. The tension was escalating, as was the hatred buried inside me. I don’t remember the last time I had actually had a full night’s sleep. These days, I was too angry to sleep. As soon as my head hit the pillow, all I could do was imagine all the things that I wanted to do and say to him, but was too afraid to.
My life had somehow crumpled into a pathetic mess, and most of the time I hated myself for it. I was furious, and the more I saw of him, the more he continued to be the heartless barbaric bastard he had become, the worse things got, and the more I despised myself.
“Do you really want to know how fucking far your measly twenty bucks stretches these days?” I asked, keeping my face as blank as possible. He raised a quizzical eyebrow and folded his arms aggressively across his puffed out chest.
I took a deep breath, grabbed hold of the arms of my chair with both hands, and squeezed as hard as I could. When I looked down, my knuckles were white with the strain and I could hear myself grinding my teeth desperately, trying to control the rage inside me.
“Well?” he snapped, shifting his weight impatiently from one foot to another.
I exhaled heavily. “If you really want to know what happened to that twenty you gave me a week ago for food and to keep the house running, it bought a six-pack of home brand toilet paper, a loaf of bread, a carton of milk, vegemite, eggs, and a packet of tampons foryourdaughter!” I told him, ticking the items off my fingers as I announced them.
I could see the fury bubbling up inside of him. His eyes were squinting, his face slowly turning beetroot red, sweat beads gathering on his dirty, unshaven lip. “Where…the…fuck…did…you…put…the…rest…of…it?” he growled, taking an exaggerated breath between each word.
I don’t know if that made him feel more important or if he just couldn’t string a sentence together like a normal person. I looked at him with disgust. He was one of the ugliest people I had ever seen. But I still didn’t know if I found him so repulsive because of how he looked or because I had seen the real Joel. I had seen his dark side, and it was obnoxious.
For a long moment I just stared at the monster that in a past life had been my loving, adoring, and attentive husband. I didn’t even recognize him anymore. The only thing that hadn’t changed was the dimple on his left cheek. The dimple I had once found irresistible now made me violently ill.
Fighting the urge to tell him the exact thoughts that were jumping about my mind, trying to force me to let them out, I swallowed deeply and took a breath. “What do you mean ‘the rest’? I already had to add more of my money just to cover that.”
I’m not exactly sure what he muttered under his breath next, and to be honest I don’t really care. He might have been angry, but he could never feel as degraded and dehumanized as I did. I guess he realized he wasn’t going to get very far tonight. And he most certainly wasn’t going to get fed, so he stalked off, kicking dramatically at magazines that lay thrown in a heap on the floor at the other end of the lounge.
Just before the familiar slam of his bedroom door, I heard his usual derogatory comments. “Fuck, it would be a shame if you got off your fat ass once in a while and cleaned this house up. It’s worse than living in a dump!” The bang of his door shook the walls and the windows, and with that he was gone for the night.
Knowing I wouldn’t have to see him again tonight—because there was no way he would come out of the bedroom unless I was unlucky enough to have to use the bathroom at the same time he did—I knew I was safe, and so I let it rip. All the rage and pure hatred that was eating away at my insides came out in a garbled mess as I spat ferociously under my breath.
Feeling relieved after my silent vent, my fingers trembled and my heart beat so hard in my chest that I could feel the pulsation in my toes. I got up and rummaged through my battered fake leather handbag, a Mother’s Day gift from happier times, and found my saving grace—my trusty pack of Marlboros.
Silently I shuffled to the back door, pushing the cat away with my heel, and slunk down on the cold, hard concrete steps. Sucking in the smoke I felt the tension seep away instantly.
It was cool outside. The swirling breeze tossed the first autumn leaves about playfully. It was still light. Daylight savings had not yet ended, but the scorching summer weather had already moved on.
I sat on the step for a long time, concentrating on my breathing. I could hear children nearby laughing and running, and every so often the unexpected short sharp burst of crocodile tears.
I’m not sure what it was that eventually calmed me, whether it was the laughter I could hear, the smell of sausages being barbequed nearby, or the playful way the leaves danced on the wind. Maybe it was just the strong smooth flavor of the nicotine as it filled my body. Whatever it was, after those forty-five minutes, I felt more at ease, like no matter how hard things got, no matter how hard he pushed, I couldn’t let him win. He had abused me and broken my spirit but he would never beat me. I was not going to let him manipulate me like I was some pathetic puppet. I deserved better than that. And I was damn well going to get it.
The day I turned twenty my life stopped. Okay, that’s probably being a tad dramatic, but my life as I knew it definitely came to a screeching halt. I held the white plastic stick in my trembling hands and stared at the double blue lines in horror. How could I possibly have been so stupid?
The test must be faulty. I rifled through my oversized handbag and found the second test I had purchased just in case. Running towards the bathroom with the pink box in my hands, I prayed furiously for a different result. I couldn’t be pregnant right now.
When the timer on the oven pinged, I sat bolt upright. The mandatory five minutes had passed and the results would now be in. I sat there and stared at my hands, feverishly picking at the skin around my nails before moving on and sticking my finger in my mouth, chewing at my nails until they bled.
I knew I had to be the one to check it. There was no one else there. I walked, slowly, like a condemned woman, step by step down the long hallway, which in all honesty was only about five meters. Pushing the bathroom door open, I saw the second test, lying on the bathroom counter where I left it. Grabbing the door frame for stability, I couldn’t see the results from there. I knew I was pregnant. I could feel the dread, and my stomach flipped over nervously, cramping my insides.
“Just do it,” I spat. I had to just bite the bullet and get it over with. Get the results, and then figure out what the hell I was supposed to do from there.
With no more hesitations, I walked deliberately to the counter and picked up the test and examined it. Seeing the double blue line for the second time was like a kick in the stomach. I let out a pained gasp, not realizing I had been holding my breath. There it was, right in front of my eyes—two telling blue lines. “Happy bloody birthday,” I said to myself.
I wandered back to the kitchen aimlessly, not thinking clearly. I pulled the half open bottle of Cloudy Bay from the fridge and filled my favorite wine glass. Sitting it on the counter, I lifted it to my lips before I realized I couldn’t drink anymore. I was pregnant. Sliding down the kitchen cupboard, I sat on the floor and wept. I cried for a long time, ignoring the phone on the wall above my head as it rang continuously.
An hour and a half later, my bum numb from the cold tiles, I managed to pull myself to my feet and stumble into the lounge. As I passed the mirror in the hall, I didn’t even recognize the woman staring back at me. My shoulder length brown hair was matted and unkempt. My red-rimmed eyes were barely visible above the puffy black circles. My shoulders hunched forward in defeat. Barely able to look, I threw myself on the lounge and resumed my selfish sobbing.
For a long time I just sat there staring into outer space before the realization returned and I started to weep again. My mobile phone on the coffee table in front of me continued to beep and buzz as text messages came though. I didn’t want to look at them. They would all be saying the same thing anyway—Congratulations! Happy Birthday!But I had nothing to celebrate. I even forgot about the group of loyal girlfriends who were no doubt already around our favorite table on the balcony. I knew they would be pissed at me, but they would understand. Eventually.
I guess I was exhausted from the overwhelming emotions consuming me, because at some point I fell into a fitful sleep on the lounge. When the doorbell buzzed, I jumped up in a panic. Bouncing towards the door, I rubbed away the drool that had collected in the corners of my mouth and the sleep from my eyes.
“Oh good, you look like shit. What the hell happened to you tonight?” Rhiannon asked, pushing past me into the lounge room.
“We waited for you for ages, and you just didn’t show—that’s so unlike you, Gillian,” Cora snarled, letting herself in.
When I saw the look of pure disappointment written all over Heidi’s face, I knew I was in trouble. “I tried calling, but you didn’t answer. Are you okay?” she whispered, her tone full of concern.
“Come in, its cold outside,” I invited, pulling Heidi through the door and closing it firmly behind her. With the four of us in my tiny two-bedroom shoe box, I felt claustrophobic. I had this huge secret weighing me down and, sitting on my sofa, furious with me, were my people. “I’ll just put the kettle on,” I called out, avoiding going into the lounge room to face the music.
In all honesty I didn’t want to face them tonight. I wanted to remain in my oblivious and delusional bubble for a while longer, but it wasn’t to be. They were here, and they were my best friends. I couldn’t lie to them, not when it was a secret I couldn’t hide from them forever. In a couple of months the truth would be out anyway.
“Need a hand?” Heidi called out.
“No, I’m fine. Won’t be a moment,” I faked, taking the opportunity to splash cold water on my face. I grabbed the biscuit tin and shook out the last of the Tim-Tams onto a plate before adding some of the homemade orange truffles from the fridge.
When I walked into the lounge moments later, carrying the tray laden with coffees and chocolates, three sets of questioning eyes turned and looked at me. I could hear the breathing, almost in unison, and I could feel my own heart beating in my chest, about to break through my ribcage. Putting the tray on the coffee table, I self-consciously rubbed at my stomach.
“Well?” Rhiannon snarled angrily.
“Rhiannon, calm down. Give her a chance to explain why she stood us up on her own birthday. It’s not like we all got dressed up on a freezing cold Saturday night in the middle of the Canberra winter to sit outside and have dinner,” Cora began. Her eyes were shooting daggers at me. I wanted to crawl into my warm bed, hide under the covers, and pretend none of this was happening.
Swallowing my tea and my pride in the same mouthful, I apologized. “I’m really sorry I didn’t make it tonight, something just kinda came up,” I whined pathetically. I knew it wasn’t even a poor excuse, it was just a question dodge, but I hoped that would placate them for now.
Heidi smiled at me, but I knew it was false; her eyes still radiated disappointment. “It’s okay, sweetie, we understand.” She reached out and took my hand, making me feel even worse. Overwhelmed by guilt, tears silently trickled from my eyes.
I looked over at Rhiannon and saw the fury on her face. “Let me just recap here, so we are all on the same page. It’s your birthday. You wanted to go to dinner. You specifically said you wanted a table on the balcony. You picked a Saturday night. So we all get dressed and show up, but you never made it. And the only reason you will give us is ‘something came up.’ Would that be a correct assumption?” Rhiannon exploded. I just nodded weakly, breaking into tears. “What the hell is going on, Gillian?”
“Rhiannon!” Heidi chided her, but Rhiannon paid no attention. She sat back, folded her arms across her ample chest, and waited for an explanation.
No one said anything for a long time, but I watched helplessly as their eyes scoured the room. I knew this wasn’t something new to them. They’d been through this with me before, but I kept going back for more. Rubbing at my stomach, I thought about my son or daughter for the first time. Although I wasn’t ready to be a mother and I was terrified of doing it alone, I had to think of my child as a person, not just a mistake. “I’m pregnant,” I blurted out.
I looked at my friends’ faces and saw them change as the words sunk in. Cora got up and grabbed three wine glasses from the cabinet and filled them. Heidi emptied hers in one long pull, while Rhiannon sipped hers quietly, her eyes never leaving mine.
“But…how? When? What?” Rhiannon mumbled, still obviously in shock.
“When did you find out?” Heidi added, spluttering.
“Just breathe,” I repeated to myself over and over. Once I had said the words out loud, everything became real. Seeing the reaction on my best friends’ faces, the looks of pure panic and the exchange of glances of fear, made me glad that I wouldn’t have to tell my parents about my latest mistake. When they had died barely eight months earlier I was devastated. I knew travelling overseas was dangerous, but I never thought anything would happen to them. They had developed a travel bug after spending twelve months living in the Middle East while working as consultants. On their way home after the contract ended they went via Africa for a holiday. When they came home it quickly became apparent that they had picked up a virus during their travels. Even the miracles of modern medicine couldn’t save them. Dad died four days after Mum. Within a week I lost all the family I had. Malaria had claimed their lives.
“When did you find out?” Cora repeated slowly, after I didn’t answer.
Rubbing my face violently with my hand, I looked at the three most important people in my world. Moments earlier they had been ready to tear me apart, but now the rage and anger were gone, replaced with compassion and concern. “I took the test about three hours ago,” I admitted sheepishly. “I was a week late so I bought a test today. I never even imagined it would come back positive but hey, what do you know. Double blue lines and I’m going to be a mum.” I smiled weakly.
I’d always wanted kids, but right now was not the time. I was twenty years old, completely alone in the world and as lost and confused as I could possibly be.
“So you have only done the home test?” Rhiannon asked. When I nodded, a relieved smile covered her face. “That doesn’t mean anything.” She laughed, waving her hands about animatedly. “They are notorious for being wrong.”
“Absolutely. You can’t turn your life upside down over a stupid supermarket pregnancy test. Okay, I’ll admit it gave us all a scare, but you need to go to the doctor and find out what’s what,” Rhiannon announced, taking complete control of the situation.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I convinced myself that Rhiannon was right. Until the doctors said so, or at the very least, the nurse, I wasn’t pregnant, and nothing would change. “I’ll go Monday morning and then this can all be sorted out. One way or the other,” I proclaimed as hopefully as I could manage.
Heidi tried to smile through gritted teeth and a clenched jaw. I could see that she had something to say but wasn’t convinced it was something that I actually wanted to hear. Then she asked the one question I really didn’t want to answer—“What are you going to do if you are?”
Shaking my head, I couldn’t answer. I just shrugged my shoulders pitifully. And that was the truth. I had no idea what I was going to do, or how I was going to do it. I hadn’t got that far along with my thinking. I was still in the freaking out stage.
“Well…” Cora smiled, sliding onto the sofa next to me and taking my hand in hers, “…whatever you decide to do, we will be here for you. Won’t we, ladies?”
Heidi and Rhiannon rushed to agree, but something was still slightly off. Heidi was still thinking too much and too hard. “What is it, Heidi?” I asked anxiously.
Glancing around the room, Heidi noticed that everyone was staring at her, waiting with baited breath for her to say something. “No, it’s nothing.” She waved her arms in dismissal.
“You are such a bad liar.” Cora giggled, watching as Heidi squirmed in her seat. “Just say it, we’re all friends here.”
Gulping timidly, Heidi opened her mouth and said something, but no one heard her words. They came out as a meek little whisper.
“Speak up,” Rhiannon instructed. With beads of sweat dotting her top lip, Heidi tried again. “I don’t mean this the way it’s going to sound, Gillian, but who is the father?”
After the death of my parents I had to get out of the small, suffocating town I had grown up in. It was too hard with them gone. Every time I walked along the beaches or ducked down to the local shops someone would ask how I was doing, or express their condolences or tell me they knew exactly how I was feeling. It pissed me off to no end. How could anyone possibly imagine what I was going through? I was nineteen and completely alone. Well, that’s not entirely true; I wasn’t completely alone, and I had a whole tonne of responsibility to keep me company.
My parents had been school teachers at two of the local schools, which meant everyone within a fifty kilometer radius knew them. Some loved them, some loathed them, but everyone knew them. At the time they died, they owned quite a few properties, mainly in Canberra. They owned the home they lived in, only a hundred meters from the beach, two units, and a house in Canberra.
I remembered sitting in the dreary solicitors’ office on a particularly lovely afternoon. The sun was shining, the water was warm and inviting and because it wasn’t a weekend the locusts of Canberra had not taken over the beach, so it was mainly deserted.
It was exactly ten days since the funeral. I had put it off that long but it was something that had to be faced. I had hoped facing it would make everything hurry up so I could get back to a normal life.
A smelly old man stumbled into the conference room carrying three large manila folders held together with rubber bands. I hoped that I didn’t have to go over every piece of paper in them. Without realizing, I was staring directly at the dirty great wart on the bottom of one of his chins, which was surrounded by what could only be described as a forest of thick grey hair.
One of the teachers who had worked for my father, a lovely old lady with a heavy English accent and too many wrinkles to count, had taken to dropping off salads and casseroles with me daily. She often stayed and we had superficial conversations about the weather and the local town gossip. But the day before I had been requested to meet with the solicitor she sat down, had a cup of chamomile tea, and explained what would probably happen. They would read the will, I would sign a few papers, and that would be that. I prayed she was right.
“Ms. Dempsey,” he announced, panting. The beads of sweat congregating on his forehead captured my attention. He was sweating and panting as if he had just run a marathon. I noticed the wet patch on his white shirt with a slightly reddish tinge on his bulging belly. The only marathon this guy had run was from the lunch room to the conference room. “I’m Mr. Sanders, but you can call me Jack.” He took my hand and shook it forcefully.
“Hi,” I murmured, wiping my damp hands on my shorts under the table.
“I’m very sorry to hear about your parents. They were great people,” he began.
I held up my hand in a mock salute. “I’m sorry if this is rude, but can we just skip all this crap? I mean, if we could just get this done as quickly as possible, that would be great.” I felt mean and bitchy but I was exhausted with the fake pleasantries.
“As you wish.” He smiled as he attempted to open the first file.
I couldn’t help but laugh as he tried to remove the rubber band and it broke, flicking up and hitting him on one of his chins. As soon as the giggle passed over my lips, I felt guilty. My parents were barely cold in the ground and here I was laughing. It was wrong.
A skinny redhead in an overly short, tight black skirt slipped in the door. “I’m Angela.” She smiled seductively. I don’t think she knew how to smile any other way. “I’m just here as a witness to record everything that goes on. Feel free to ask any questions or ignore me as necessary.”
For the next twenty minutes, Mr. Sanders explained to me in legal speak what was happening and what he read. I didn’t understand a word of it. “Now, if you are happy with everything that I have just said, I just need you to sign a few papers and I can let you get back to your day.”
“Okay.” I shrugged.
“Sorry, Jack,” Angela said, sliding forward on her chair, puffing out her chest. “Gillian, did you understand any of what Jack just told you?” she asked. I found myself realizing that maybe I had judged her too quickly. She had obviously caught the glazed-over look in my eyes and the absent-minded nodding in agreement with everything Jack had said.
“Not really,” I answered honestly.
I saw the look exchanged between Angela and Jack, but neither said a word. For a long time they just stared at each other, eyes fixed, neither blinked. Then Jack waved his hand in a mock invitation, and Angela turned back to me. “Basically, Gillian, your parents have left everything to you. The life insurance, the superannuation fund, and the properties. However, they have designated that the sum of one hundred thousand dollars be donated to Palliative Care Australia. Their wills stipulate this and leave no room for argument or negotiation,” Angela summarized, staring directly at me. “Do you have any questions?”
“No,” I mumbled. Even though it had all been explained, I didn’t really comprehend what they were saying. I had no idea how much money we were actually talking about, and I had no idea whatsoever as to what I was supposed to do next.
“If you’re sure,” Angela invited, swinging her chair around and sitting next to me. “We just need to sign some papers and everything will be transferred to your name. Have you given any thoughts to what you might do with the property portfolio?” she enquired. Although it seemed casual enough, when she reached her manicured, bright red nails out and took hold of my wrist I felt cornered and I didn’t like it.
As forcefully and maturely as I could, I straightened myself in the chair, and spoke in my clearest voice. “Not as yet. I haven’t been given the opportunity to consider my options or consult independent advice. Now, which papers do I need to sign?”
Slightly taken back by my rebuff, Angela removed her hand from my wrist and flicked to the first page for me to sign.
After the meeting I was an emotional wreck. I had so many thoughts screaming around inside my head, and none of them were answers. What was I supposed to do? How was I supposed to do everything on my own? How did I survive this? I checked my email and my Facebook page and it was just more of the same—messages from family and friends, offering their condolences or advice. It was all too much. Slamming the computer shut made the flimsy plastic hinges holding the screen on snap off. That was the last straw. I picked up the laptop and threw it as hard as I could against the wall, watching as it smashed and left its mark on the pristine white paint. I knocked over a vase, staring blankly as the water seeped into the carpet. I slid down the wall and cried. It was all that I had left to do, cry and cry some more.
By the time I managed to pull myself together, I had made some decisions. I couldn’t stay in the small, suffocating town any longer. With my parents now gone, I had no reason to stay and every reason to go. One of their properties in Canberra, a two-bedroom apartment in Greenway’s town centre, had become vacant only weeks earlier. That’s where I was going. Walking purposefully towards the bedroom, I started stuffing my belongings into suitcases. When I was done with my wardrobe, I curled up in the fetal position on the end of my bed and fell into a much needed deep, dark sleep.
A week later I pulled into the undercover parking garage with my bruised and battered Barina stuffed as full as I could manage. The furniture removalists would arrive the next day, but I had to get out as soon as I could. That town was suffocating, and if I had my way I would never see that dead, dreary beachside village again. That night I slept on the floor, with only a pillow and sheet covering me. I almost froze to death.
Once the furniture arrived and had been unpacked, I thought I had better start looking for a job. I was on my own and I had to support myself somehow. Flicking through the paper was depressing. There wasn’t a lot around at the moment, and, of what was available, I either didn’t understand what an APS was or they were for places I didn’t want to work. I had no idea what it was that I actually wanted to do, but I knew I didn’t want to be a receptionist at a panel beaters or a shop assistant at the local Athlete’s Foot.
It seemed that while I was just lazing around the apartment, taking myself out to lunch and shopping, I was also fielding a million and one questions from property managers about various tenants and maintenance issues with the other properties my parents had left me. It was on the third straight day of complaints, while I was having a pedicure, when the property manager decided to inform me that the tenants hadn’t paid rent in nine weeks and had smashed holes in the wall, that I had enough.
As soon as my feet were dry—I didn’t even wait for the nail polish—I stormed down the road and ducked into the first real estate agency I found, Max Meredith & Sons. The tiny redhead behind the reception desk stood up meekly and without a word handed me a rental list.
“I’m sorry, I don’t need this,” I informed her casually.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but we don’t do property management here, just sales.” She smiled sweetly. She looked like she was barely fourteen, her wide innocent eyes staring at me apologetically.
Feeling sorry for her, I smiled back. “No troubles. I was wondering if you have a sales agent here that I could speak to. I have a few properties to sell,” I offered.
With her eyebrows raised, she whispered, “I’ll see who I can find,” jumping up from her chair and walking out the back.
I could hear the sounds of a busy office. The photocopier was churning paper out rapidly. Someone not far away was typing as though their life depended on it. And the phones. Office phones, mobile phones, and people squashing keys incessantly. The talking was animated. From where I was standing I could see an arm waving about wildly as laughter filled the air.
A short man, in a very fat, very pink tie, ducked past me, smelling of cigarette smoke and coffee. “You all right?” he asked, almost as if it was an afterthought.
I just nodded, having already decided I did not want to deal with him. The longer I was left standing at the counter, the more time I had to think about the decision I had made. Was I doing the right thing selling the properties? Maybe if I just stuck it out a bit longer, things would get easier. Maybe they were just teething problems.
When the redhead appeared again, she mumbled, “Joel will be with you shortly.” Without even a smile or a hesitation, she sat back down in her high-backed leather chair, pulled the telephone headset back over her ears, and dialed away.
I sat down in the cold, sterile waiting area and flipped through the various magazines. They weren’t what I thought they would be. There were no house magazines, noBetter Homes and Gardens, no DIY books. Only a couple of car magazines and old issues ofRolling Stone. I could hear the redheaded receptionist making her weekend plans with what could only have been her girlfriend on the other end of the line.
Above her head, lined up on the wall, was a long line of framed awards. It seemed as though there was one there from every year. I had obviously picked a half-decent agency to stumble into, although I had never heard of them beforehand.
Just as I was thinking of leaving, the most beautiful man I had ever seen walked around the corner and smiled at me. He had spiky brown hair, gelled into a perfect position. His aqua eyes penetrated my soul as soon as he looked at me. His black suit and white shirt were immaculately tailored and pressed, and his smile melted me in moments.
“Sorry to have kept you waiting.” He reached out and shook my hand professionally. “I’m Joel Matthews. How can I be of assistance?”
“I-I’m…Gillian,” I stuttered pathetically. “I need to sell some houses.”
“Well, why don’t you come through into the conference room, and we can figure out what we need to do here?” he invited warmly. “I’ll just grab some papers and be right with you.” He opened the door for me and ushered me into the room, even pulling out the chair for me.
I had never met a gentleman before, but Joel Matthews may just be the perfect example of one. He was charismatic, charming, intelligent, and so very sexy. I sat in the bland conference room staring vaguely at the blue and orange walls, and fantasized about Joel. I had definitely made the right decision to sell.
Rushing back in, his arms were full of papers, and he had pens hanging out of his mouth. He looked so disorganized it was enchanting. “Sorry about the wait.” He smiled again, looking straight into my eyes. I felt my breath catch in my chest, and my cheeks blush. “So, what are we selling?” he invited.
I sat there for almost twenty minutes describing the house in the suburbs and the unit on the water. I answered many questions, some I didn’t even know the answers to, but Joel assured me not to worry, that was his job and he would find out. When he asked whose name the properties were in, I felt myself tear up. Praying I wouldn’t embarrass myself, I began to explain. “I’m not exactly sure whose name the titles are in at this point. They were in my parents’ names, but they have both been left to me. They were transferring it over, but I’m not sure where they are with the process.”
A strange, almost sad look crossed his face, “Mind if I ask why it’s being put in your name?”
Taking a deep breath, so I exhaled, trying to compose myself, “My parents recently died. They left everything to me.” It came out faster than I had ever spoken before, but at least it was out.
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” he offered sincerely, reaching out and squeezing my hand supportively.
Straightening myself in the chair, I pulled my hand out from under his and pretended to wipe stray strands of hair from my forehead. “So, what do I need to do next?”
A wave of relief passed over Joel and I could see the life return to his mesmerizing eyes; he was obviously as glad as I was for the change of subject. “If you are one hundred percent sure this is what you want to do, we need to fill out some paperwork, then I will get in touch with the property managers, let them know the properties are being sold, and see if we can get some access. How hard this whole process is really depends on the tenants, unfortunately. If they don’t allow access to the photographer, for exhibitions, or valuer when it is sold, it can cause huge issues. Do you know when the leases expire?”
“Not sure, but yesterday I ordered the eviction of the tenants in the house. They are nine weeks behind in the rent, so I want them out. Also, I don’t know what sort of condition the property is going to be in once they have been evicted. From what I heard, they aren’t exactly what you would describe as ‘ideal’ tenants,” I admitted. By this point I figured that he was going to find out anyway, so there was no point in lying.
“Don’t look so worried.” Joel laughed easily. “It's no fun if it’s all straightforward. Okay, if you’re happy with everything you and I have discussed, I’ll just need you to sign a couple of pages and we can get to work.” He slid the papers towards me and I noticed for the first time he had been taking notes. They were already almost completely filled in. He smiled, my heart sped up, and I signed whatever he asked me to.
“Great! Now here’s my card with all my contact details on it. Feel free to contact me with any questions or queries you might have. I’ll get all this started and I’ll give you a call about lunchtime tomorrow, if that’s okay, and let you know how we’re going and a rough time of when you can expect to see the properties on the market,” he summarized.
“Oh,” I said, disappointed.
“Is something the matter?” His mood instantly turned to concern.
“No…no, it’s nothing,” I mumbled.
“Gillian?” he asked again. I liked the way my name rolled off his tongue. It was so natural and comfortable, as if he had been saying it his whole life. I stole a glance at his left hand. No ring. And no sign of a tan line where a ring had once been.
“I just thought it was on the market now. I don’t really understand what all this means.” Admitting it felt horrible. I felt stupid and naïve, but he smiled and instantly the fear of looking like a fool in front of this perfect man evaporated.
Joel spent the next ten minutes patiently explaining to me all the steps that would have to happen before they appeared in the real estate guide. He didn’t seem annoyed about having to go over this with me, and I was grateful for his patience.
“Anything I forgot?” He grinned again. Not trusting myself to speak, I just nodded half-heartedly. “Well then, I better let you get back to it, so I can go and do some work. I will call you tomorrow and let you know how we are looking. But in the meantime, if you need anything else, you have my details.” He smiled again before reaching out and shaking my clammy hand.
“Thanks again,” I managed to say, as he opened the door for me and walked me to the front of the office.
“Talk soon.” He waved, then disappeared back into the deep, dark depths of the office. I stepped outside, grateful for the cool breeze blowing against my warm, embarrassed cheeks. Sitting in the conference room, I could feel myself sweating, but hoped it wasn’t noticeable. I glanced down at the business card I held tightly in my hand. Taking up most of the card was the perfect picture of Joel—wide, warm, white smile, tie lying perfectly straight down his chest. Suddenly realizing I was standing outside this man’s office, staring stupidly at the photo of him held tight in my hand. I quickly walked away.
Sliding behind the steering wheel, I could hear the phone ringing. Digging desperately through my handbag, I couldn’t find it. Irritated, I tipped the contents onto the passenger seat beside me. Not recognizing the number, I flipped open my phone. “Hello?”
“Gillian, its Joel.”
My heart missed a beat. “Did I forget something?” I asked nervously.
“No, no, it’s nothing like that. I just needed to know if it was going to just be your name on the title deed.”
Relieved I hadn’t done or said anything stupid, I allowed myself a smug smile. I didn’t know if this was his roundabout way of asking if I was single, but that’s what I convinced myself anyway. “Yep, just me.” I smiled to myself, almost overflowing with happiness.
“Oh, I guess that’s good…” he trailed off under his breath and I couldn’t quite catch the last few words.
“Okay then…” I tried to end the call. Always leave them wanting more, one of my best friends had always told me. “I have to run, so unless there is anything else…”
“Nope, that’s it. Have a lovely day, Gillian.” He sounded pleased. I clicked the phone shut and burst out laughing. Even I was impressed by my performance.
When Friday night arrived I joined some girlfriends I hadn’t seen in six months, since they had made the move to the big city. In high school the four of us had been inseparable, but the other three had enrolled at University to study, while I remained on the coast trying to figure things out. I took my time getting ready, paying particular attention to my makeup and hair. I chose my outfit, a knee-length orange and pink dress, with knee-high black boots, a black jacket, and white scarf wrapped around my neck.
All I could think about for the entire fifteen minute drive were those aqua blue eyes. I began wondering if I should sell the house first and then sell the unit once that was settled so I could draw out the time I would spend associating with Joel. Shaking my head, I realized how completely and utterly infatuated with him I was.
By the time I arrived at the restaurant, a delicious Middle Eastern style restaurant, the girls were already waiting. Squealing with delight, Rhiannon jumped up and hugged me tightly. “Hey!” she shrieked. The whole restaurant turned and glared at us—a sure sign of a good night.
“Hi,” Cora sang, standing up and kissing my cheek across the table.
Heidi waved enthusiastically before filling my wine glass. “Sorry, we couldn’t wait, so we ordered drinks.”
Taking a long gulp, I realized that this was what I had been missing. Not the support and the condolences, but the carefree, happy friends who, even though they knew what happened, didn’t dwell on it. It helped lift me up rather than bringing me down.
We sat and ate for hours, picking at the platters of food delivered to us by a waiter with the cutest bum I had seen in years. We ordered more wine and laughed over old times, and caught up on recent events. Rhiannon was kind of seeing her university mentor, but it was only a casual thing, she assured us repeatedly. Heidi was too involved with her studies and her volunteering as a Girl Guide leader to have time for anything—she was one hundred and ten percent focused on finishing her teaching degree and getting into a school to help mould young minds—while Cora was madly studying at CIT to be a chef. She had these incredible dreams to travel the world, cooking and eating. Within three years her master plan was to be living somewhere in Europe, working in a Michelin star restaurant cooking up a storm for celebrities and royalty.
They didn’t ask how I was doing directly, but asked a lot of questions about my plans. I told them I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do but until I figured it out I was going to try everything. They invited me to join them the following week to try a new Ethiopian restaurant that had just opened its doors, which I immediately agreed to. It was good having them back in my life. Everything was so easy. We already knew each other’s pet peeves and bad habits, so there was no tiptoeing around pretending not to notice them.
After the fourth bottle of wine was finished, they needed to head off. Rhiannon claimed she had a “study” session early the next morning, but I would have put money on a late night rendezvous with a professor. Heidi was off on camp the next night and needed to get some rest before she became responsible for a dozen screaming twelve-year-olds. I decided that I had just a little too many glasses of Cloudy Bay to drive just yet, so I was going to go for a walk and find a coffee. We said our goodbyes and promised to see each other the following week. I secretly couldn’t wait for the next installment of Rhiannon’s deranged sex life.
It was only ten o’clock as I walked along the BMW-lined street, and despite the cold, the cafes and restaurants were still buzzing with life. Tables were full to capacity and the laughter reverberated from the buildings. As I approached the corner, I noticed a velvet rope and a man dressed immaculately, all in black, complete with a top hat and white cotton gloves. “Miss, can I interest you in a cocktail?” He smiled warmly.
For a moment I just stared blankly at him before I noticed the name tag on his shirt. Julian worked at the bar upstairs. “It’s warm up there,” he suggested, looking at how I was hugging my chest. “Take this up.” He handed me a half price voucher for the first cocktail purchase of the evening.
I took it as a sign. A half price drink on a Friday night was a pretty good start. “Thanks,” I replied gratefully, accepting the voucher and walking quickly up the stairs. By the time I reached the landing halfway up, I could feel the wine haze hovering over me, but more than that I could feel the temperature rising. I started to undo my jacket as I climbed the final ten steps.
It was like visiting an antique store, or a really old aunt. It had velvet covered cushions, high backed wooden chairs, none of which matched any of the others, dim chandelier lighting, and floral wallpaper. In the far corner a jazz band played quietly, and people hushed over their cocktails. Bartenders in bow ties buzzed about, clearing glasses silently. Some people’s heads were nodding along in time with the beat, and the sound of the saxophone drowned out the sound of chatter.
As I looked for somewhere to sit, I looked at the patrons. Most were middle age, in couples or groups of four, all immaculately dressed and with diamonds dripping from everywhere. Unsure I actually belonged in this sort of establishment, I turned to leave.
“Excuse me, Miss, can I get you a drink?” a handsome waiter asked.
Remembering my half price drink voucher, and the infectious rhythm of the jazz band, I decided that one drink wouldn’t kill me. “Sure, I would like a…a…”
“Can I suggest you try the kiwi and basil mojito? It’s the perfect blend of lime juice, fresh basil, kiwifruit, white rum and syrup,” he offered.
I had to admit it sounded refreshing, and unlike anything I had ever tried before. Since I was starting off on a clean slate, this seemed like the sort of thing that I should try. “Sounds fabulous.” I snorted, embarrassed. After watching way too many episodes ofSex and the City, the language had even taken over mine.
“I’ll be right back. And if you’re looking for somewhere to sit, there are a few available seats towards the back,” he pointed out.
“Thanks.” I made my way through the crowd, starting to relax and enjoy the music. It would have been so easy to just sit there for hours and get carried away by it all. I found an old Victorian style, red velvet chaise towards the back of the room and dropped my coat haphazardly onto the end before sitting down next to it. I was fiddling with the zipper on my boots when the waiter returned with an ice-cold tumbler filled with chunky green liquid. Despite the rather off-putting appearance, the taste was magical. Usually, I wasn’t a big rum drinker, but the other flavors in this were unbelievably refreshing.
“They’re quite good, aren’t they?” a deep masculine voice asked from behind me.
Almost spitting mojito across the room and covering the Dior clad lady in front of me in the process, I looked up to see Joel grinning cheekily at me. Although Joel and I had already met, there was something about him that was completely captivating. I’m not sure if it was the mischief that danced in his eyes or the adorable dimple on his left cheek. I felt myself blush as I forced down another mouthful, which was pretty much entirely rum and no lime juice.
Coughing, I tried to speak. “Are you stalking me or something?” I asked incredulously. I thought if I went on the attack I wouldn’t look like a freak, and I would also avoid saying the wrong thing.
Laughing, Joel said, “No. I just had dinner with some colleagues up the road and wasn’t quite ready to head home yet, so I thought I would wander down for a while and see what I found. Andvoila, I found you.” Pushing my jacket up against my leg, Joel lowered himself onto the seat next to me.
My pulse was racing and my hands began to sweat again. Gone was the work uniform of the black suit, replaced by designer jeans, dark blue top, and white shoes.
He caught me looking at his shoes, and I figured I had to say something. “What is it with you guys and your damn white shoes?”
Looking at his own shoes, probably noticing what he had on for the first time, he just chuckled wholeheartedly. “These are my naughty shoes. I wear black shoes every day for work, so when I’m off the clock, I go for something different. Just trying to shake things up a bit.”
With nothing else to say, I sipped my drink quietly. My plan of remaining anonymous had failed. I had gone to a bar I had never been to before, a bar I didn’t even know existed, hoping just to relax and fade into the background. But as I glanced around the room, I knew my attempts had been futile. The man sitting next to me was the most gorgeous man in the bar, and women who were already obviously on a date, or out with someone, were blatantly staring at Joel.
“Doesn’t that make you uncomfortable?” I asked, before realizing I should have kept my mouth shut.
“Nothing. Doesn’t matter.”
“No. You can’t just do that. Say something then just back down. Come on, Gillian, out with it.”
“When women stare at you like that. They don’t even bother to try to hide it,” I confessed painfully, feeling my face turn a deep beetroot red.
“Honestly, I hadn’t even noticed,” he replied, his dazzling aqua eyes never once leaving mine. “Does it make you uncomfortable?” he asked genuinely, signalling to the waiter for another round.
Moments later, another drink in hand, my confidence flying high with the help of white rum, I finally managed to make a decision. “It’s not me they’re looking at.”
For a long moment we just sipped our drinks and bounced along to the music. We weren’t touching, but the warmth from his leg was radiating through my flimsy dress, and I was caught regretting my wardrobe choice. I should just have donned jeans and an oversized comfy jumper.
I drained the last of my drink from my glass and smiled slightly, trying to mask the hiccups. “I better start heading home,” I murmured, not knowing what else to say or how to break the silence.
“One more drink?” He winked, again waving his arm in the air. Another round of drinks appeared almost instantly. “Thanks, Jacob.”
“Can I get you anything else?” he offered politely.
“Just the bill, thanks.”
Jacob had barely scurried away when Joel casually reached over and laid his hand on my knee. I could feel the warmth take over my body. The only thought running through my head in that moment wasGod, I hoped I shaved my legs properly. I couldn’t help smiling to myself. I looked Joel in the eye deliberately, waiting for him to say something, anything. But he gave me nothing. It was as if it was the most natural thing in the world for his hand to be resting on my knee.
Jacob returned with the check and instinctively I reached for my handbag. “Don’t be silly, I got this,” Joel said dismissively, pulling a hundred dollar note from a wad of them held together neatly in a gold money clip in the front pocket of his jeans. When Jacob returned with only thirty dollars change, I almost fainted.
“How…how much were those drinks?” I asked, embarrassed. I always paid my own way and wasn’t about to change that now.
“Forget it, you’re not paying. My treat.” He winked slyly before downing the last of his mojito in one long mouthful and jumping to his feet. Doing the same, I stood up and went to reach for my jacket, but I was too slow. Joel was already holding it out for me to step into. Completely unaccustomed to being treated like this, I timidly wiggled into my jacket in as ladylike a manner as possible.
Flicking my handbag over my shoulder, I said, “Thanks…I mean for the drinks and everything. I’ve had a really good time.” I meant it, too.
“Why are you talking like the night is over? To me you look like the type of woman who loves a delicious chocolate mud cake, and I know the perfect place to get it at this hour,” he elucidated, reaching down and taking hold of my hand.
Looking down, I couldn’t tell where his fingers ended and mine began, but I felt completely at ease with him. I don’t know if it was the glasses of wine, or the delicious rum concoctions, or his smooth, easygoing candor. “What makes you think I am a mud cake lover?” I teased, trying desperately not to completely melt at his fingertips.
“That’s easy. You’re female.” He laughed. It was a deep throaty laugh that sounded completely natural and easy.
Walking down the stairs with Joel’s hand in mine, for the first time in a very long time life felt good.
We bought the biggest, most delectable slice of mud cake I had ever seen. Rich, moist, covered in chocolate ganache and served with the biggest dollop of whipped cream, it was a heart attack on a plate. But it was so good. Joel insisting on paying, and I was starting to learn more and more about the handsome man sitting in front of me, slowly but steadily rubbing his foot against mine.
“So…” I asked, stuffing another piece of cake in my mouth. Knowing that I would have to spend all day tomorrow running around the lake, I figured I might as well enjoy the naughty things in life. Punishment could wait until tomorrow.
“So…did I or did I not tell you that I knew just where to get the best chocolate mud cake in town?” Joel grinned, sneaking a fallen chocolate chip from the side of my plate.
“You say that everywhere you buy chocolate cake, Joel,” said the bouncy blonde with a giggle, clearing the table beside us.
Joel was obviously a very popular guy. Not that I couldn’t see why. But I was just more curious as to why he was wasting a Friday night treating me to cocktails and cake. “So, tell me something about you,” I asked, completely intrigued.
“What do you want to know?”
Taking a deep breath, Joel looked nervously out of the corner of his eye, almost as if I was the only one who was going to hear him. “I’m the youngest of three. Two older sisters. I’m an uncle to five nieces. My dad died when I was seventeen. I hated school so I dropped out of year eleven. I had no idea what it was I wanted to do with my life, but I wanted to drive a fancy car. So I fell into real estate pretty much by accident. But now I love it. Every day I get to talk to new people and I love watching them get excited over something they really love. That’s all you get for now. The rest you have to earn.”
I forced a frown and flashed my sad little puppy eyes at him. “And…”
“Nope, that’s all you get,” he asserted, rubbing at my cheek. “You have chocolate everywhere.”
“Don’t change the subject! I want to know.”
“Did you get it?” Joel raised a quizzical eyebrow at me, as I scraped the remaining few chocolate crumbs onto my spoon. “The car. The reason for real estate. Did you get the fancy car?”
“You tell me,” he whispered seductively into my ear before grabbing my hand and leading me out of the bakery.
Despite the icy cold wind that had kicked up, I didn’t feel a thing. I was completely intoxicated by the man in front of me. As we rounded the corner, he pushed me up against the side of the building and kissed me passionately, his warm, strong hands cupping my face, lifting it up to his. I didn’t even feel the bricks scraping at my skin through the flimsy material of my dress.
When I eventually pulled back, I sucked in long cold breaths. I watched hypnotized as puffs of condensation lifted up between us. “What was that about?” I asked, not really sure whether I was asking Joel for an answer, or myself. Joel shrugged, annoyed, which just made me want him even more. “So, where’s this car?” I said, finally remembering why we had come out in the cold.
Joel began to walk away, his hands buried deep in his pockets, his head down, trying to keep out of the wind. I just stood there, frozen hopelessly to the spot. As anger began to bubble up inside of me, I watched as Joel spun around. “Are you coming or not?” He grinned cheekily.
I wanted to run to him, but forced my feet to take slow, steady steps. He stood at the corner, hands buried deep inside his jean pockets, his beaming smile lighting up the night. I was completely smitten, and I hoped that his kiss was an indication that he was as well.
When I reached his side, he took my hand and stepped onto the road and led me towards a car park. “Which one?” I asked nervously. I was surrounded by some of the most beautiful cars I had ever seen. Ferraris, BMWs, Porsches and even a Maserati.
“Over there,” he said, heading in the direction he indicated. He pulled the keys from his pocket and pressed the button. The lights flashed, and it became obvious which car was his, a sparkling, metallic black, Audi TT convertible. I heard myself gasp. How could someone his age have such an imposing car?
“Is that all?” I teased, trying my best not to appear impressed. Slapping my bum playfully, he began kissing my neck feverishly. I couldn’t tell whose arms were going where as I ravished his body.
“Not here,” I panted.
“Okay,” he murmured in my ear, still kissing my neck.
I pushed him away with all the force I could. We needed to get out of there. No way was I going to finish what we had started in a dirty, very public car park that had the strong stench of urine. As much as I wanted him, more than I had ever wanted anyone or anything before in my life, I wasn’t going to be that trashy. Picking up some guy in a bar was one thing, but having it on with him in the local car park was quite another.
He slid across the bonnet like he was some kind of movie star. I was just afraid he would scratch the paint and blame me for it. If it was my car I wouldn’t be sliding over it, even if I was dressed head to toe in lamb’s wool. I jumped into the passenger seat and when we took off, gravel was sent flying about haphazardly as we fishtailed out of the car park.
Without thinking, I turned in my seat to face him. I didn’t say a word as my hand came to rest on his thigh. I stared at his face as he tried to concentrate. I knew I was making it harder for him, but I didn’t really care. Up close he was even more perfect than I remembered from his office. He was handsome in a stylish, sophisticated playboy way.
He pulled the car to a halt at a set of deserted traffic lights. “Hurry the fuck up,” he swore under his breath, looking over at me, my eyes still firmly fixed on his jaw line. I leant over as far as I could and kissed his cheek, then whispered in his ear. I was becoming as impatient as he was. The light turned green, and with a screech of the tires, and black smoke billowing out behind us, Joel took off.
I had no idea where he was taking me, and the fact that my car was parked back near the bar wasn’t even an issue. Although I had a couple of drinks, I was by no means drunk—tipsy, yes. Confident, absolutely. Horny, definitely.
When the car came to a halt in front of an immaculate cement rendered house, I was shaken back to reality. Joel had already jumped out of the car and was opening my door when I realized I still had my seatbelt on.
“Wow,” I exclaimed, stepping from the car. “You live here?” I asked. Joel didn’t answer, he just began kissing the back of my neck and nuzzling my earlobes.
“Have a look at this place,” I said in shock. It was the most beautiful home I had ever seen. The front yard, even the view from the driveway, was inspiring. I could hear running water somewhere close by, and a million tiny lights illuminated the front garden, showing off an immaculately landscaped yard.
“I’ve seen it,” Joel murmur into my ear. “Let’s go inside.” He basically dragged me through the front door as I tried to take in as much beauty as I could, but my feet barely touched the ground as he led me through an oversized oak door.
Inside was even more amazing. The high ceilings featured built in lights which had been switched on and then dimmed. Everything was pristine and perfect—white leather lounge, the biggest flat screen television I had ever seen hanging on the wall, the glass coffee table with no sign of magazines or even a coffee ring. It was one of those living areas that you saw only in the home decorating magazines. Everything was simple, stylish, modern, and all in its place. Beyond the lounge room I could see into the kitchen, where the granite bench tops had nothing on them, not even a toaster or a kettle. Everything was put away, and no trace of dust or even living.
“Are you sure you live here?” I asked, trying to look around the rooms. I was secretly dying for the grand tour, I wanted to see more. I could only imagine what the bathroom would look like.
In the midst of that thought Joel kicked off his shoes and ripped his shirt up over his head. I completely forgot about the house. If I thought his house was in perfect condition, his body was something else entirely. Everything that I guessed was under the suit when I first met him was there, and an even bigger surprise packet.
Running my fingers softly over his flawless washboard six pack, I was completely and utterly gone. In that moment I forgot about everything else. Joel dropped to his knees and undid the zipper on my boots. It was the most erotic and sensual thing anyone had ever done to me. I knew I was melting and by the time he stood up again, and I stepped out of my boots, I wanted him. More than I had ever wanted anything before in my life.
“Bedroom?” I panted desperately in his ear, the only chance I had of coming up for breath.
As he tugged down the zipper on the back of my dress, I could feel my heart pounding and my pulse racing. I could feel the wet warmth of his breath on my quivering shoulders and my entire body was covered in tiny goose bumps. My dress fell to the floor, and for the first time I felt self-conscious. Before that moment I hadn’t thought of it, but standing in the middle of his perfect, oversize living room in only my black bra and underpants, I felt exposed and vulnerable—ashamed, even.
But Joel didn’t give me a chance to think. Taking my hands in his, he led me towards the back of the house. Pushing open the bedroom door, I was surprised to see that even that was kept immaculate. The cynical part of me wondered if it was kept so perfect because tonight he was expecting to bring someone home, or if this was the way he actually lived.
His jeans fell to the floor, and with the only free hand I had, I pushed the bedroom door closed.
The night before had been a whirlwind. I awoke in a sun-filled bedroom, in the most luxurious sheets my body had ever known. They smelt of jasmine and something else, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but I was transported to heaven. Lying there, breathing in the beautiful smells, I heard the shower turn off and realized where I was. This wasn’t some hotel room and room service wasn’t coming. I was in my real estate agent’s house. And someone, I hoped it was him, was about to finish in the shower.
I knew Joel was older than me, and I was just hoping that this immaculate house he had brought me back to didn’t actually belong to someone else, someone with the same last name as him. “Please, don’t live with your parents,” I begged quietly.
Scouring the room desperately for my clothes, but not moving from the bed, I spotted them on the other side of the room. They were neatly folded on a leather chair in the corner, my boots on the floor, standing side by side. Sighing heavily, I heard the sound of the water running in the basin. Suddenly a lack of self-confidence and supreme embarrassment consumed me and I found myself darting across the room and pulling my clothes on as quickly as I could before I was spotted.
As I was pulling on my last boot, Joel strutted back into the bedroom, looking like he had just stepped out of a fashion catalogue. His hair was styled, his face cleanly shaven, and he was dressed impeccably in a charcoal suit and tie. His crisp, clean white shirt was starched within an inch of its life.
“Morning.” He smiled, bending down to kiss my cheek as if it was the most natural thing to do. It was quick, easy, like it was an old habit.
“Hi,” I murmured, trying to be as casual as possible. Even as I mumbled, I could feel my face flush in embarrassment.
Without looking inept or even humiliated on any level, Joel checked that his tie was straight in the mirror hanging above the bed. I stood awkwardly in the corner of the room, not entirely sure what to do or say next. This was completely foreign to me. I had never picked up a stranger and ended up in a weird house, albeit a very nice house, wearing last night’s clothes, about to complete the dreaded walk of shame.
“Would you like some juice? There’s freshly squeezed orange and mango in the fridge,” Joel offered, smiling yet again.
I wanted to curl up and die. Actually, what I really wanted was to rip the suit from his body and fall back between the beautiful sheets and surface a week later. Last night had been lustful, needy, and desperate, and I was curious if round two would be any different.
“Sounds great,” I accepted. I hated orange juice; it gave me an itchy rash all over my body, tiny little pimples that itched and irritated for days. “Mind if I use your bathroom for a minute?”
“No problem. There are fresh towels on the shelf and a spare toothbrush in the second drawer,” Joel offered.
I watched him walk out of the room. There was a confident swagger about him, and the way his hips swiveled side to side made me remember the night before even more vividly. Feeling my temperature sky rocketing, I chastised myself. I needed to behave myself and get out of there as quickly as possible, before I did or said something that would only lead to regret.
The en suite bathroom was more than I could have imagined. It had sparkling clean, white tiles the entire height of the wall, a large square mirror, and thick, luxurious chocolate towels. Nothing out of place. Not even a stray hair on the floor. Splashing some cold water over my inflamed face I forced my breathing back under control, but nothing could control my curiosity.
I started in the second drawer, finding the spare pink toothbrush, still in its wrapper. Secretly I wondered how long it had been there, and how often it got replaced, but I quickly pushed that thought from my mind. The top drawer contained the usual—deodorant, razors, shaving cream, hair gel, and three different aftershaves. I took my time sniffing each of them. With each one, my heart raced a bit faster. They were all alluring. The third drawer had a spare tube of toothpaste, another bottle of shampoo, and some moisturizer. “No wonder you look so good,” I said to myself. It made sense, really. A man who looked as immaculate as Joel did every time I saw him needed something to make him look like that. I was just relieved to know he didn’t roll out of bed each day looking like a model.
The fourth drawer was a mystery. Every guy that I had ever known had only needed one drawer. Joel was more into appearances and I guess part of looking good came from his job, but what could he possibly be stashing in the fourth drawer?
A knock at the door made me almost collapse. I felt like a child being caught searching for Christmas presents a week before Santa came. “Did you find everything you need?” he called out.
Stuffing the toothbrush in my mouth, “Yes, thanks,” I said, garbled, hoping that I had pulled it off. I stood there for a few moments, my heart racing, waiting until I heard his footsteps walk away from the door.
Turning back to the fourth drawer, I pulled it open quickly, knowing my snooping time was quickly running out. Inside was only one box—condoms. Joel had his birth control stashed in the bathroom. No big deal. Everyone had them somewhere in their house.
Quickly rinsing the dry toothbrush, I laid it on the sink next to his. I wandered out into the kitchen only to find Joel gulping down a juice and swallowing a handful of pills.
“Big night?” I laughed, trying to break the eerie silence.
Shaking his head, he replied, “Nah, just some vitamins.”
“What time did you get up? I didn’t hear you.”
“I was up at five. I went for a run, did my work out, and jumped in the shower. I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“You went for a run?”
“Yeah, but it was only seven kilometers this morning. I was still pretty wiped out. For some reason I didn’t get much sleep last night.” He winked and my stomach lurched.
I didn’t know what to say. He was obviously a fitness freak and I, well, if I even thought about running to the letter box at the top of his driveway I would pass out. “Can I borrow your car keys for a minute?” I asked, desperate to get away from his piercing stare. He raised a quizzical eyebrow. “I’m not going to steal it.” I managed to laugh and actually mean it. “I just need to grab my handbag. I left it there last night.”
He tossed me the keys and it took all my concentration to catch them. The last thing I wanted to do was look like a klutz in front of him. I jumped off the bar stool and headed out the door. Out on the drive I was almost blinded by the sun. I had no idea what time it was, but the sun was high in the sky and the throbbing in my head wasn’t helping anything.
I grabbed my bag and headed back inside. As I reached out to hand him back the keys our fingers brushed slightly and I felt the now all too familiar tingling sensation run rampant through my entire body. There was something about this guy that made me want him so badly I could taste him. He was just so damn sexy.
“So, I don’t want to be rude or anything, but I have to get to work…” He trailed off.
“No, oh god, no. Don’t even worry about it. I’ll just call a taxi and get out of here,” I offered, before remembering I didn’t know exactly where I was. “You might just have to give me the exact address…” As I said the words, my heart sank. I had never felt so cheap and so much like a whore in my entire life. Admitting out loud that I had no idea where I was the ultimate degradation.
“It’s fine, Gillian.” When he added my name, I felt slightly better. At least he knew my name. That wasn’t something that cheap street walkers did, give out their real name. “I’ll drive you. Just tell me where you want to go.” He chuckled, grabbing a protein shake from the stainless steel fridge.
I told him to take me back to my car, which was all I could manage. All I wanted to say was “Take me back to bed,” but thankfully I restrained myself. I grabbed my bag and headed out the door. In the morning sunlight the front yard was even more beautiful than it had been the night before. Trees had shed their leaves and the whole yard had been turned a mosaic of autumn color, fiery reds, glistening golds, and burnt browns. The leaves cracked and broke apart under my feet, then I melted into the front seat of the car.
Joel joined me only moments later, sliding silently behind the wheel, and reversed hastily down the drive. “I have to ask, is that your place?” I asked nervously, still unsure that I really wanted the answer.
“Why is that?” he avoided.
“Just curious,” I played back, mentally congratulating myself for being so nonchalant.
“Who else’s would it be?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Your parents’? A client’s? Your boss’s?”
“What makes you think it’s not mine?”
“Okay, it’s immaculate. I mean, the gardens are near perfect, the house doesn’t have a speck of dust anywhere that I could see. It’s stylish without being over the top. It’s simplistic and it looks like something straight from a magazine. Besides, you’re a single, young guy. No single guys I know have a house like that.” I knew I was babbling, “You are single, aren’t you?” I asked, taking another look at his left hand for any sign of a ring.
Laughing, Joel’s face lit up. I could tell he wasn’t laughing at me but rather enjoying the easygoing banter. “Okay, in order. No, the house isn’t my parents’. Nor is it a client’s or my boss’s; I’m not that tacky. I have a gardener who comes once a week to keep my yard looking like that. And the cleaner comes twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays. Her name is Marie. Yes, it looks like something out of a magazine, because it has been in a couple. I spend barely any time at home, so it never really gets the chance to become messy and a typical guy’s house. Satisfied?” he asked with a smirk.
“You missed one thing.”
“What was that?”
“You can’t just do that. Say I missed something, but not tell me what it was?” Joel teased. He knew exactly which part of the question I was referring to; his eyes were alive and mocking. His avoidance was infuriating.
“Don’t play dumb,” I scolded.
“I have no idea what you mean.” He chuckled, turning into the car park we had left merely hours earlier. Across the road I saw cafés filled with Saturday morning patrons enjoying their scrambled eggs and lattes. In that moment I despised the happy, smug couples, gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes while she pretended to pick at her fruit cup and he stuffed down bacon, sausages, and hash browns. It was all so fake, or at least that’s what I hoped.
The sound of Joel’s deep voice broke my fixation and brought me out of my hate-filled gaze. “Which car is it?”
“Just drop me here. I’ll walk. It’s only upstairs.” I smiled, not wanting Joel to see my car. In comparison to his, it was embarrassing and I had already had more than my fair share of humiliation the morning.
“You’re sure? I don’t mind.”
“Yup!” He pulled the car to a stop, and I opened the door. “Thanks for, you know. Dropping me back.” My stomach was full of butterflies the size of albatrosses.
“No trouble. I’ll call you later on about the house.” He smiled. “See you.” He turned into an empty car park and turned around. As he drove back past me, I had my eyes firmly fixated on the ground in front of me. I didn’t want to see the look on his face as I took the inevitable walk of shame back to my car.
“Hey Gillian,” he called out. My eyes shot up towards his voice deceivingly quickly, “So, yeah, I am single.” He grinned that silly, cheeky grin that got me into trouble in the first place. My face flushed, but he never saw it. He was already gone.
Five days after my walk of shame, I was still furious with Joel. He hadn’t called once. No email, no text message, not even a comment on Facebook when, in a fit of uncontrolled anger, I decided to change my status to ‘Are all real estate agents assholes?’ I don’t know if I was angry because he hadn’t called me, or because he’d promised to let me know what was going on with the sale of my parents’ properties and he hadn’t.
When the phone rang I jumped up, suddenly filled with hope, and ran through the apartment like a woman possessed. Swearing and cursing at myself, I struggled to even locate the handset. Spotting it half buried in the clean washing pile, I jumped the sofa and grabbed it. “Hello?” I puffed and panted, as the hope instantly faded and dread filled my body. How embarrassing, to answer the phone sounding like you have just run a marathon.
“Hey Gillian, it’s me, Rhiannon!” she exclaimed cheerily. Instantly I wanted to commit murder. I was annoyed that my hopes had soared so high and it was only Rhiannon, but it wasn’t her fault.
“Oh, hi,” I mumbled, unable to hide the disappointment in my voice.
“So tomorrow night we’re heading out on the town and you, missy, are joining us. No excuses!”
Wracking my brain, trying to find an acceptable excuse, I coughed. I knew I didn’t have one, and there was no way Rhiannon would let me out of this. “Cool,” I faked. “Who with? What time? Where we headed?”
“Just the girls this time. You, me, Cora and Heidi. Going to meet at my place about seven, have a few quiet drinks and finish getting ready, and then we’ll head into the city,” she detailed.
“No troubles. Well, I’ll drive and that way we can get there and home.”
“No chance. Alex is going to come over when I call him, pick us all up and drop us in the city. Then when we’re nicely plastered and relaxed, I just have to call and he’ll come and pick us all up and take us home.” As much as it annoyed me, I had to admit, Rhiannon had it all planned out.
“Sounds good. What do I bring?”
“Just your fabulous self and a bottle of champers!” She giggled, making it sound like she had already begun the festivities.
“Easy! I’ll see you tomorrow about seven.”
As the phone disconnected I felt like a complete phony. I had just pretended to be excited and enthusiastic about a night out with the girls, when in reality all I wanted to do was curl up in bed, hide under the covers, and pretend that the past week hadn’t happened.
I had barely left the house since my night with Joel. Even the possibility of running out of food didn’t deter my hibernation. I simply dialed it in. I emailed out job applications and ordered clothes online—anything to avoid seeing people.
Then as I sat there, dreading a night out with my friends, I realized the ugly truth—I had become a hermit, something I considered pathetic. Especially since the reason I had become the shell of a person was because of a one night, alcohol-filled mistake with a gorgeous real estate agent.
With the decision firmly made, I jumped up and almost skipped into the shower. Minutes later, feeling refreshed and revitalized, I was out the door and walking towards the shopping centre. After three hours of intense shopping, which had my credit card steaming and my fingers turning white from shopping bag strangulation, I was on my way home feeling like a different person.
When I got home I managed to refrain from checking my email and Facebook profile. I didn’t want to know. I would wait and see how long it took him to contact me, and whether, when he eventually did, it would be completely work related. Instead, I focused on getting ready for my night of fun and frivolity with the girls, making sure I took the time to promise myself that I wouldn’t do the same stupid thing I had done the week before.
With a big night ahead the next day I ordered in Thai before collapsing into bed with a book. By nine I was fast asleep, the discarded book on my face.
Having a few hours to get ready was just the distraction I needed. I started with a long luxurious bubble bath, ensuring I massaged lavender moisturizer into my freshly shaved legs after I painted my toenails a shade of pink so light you could barely see it at all. I painted my finger nails and straightened my hair. When I checked the clock, I was surprised to see I had only an hour left before I had to head to Rhiannon’s’ place. I took care doing my makeup; I wanted to look stunningly fresh and natural before slipping my new outfit and heels on.
Doing a quick spin in front of the mirror, I was happy with what I saw. Flicking the lights off, I headed out the door determined to have a fabulous night with friends and forget all about Joel Matthews.
The look on Cora’s face as she pulled open the door confirmed my thoughts. “You look absolutely gorgeous,” she gasped, grabbing my wrist and pulling me inside.
“Thanks,” I accepted as gracefully as I could. “You too.”
For the first time since my world had been turned upside down, I felt alive again. I was nineteen and, for the first time in quite a while, I felt it. I didn’t have solicitors asking questions and people offering me things or queries from property managers over what they should do. Instead, I was handed a crystal glass of champagne from my best friend as I settled into the sofa and watched the hypnotic movements of Usher on DVD.
“Ladies!” Rhiannon exclaimed, breezing into the room and twirling, her short mini dress flaring as she fell into the oversized stuffed couch. “Don’t we all look ravishing?” I could instantly tell that the glass of bubbles in Rhiannon’s hand wasn’t her first.
“Who needs more champers?” Heidi asked, joining us in front of the television, a bottle of Omni in either hand.
I found myself captivated by the hip swiveling on the screen. Wearing only a pair of jeans and more diamonds than the local jeweler owned, Usher was drool-worthy.
“Earth to Gillian,” Cora teased, poking me gently in the ribs.
“Sorry, I was off with fairies,” I admitted sheepishly.
“We noticed.” Rhiannon laughed heartily.
I shrugged as Heidi topped up my glass. “I just want to know, where do I get one of those?”
“No idea! I don’t know anyone with a body like that, and if I did I sure as shit wouldn’t take my hands off him.” Rhiannon was well on her way to drunk; she was already beginning to slur her words and talk random nonsense.
Past drinking adventures had prepared all of us. Each of us had our own little idiosyncrasies when we were drunk. Things that normally we wouldn’t do, but once sufficient quantities of alcohol was added, some things couldn’t be stopped. Cora would cry. It didn’t matter if nothing happened at all, at some point, Cora would just break down in tears and cry. Rhiannon would get horny, hitting on any man whose eye she could catch. Even if it was across the bar she would make her move, often to the disgust of the object of her lust’s partner. This usually meant Heidi became agitated and aggressive, swearing and cursing like a sailor, pushing people and even getting in the occasional cat fight.
My biggest vice was my tongue. When loosened due to one too many cocktails, I tended to say what I thought with little or no regard of the rules. If someone asked if their bum looked big in their jeans and they did, but normally the polite thing to do would be to assure them that no, they looked great. That’s when drunken Gillian would tell them with a muffin top like that I wouldn’t be worried about the ass chasing them around. I had a foul mouth and I often ended up calling the next day to apologize.
When the last of the champers was empty, Alex arrived and drove us into town. I don’t really know how he did it with the radio blasting Madonna as loud as it could go and four very tipsy, women singing even louder.
“Behave yourselves!” Alex warned out the window as we quickly joined the end of the queue outside the club.
“Yes dear,” we all called out in unison.
It was freezing. Even through the champagne induced haze I knew it was freezing. My strapless black top wasn’t doing much to keep out the frosty midnight breeze. I was glad I had chosen to wear pants rather than a skirt or a dress like the others. I could see their legs turning blue as they bounced up and down, trying to keep warm as the queue snaked inside.
Luckily it didn’t take us long to get inside. “Ladies,” the bouncer greeted, lifting the velvet rope and stamping our wrists as we passed by. He was a stunning specimen. He had a simple, country bumpkin smile and the biggest biceps I had ever seen, but they looked natural and in proportion with the rest of his body. Not like the dumb, personality deprived, steroid-filled, robot standing opposite him. He handed me a lollipop and I headed up the stairs towards the thumping music.
Upstairs I spotted a booth in the back corner and in our own version of sign language Heidi and I headed straight for it, while Cora and Rhiannon went straight to the bar. Moments later the four of us were sitting around, toasting friendship with shots of Baileys.
“So, Gillian…what happened with that delectable real estate agent you were telling us about last week? Seen any more of him?” Heidi prodded.
“Yeah,” Cora added. “He sounded like fun with a capital ‘F’!”
I told them the truth. They were the only family I had these days so I admitted everything. The immaculate house, the beautiful car, and the walk of shame the next morning.
“Was his body as good as you imagined?” Rhiannon asked straight out. Even sober, she had no discretion or shame. If she wanted to know something, she would just ask. If it hurt your feelings, that was your problem, not hers.
I slid down in my seat. The smile on my face felt so big my lips almost cracked in the corners. “Oh my god!” was all I could say. How do you describe the best male specimen you have ever seen?
For the next couple of minutes we sat around gushing about Joel’s perfect body and his perfect manners. The perfect house and the fact that although it seems I was just another notch in his belt, he was still the perfect gentleman the whole time. I think the word ‘perfect’ was used about a million times in the space of ten minutes.
Then, abruptly, Rhiannon stood up, swayed on her feet, gulped down the last of her vodka raspberry and made a declaration. “Ladies, we aren’t here tonight to discuss Gillian’s previous conquests. We’re here to find the next one!”
Through the infectious cackling, Heidi remembered Alex. Kind, loving Alex, who was planning on getting out of bed in the middle of the night and coming to get us. “Rhiannon, aren’t you otherwise spoken for?”
“Yes, but you aren’t.” She grinned cheekily, grabbing Heidi’s hand and leading her to the centre of the dance floor.
I decided to sit this one out. Instead, I stayed to mind our drinks and our booth. I watched as the others laughed and danced and enjoyed themselves. I was having a great time just watching. When a broad shouldered, blond football type of guy approached and asked if he might buy me a drink, I declined his offer. I wasn’t sure why, but it just didn’t feel right. I felt as though I was cheating. Cheating on something, but I wasn’t sure what it was.
“Did you just send that scrumptious bit of man candy away?” Cora asked, sliding back into the booth, puffing heavily. Nodding, I sipped my vodka slowly. “Man, that real estate agent must have been unbelievable in bed. Or at least I hope he was, ’cause that guy you sent away, he looked like he would know what he was doing. Mind if I go find out?”
Smiling, I sent Cora off after Mr. Football, as he later became known. Moments later I watched them from my booth, gyrating their way around the dance floor. I felt even better. Seeing Cora that happy felt right. Heidi and Rhiannon were at the bar ordering more shots and laughing. Everyone was having an incredible night. Then I saw him.
His perfect hands, resting on her bum. His smiling face, reflected in her eyes. His dark blue jeans and grey button down shirt were the epitome of class and sophistication. His deep, soothing voice, whispering into her ear. His brown hair spiked into the perfect position. Joel was here. All my determination not to think about it or dwell on what might have happened evaporated and was replaced by a cold fury. As the realization sank in that I meant nothing to him, a blind hatred consumed me. I was so preoccupied when Rhiannon and Heidi slipped back into the booth beside me, I didn’t even notice that they had returned.
Heidi must have sensed that something was wrong. “Gillian! Gillian!” she called out, trying to make herself heard over the pumping music.
When Rhiannon touched my arm I jerked around and faced her, realizing for the first time that they had returned. “What’s up?” she asked, reading the strange look that crossed my face.
When I didn’t respond they followed my gaze and spotted the beautiful man nibbling on the blonde’s ear lobe. He planted tiny little kisses up and down the length of the swan-like neck that she arched backwards seductively while giggling.
“You know that guy?”
“Gillian! Do you know him?”
Shaking my head with disgust, I downed both my shot and Heidi’s before taking my eyes off him and facing Rhiannon. “Ladies, meet Joel Matthews.”
Both of their eyes darted around and looked again. They saw him the same way I saw him. And I have to admit it was great in that moment, at the time when I needed someone to understand, someone to know me, someone to be filled with the same rage that I was, Rhiannon and Heidi were.
“We’re out of here,” Rhiannon proclaimed, already on her feet.
When I finally managed to pry my eyelids open around midday the next day, I just wanted to shut them again. My tongue was furry and my mouth felt like it’d been stuffed with cotton wool. My ears were ringing and my head pounding. I could feel the room spinning around me. I didn’t think I had drunk that much, but obviously counting my drinks hadn’t been high on my agenda.
I managed to stumble to the bathroom and splash cold water on my face, in hopes that would make me feel human again. Looking up, straight into the truth-filled mirror, I saw the most horrid sight imaginable. My bloodshot eyes were outlined by dark tear-streaked mascara circles. Lipstick was smudged halfway across my cheek, making me look more like a clown than a person. My hair still had bobby pins hanging out of it, and clearly I had used an entire can of hairspray when I plastered it into position, so it now resembled a very poorly constructed bird’s nest. After three attempts of washing it all away with icy water, I drank thirstily directly from the faucet. The high pitched whistling noise the pipes made as the water thudded through them made my head spin even faster and harder. After glugging down a few liters, I stumbled back into bed, pulled the quilt cover over my head, and fell back asleep.
Waking again, I felt a bit better, but was surprised to see that it was already three o’clock. I had drifted in and out of consciousness for most of the day. After a shower and a tall glass of Coke I felt almost human again. Drawing back the dark curtains, I saw that the day I missed hadn’t been much. It had rained heavily, by the looks of the puddles that lined the driveway, and the trees were almost horizontal as the howling wind controlled them.
Tripping over a shoe I slumped to the lounge and clicked on the remote. When I felt something hard dig into my bum I foraged around, only to find the entire contents of my handbag tipped between the cushions. Finding my phone, I nervously put it on the arm of the chair and walked away.
I didn’t know if I called anyone last night. I didn’t remember calling, but then again I didn’t remember getting home or anything really after I spotted Joel in the club. Oh my god. I didn’t make an idiot of myself in front of Joel, did I? My phone was taunting me. Silent, still, waiting for me to gather the courage to flip it open and see what I had done. I couldn’t do it. Instead, I went into the kitchen and found something to eat.
I saw my phone vibrate off the lounge and crash to the floor, but my feet were frozen to the spot. I wanted to run and stop it from breaking, but if it broke all the information in it would be lost. All the evidence destroyed. But moments later it vibrated and buzzed again. It may have hit the floor with a thud but it still worked. Perfectly.
In that moment some strange impulse consumed me. I had no idea who could be trying to get a hold of me but I hoped it was Joel. I wanted to know that I hadn’t stuffed everything. I wanted him to reassure me that everything was okay, that I wasn’t some desperate, needy one night stand or just another notch on his belt.
I flipped it open and read the message.
Rhiannon: U up yet? I’m dying.
Rhiannon had always had a flare for the dramatic.
Gillian: Yeah alive.
I slumped back down on the lounge and hit play on the DVD. I didn’t even know what was in there and I didn’t really care. I just wanted the noise of something other than the incessant, infuriating ringing in my ears.
Rhiannon: Heidi n I r on way with ur car.
I had completely blanked out that part of the evening. I know Alex was supposed to bring us home but I don’t remember if he did or not. Probably; he was reliable and sensible like that.
For the next twenty minutes I sat, completely unable to move, tears streaming down my face, regretting pressing play.PS I Love Youplayed on the screen. Heidi didn’t even knock. She just pushed open the door and flopped onto the sofa beside me, her eyes completely focused on the screen in front of us.
Rhiannon came through the door like a whirlwind. “Well, ladies, did we all have fun last night?” Heidi and I rolled our eyes at her in unison and grunted our agreement.
“So, what happened to you, Gillian?” Heidi asked, straining her eyes away.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you turned down an absolute stunner, he ends up taking Cora home, and now no one can get hold of her. And you end up at the bar with a line of cowboy shots in front of you that you were downing like water. I have never seen anyone, male or female, drink like you did last night. Did you have a death wish or something?”
I stared at Heidi for a long time. At least now I knew the cause of the throbbing pain in my head and the reason every time I took a sip of my water I felt like my entire insides were going to come streaming out of me. “Did I?” I asked nervously. Surely she was exaggerating. They both laughed, seeing me wiggle. “How did I get home?” I enquired, not sure if I really wanted the answer.
“Alex,” Rhiannon offered. “He drove us all here. I stripped you off, tucked you into bed, and then we left. Nice lingerie, by the way. Was that for me or someone specific?”
“We practically carried you through the door. Well, Alex did,” Heidi finished. I felt my whole face turn beetroot red with embarrassment. I had been drunk before, but nothing like that. I didn’t remember how I got home; I couldn’t even walk up the steps by myself.
“I’m so sorry, guys…” I started, but was cut off by Rhiannon’s hysterical cackle.
“Don’t be sorry at all. You needed a good night out and you had it. I needed a good laugh and I got it. All in all, a very successful evening. Want to do it again?”
“I want to kill you!” I tried smiling, but couldn’t conjure one. “You know that, right?”
Later that night I lay curled up on the lounge, a bowl of hot buttered popcorn in my lap, and a blanket wrapped around me watchingSex and the Cityreruns. It amazed me; those ladies went out every night dressed head to toe in Dior or Gucci, drank more than a fish and awoke the next morning mostly looking stunning and refreshed with a different gorgeous guy each time. With that thought running around in my overtired and still slightly intoxicated brain, I thought of Joel. Maybe he was my one perfectly gorgeous guy. Maybe that was all I got.
The more I thought about him, the more irritated and annoyed I got. It wasn’t that he had basically thrown me out the door, because the truth was he didn’t. He was a perfect gentleman the morning after. No, the bit that was annoying me more than anything else was the fact that I had employed him and he hadn’t bothered to call. I had retained his professional services and he was supposed to have fulfilled specific obligations and he had failed. Frustrated, it took all my control and strength to not text him and say something I would regret later. No, I was more mature than that. First thing Monday morning I was going to contact his office and find out what the hell was going on.
Still annoyed, I found myself drooling over the Absolut hunk as I drifted into a deep, dreamless sleep.
When Monday arrived, I had made some momentous decisions regarding my life. I was going to take control and do with it what I wanted. I had spent the day before surfing the internet getting very familiar with my new best friend, Google. I was putting together my bucket list. It was so broad and varied. It had simple things like ice skating and go-karting, but then it had adventurous things too. I wanted to ride an elephant in the jungles of Thailand, and I wanted to see the great pyramids of Egypt, before climbing the Eiffel Tower in Paris at sunset. But first I was going to start small. I was going to get fit and skinny and start feeling good about myself. So when the alarm rudely interrupted me at six a.m. I wanted to kill someone. But then I remembered this was entirely my idea. Even if it was a stupid one. I tortured my body for the next half an hour while I followed the yoga instructor on TV through a rather painful session before exposing my already tired and sore body to cold and attempted a run. It almost killed me. My labored breaths formed fluffy white clouds of condensation in front of my face while my nose was so cold it felt like the tip would fall off. My plan had been to run for half an hour, then shower and start my day. Barely ten minutes in, I had a stitch in my side and could barely breathe. With my heart pounding madly in my chest, I walked the rest of the way.
“Morning,” other joggers greeted as they breezed past barely panting, let alone sweating.
By the time I stepped into the shower and let steam surround me, I recognized the extent of the weariness on my neglected body. It would take time to build up to running, but I’d get there. I was determined. First get fit. Feel good. Look fabulous. Then I’d get what I wanted. Or who I wanted.
After scoffing down my breakfast I stole a glance at the clock only it was just after eight. Too early to ring Joel and let him know my thoughts. Trying to distract myself, I vacuumed and did a load of washing. I threw out a pile of old trashy magazines and even dusted, something I hated more than anything else. Other than ironing, it was the single chore I despised the most.
The clock stuck nine and I could only hold out a few more minutes. At ten past I called the office’s main line. “Max Meredith & Sons, this is Madeline.”
“Good morning, Madeline. Could I please speak to Joel Matthews?”
“Could I ask who’s calling?”
Already, she was irritating me. I’m sure she was just doing her job and following the script written in front of her, but for some reason I found her completely patronizing. Why did I have to explain myself to her?
“It’s Gillian Dempsey,” I retorted, refusing to give more than was requested.
“And Ms. Dempsey, can I ask what it is regarding?” she chirped. I pictured her in my mind and it was definitely not complimentary. “Regarding the sale of my property.”
“Just a moment, I’ll see if he is available.” At that point Madeline must have pressed a button and the most annoying repetitive hold music came on. It was the sort of music you hear as you enter the big top at the circus. “I’m sorry, Mr. Matthews is tied up at the moment. Can I take a message?”
Now I was really pissed off. Tied up my ass; he was avoiding me. “Tell him if he does not contact me within the next three hours I will withdraw my properties from the market and take my business elsewhere.”
I heard Madeline gulp. I hoped I was intimidating her. I hoped she was scared of passing the message along. But as soon as the thought registered, I instantly felt sorry for the doe-eyed beauty. It wasn’t her fault that I was a dirty, desperate tramp who couldn’t keep my hands off the sexy real estate agent.
“Can…m-may I get your contact number?” she stammered, clearly shaken.
After giving her my mobile I thanked her, hoping that she wouldn’t bear the brunt of Joel’s anger in my place. I would have quite happily told him what I thought, but he was too chicken shit to talk to me like an adult, so poor, innocent Madeline had had to face my frustration.
The hours passed without a word. By four that afternoon, irritated had given way to furious. I couldn’t believe that he was so childish that he couldn’t even return a client’s phone call. I mean, he had a fancy car and a nice house, so he must be nice to some clients to have that sort of success, but obviously not the ones he slept with.
With only fifteen minutes left of the work day, I called the office again. This time Madeline, already wary of me, informed me that Joel was in a meeting and she would again pass on my message to return my call as soon as he finished. This time I managed to remember that it wasn’t Madeline who was at fault, and didn’t take my annoyance out on her.
By Friday I was fuming. Not only was my entire body aching from my newly enforced exercise regime, but I still hadn’t heard back from Joel. This time I wasn’t going to give in or play nicely. I called his mobile directly. The fourth call, he answered.
“Hello,” he spat rudely.
“Joel! This is Gillian,”
“Yes, what can I do for you now, Gillian?” he asked dismissively. I could tell he was pissed, but I didn’t care. He didn’t get to make me the bad guy in this one. He knew what we were doing. If he’d have wanted to stop it he could have. But he didn’t.
“A return phone call would be a nice start,” I snapped back.
“Look, Gillian,” I heard him cough and clear his throat. “We are NOT in a relationship. For God’s sakes! Grow up and stop calling my office. I do not have to answer to you.” His raised voice was powerful.
On the other end of the phone I knew instantly that he meant every word he said, but I didn’t care. “Actually, Joel, you do. I employed you. I have a contract signed by the both of us stating that you work for me. I retained your services and on completion of your work you will be remunerated.” I felt smart. Not cocky, just right. And I was even surprised at myself that I was able to use all the words I wanted to and they made sense as they came out. I hadn’t faltered.
I heard him let out a deep breath. I could feel the tension in the silences. As much as it pained him, we both knew he had nowhere to go, even if he refused to admit it. “Well then. If that’s the way you want to play this one. Your unit will be in tomorrow’s paper and on exhibition tomorrow and Sunday. The house, as previously discussed, won’t hit the market until the tenants vacate in approximately four weeks and repairs have been carried out. Does that satisfy all of your questions, Ms. Dempsey?”
“Actually, I just have one more,” I said, using all my restraint to hold my voice steady and not lose my temper. “I’d like the name and contact details of your boss.”
“Excuse me?” I heard him gasp, evidently shocked at such a preposterous question.
“Your boss. Who do you report to? I need their name and contact details. Thank you.”
I heard him muttering under his breath but couldn’t make out the words. “My principal’s name is John McMasters,” he mumbled, I think driven by pure shock more than anything, before regurgitating a mobile number softly in the vain hope that I didn’t catch all the numbers.
“Thank you, Joel. You have been very informative this afternoon. I expect I’ll be hearing from you soon with regards to the unit’s progress,” I declared, clicking off.
Armed with information, I sat for a long while with a smug smile on my face. Round one had definitely gone to me. I wasn’t sure I was going to let Joel’s boss know how he was speaking to clients, but I thought I would give him some time to sweat it out. It wasn’t like I wanted to ruin what was so obviously a successful career, but as someone paying thousands of dollars in commission, I deserved better than to be spoken to like that.
Satisfied with the outcome and slightly chuffed with myself for not being an overly emotional girl but instead restrained and professional, I collapsed onto the lounge. Although it was a Friday night, I had begged off another night of dancing and debauchery with the girls. Instead, I had chosen a DVD, slippers, and a block of chocolate. With no one to impress, I had a long hot shower and pulled on my favorite grey sweat pants with holes in the knees and the hem falling down on one side, and an oversize jumper with a stain from something straight down the middle.
It was barely moments after I had made myself comfortable and settled into the lounge when the doorbell rang. Frustrated, I paused the movie and scrambled to the door.
The sight that met my eyes was one I hadn’t expected. Standing before me, apologetic smile plastered across his perfect face, was Joel. Still in his suit and tie despite the hour and the day, I could still tell he had only just finished work.
“Hi,” I mumbled, still completely shocked and embarrassed. I couldn’t have looked worse if I’d tried to. Yet again he was looking flawless.
“Ummm…h-hi,” he stuttered, running his hand through his hair although there was so much product there it didn’t move at all.
“What are you doing here?”
“I…aahhh…I…came to apologize. I was out of line this afternoon and I’m sorry. Actually, I was out of line all week. I knew you called, my receptionist gave me your messages, and I know that I had promised to call and let you know what was happening, but I didn’t want to have the inevitable complicated conversation about what happened.” Once he managed to start talking it came with a flourish. “Here,” he said, handing me a chilled bottle of white wine. It was a brand I had looked at many times and decided it wasn’t worth wasting that sort of money on.
“Thanks,” I said unenthusiastically. “Look, I know what happened the other night, but I honestly was calling about the unit. You said you would let me know how everything was going and I’ve never done this before, so I need you to tell me what I’m supposed to do. That’s all.”
Gulping, Joel flashed his lopsided grin, which made my heart flutter. “I know. I was just hoping to avoid this conversation. I guess I didn’t really think it through properly,” he admitted. I was secretly amused at his awkwardness.
We just stood there for a long moment looking at the ground. I pretended to read the label while Joel pretended to look out across the complex. Unable to stand the silence any longer, as bravely as I could, I asked, “Would you like to come in for a glass of this? I probably shouldn’t drink the whole bottle on my own.”
I saw the conflict in his eyes. He wanted to come in and have a drink but I think there was a reluctance to let things progress back to where they were the other night. Me, I wasn’t concerned. If that’s where they ended up I was okay with that. Beside the fact that he was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, he was unbelievable in bed as well.
“I really shouldn’t,” he groaned with no conviction behind his words.
I couldn’t hide the disappointment that was clearly written all over my face. “Okay. No problems. Some other time, then.”
Neither of us went to move. I made no attempt to close the door and keep the warmth in, and he made no effort to turn around and walk away. After another strained moment, Joel shook his head in defeat. “Maybe just one glass. It’s Friday, after all.”
I stepped back and watched as he walked into my home. Instantly I wished I had cleaned up that afternoon. It wasn’t dirty and uninhabitable, but it was messy. I went to push the catalogues that were covering the entire kitchen counter into some kind of pile when Joel grabbed my hand unexpectedly. “Don’t worry about cleaning up.” His eyes held me captive for a moment longer than they should have. I could feel the warmth of his skin on mine.
Forcing the thoughts from my head, I pulled my hand away and rifled around the kitchen drawer looking for a corkscrew. As soon as I pulled it out, Joel took it and opened the bottle. Unable to just stand there, I made myself busy looking for my best wine glasses. I wanted a pair of glasses, not two that were mismatched. Inwardly I was cursing myself. His house had seemed so grown up and proper, and mine wasn’t even a comparison. It was messy and full of secondhand furniture. The cupboards were lined with photos and knick knacks collected over the years. Some were childhood collectibles while others reminded me of my parents, things I hadn’t been able to part with when I started to throw things out.
With the glasses full, I returned to the lounge and tucked my feet underneath me. Out of the corner of my eye I watched Joel walk around inspecting everything. I sipped my wine as he quietly inspected photo after photo. His eyebrows raised over some while sadness seemed to consume him as he examined others. Part of me wondered if he saw something else in the photos, some pain that was in his own past, but I knew better than to ask.
When he sat down next to me minutes later, the silence that consumed us was dangerous. I could feel the sexual tension filling the foot wide gap between our bodies. In an attempt to calm my nerves, I downed the rest of my glass of wine, hoping to take the edge off.
“Need more wine?” I asked, springing off the lounge with overwhelming enthusiasm.
I watched in awe as Joel finished his glass in one long pull. “Sure,” he agreed, reaching out and handing me his glass. In the exchange of glasses, the moment our fingers touched, I felt my face turn a beetroot red.
I busied myself in the kitchen trying to hide while I pulled myself together. I grabbed a box of crackers and half a slab of cheese and dumped them unceremoniously onto a plate before overfilling the glasses. As I was mopping up the spill with a floral tea towel, Joel called out, “Need a hand in there?”
“No, umm…thanks. I’m fine. Won’t be a second,” I dodged. I took the moment of privacy as a sign. I ran a hand roughly through my hair in a vain attempt to tame it, then tried to straighten my shirt and brush the fluff from it.
Walking back into the lounge it was strangely alluring to see that Joel had made himself comfortable in my home. I know I had invited him to do so, but to see him with his shoes kicked off, tie hanging on the arm of his chair, was simply intoxicating. Handing him his wine, I was extra careful to ensure no physical contact was made. If I let myself, I could see us easily back in the same situation as the other morning.
“So…” Joel began stuffing his face with cheese and crackers. “Remind me again why I’m watching this chick flick?”
Slightly relieved, I laughed sincerely. Despite the nerves and the erotic fantasies playing in my head, I genuinely like spending time with him. He was fun. He made me laugh. And that was exactly what I needed.
“Because this is my house and I control the remote.”
“Is that right?”
“Yep. My house, my rules,” I said stubbornly. I was trying to be tough, but this was definitely heading for treacherous ground.
For a while Joel didn’t say a word. Instead, he just slowly put his glass on the floor next to him and reached for the throw hanging on the back of the lounge behind our heads. When he spread it over my legs I almost died of shock. He was being so sweet. No one other than my dad had ever been that nice to me without wanting something in return.
Quietly he got up, placed his wine glass back in the kitchen, and then stood next to the TV. “I should head home. It’s been a long day,” he admitted, sliding his feet back into his shoes and stuffing his tie in his pants pocket.
“Oh, o-okay,” I stammered, unable to hide my disappointment.
“I really am sorry, Gillian. I didn’t mean to be such an arse.”
“Forget about it. It’s all good.” I smiled, gaining confidence.
“I’ll call you tomorrow afternoon after the exhibition and let you know how it went. Hopefully it will be good news. Just think, you could even have it sold by then,” he said, slipping from human being to real estate agent without even pausing for a breath.
“Hope so. At least that will be one less thing to deal with.” As soon as I said it I immediately regretted my choice of words. I had made my life sound like a circus, a million things going on and none of them in my control.
I stood up and shuffled to the door, my eyes never leaving my feet. “Well then. Good night, Gillian. Enjoy your movie.”
“Thanks. Have a good night, Joel.” He stuck out his hand and I grasped it firmly. Shaking his hand felt so weird. Barely a week ago he had left black hickies on my neck and shoulders and now he was standing in my doorway, the cold air blasting us both, shaking my hand like we had just completed a very serious business deal.
I expected him to shake my hand and simply turn and walk away but he didn’t. The shaking stopped and he just stood there staring at our intertwined hands. When our eyes met I felt the tingling sensation consume my body, the images of last week flashing in my head like a slide show. “Well…good night,” he said, no louder than a whisper.
“You already said that.”
“I did, didn’t I?”
I nodded and smiled. If he was stumbling over his words, I wasn’t the only one feeling things that were going unsaid. Suddenly he pulled me towards him out on the balcony and into his arms. I melted into them, pushing my body against his. As his tongue entered my mouth I felt myself give in to him. With his hands ravishing me, Joel lifted me off my feet, my legs instinctively wrapping around his narrow waist as he carried me back over the threshold into the lounge.
As the sun crept through the curtains I rolled away from its awakening glare. My arms and legs were stiff and sore. After spending the night curled up on the lounge floor only meters from my warm, comfortable and inviting bed, my whole body ached. I looked over at Joel’s perfect face as he snored softly beside me. He looked so peaceful I couldn’t bring myself to wake him.
I wiggled slowly out from under his arm and crept into the bathroom. Brushing my teeth, a million thoughts darted about in my head. It couldn’t be a one night stand if it happened twice, could it? Or was the first time a mistake and the second one an apology? I couldn’t help but think I was desperate enough to try to convince myself of anything. I jumped in the shower and tried to force the thoughts from my head instead concentrating on the hot water cascading down my body.
I rushed out of the bathroom and into my bedroom wearing only a towel, hoping not to get caught running around with all my flaws on display. I heard cupboard doors being opened then closed and a gentle humming coming from the other end of the apartment. Rushing, I pulled on the first pair of jeans and jumper I found.
As I stumbled into the kitchen I saw something that took my breath away. Joel was standing there in my kitchen, wearing his white business shirt, half the buttons undone and flowing loosely, and a pair of navy satin boxer shorts. Nothing else. He was so sexy in that moment I wanted him again. He was flipping pancakes, and the smell of coffee filled my home. He looked comfortable, natural, and at ease. I couldn’t help but wonder if he looked that way in every woman’s kitchen or just mine.
“Morning.” He grinned, finally spotting me standing there watching him.
“Morning.” I smiled back. I felt the complete opposite of when I had done my forgettable walk of shame. I felt full of hope. For the first time since my world had been turned upside down I had hope.
“Have a seat,” he invited warmly, pulling the chair out for me. “Fresh pancakes and hot coffee.” As he placed the plate and mug in front of me he popped an unexpected kiss on my forehead.
Stuffing a forkful of pancake in my mouth, I mumbled, “So, what did I do to deserve this?”
“It’s a bribe, actually.”
My heart sank. No one had ever made me pancakes before, and at the mention of a bribe I felt like they were about to come back up. “Go on,” I invited timidly.
“I was hoping that I would be able to…” His face was deadpan. My pulse was racing. My hands were trembling. “…use your shower?” he finished. I wanted to jump the kitchen bench and throttle him.
“Only if I can have another pancake,” I teased as he piled more on my plate then placed his own next to mine.
We sat there eating for a while and reading the paper, silently passing the individual sections back and forth between us like a routine. When I found the ad for the unit I couldn’t help but smile. The photo of Joel proudly staring back at me was completely different compared to the less than impeccably dressed man sitting beside me in his underwear.
“Thanks for breakfast.” He grinned again, piling the plates in the sink.
“Hey, you cooked. Any time you feel like cooking, my door is always open.” As soon as I said it I expected the ground to crack open and swallow me whole. I sounded so pathetic, so clingy. I was actually being straightforward and honest; if anyone wanted to cook for me they were more than welcome. I hated it. And it wasn’t something that I was very good at anyway. My face flushed and I found myself unable to look at him. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean…” I began back peddling.
Holding his hand up to stop my ranting, he said, “Gillian, it’s okay. I know what you meant.”
“I’m sorry.” I shrugged.
“Forget it. So, about this shower?”
“Absolutely, help yourself.” I was glad to have a moment to compose myself. I had never been this clumsy with my words before, but there was something about his perfectness that made everything I said come out in a muddled mess.
I heard the water running and tried to focus. I picked up my dirty clothes from the previous night and, tossing them in the laundry hamper, I busied myself in the kitchen washing up the dishes and wiping down the counter tops—ordinarily things that would have been done before company arrived, not while they were showering the next morning.
“Gillian!” his deep, sensual voice called out from the bathroom.
“Coming.” When I reached the bathroom door his head was poking out into the hallway, his body hidden behind the white, wooden door. “What’s up?” I asked as nonchalantly as possible.
“Can I please have a towel?”
“Sorry,” I cried out, racing to the laundry to find a clean, non-pink towel he could use.
Rushing back to the bathroom, I handed it to him. But gone was his modesty. The door was open and he stood there wearing only a smile. “Thanks.”
I tried to back out of the room, struggling to keep my eyes on his face. When I crashed into the wall behind me, Joel let out a deep chuckle that sent tingles all the way to my toes. It sounded good. Even through my embarrassment I managed to giggle, accepting that this was a weird situation. I stood there frozen to the spot, laughing until my sides hurt. With only a towel wrapped around his slender waist, Joel stepped towards me and my heart raced. When he reached down and took my hand, the laughter died on my lips but continued in my eyes.
As his lips touched my neck I gasped, “Don’t you have to work?”
“I’ve got time,” he whispered seductively into my ear. And, after homemade pancakes, who was I to turn him down?
As he slid his hands under my jumper, my body came alive with goose pimples. I wanted him, and I wanted him now. “Come with me. This time, we do it properly.” Even in his bossy, condescending voice he was sexy. My jumper never left the bathroom, my jeans made it into the hallway. Barely. The towel alone was unceremoniously discarded in my bedroom door way.
An hour later we were both shaken back to reality when his phone began to ring. “Are you going to answer that?” I asked as he ran his finger up and down my stomach. At first the thought of him touching my blubber made me flinch, but the way he did it and the smile on his face the whole time…I couldn’t ask him to stop.
When I eventually kicked him out after attempting to iron his shirt, which had doubled as a pillow the night before, I was floating on a cloud. I was happy. He made me laugh and smile and wish for more. The only thing that left a sour taste in my mouth was the fact that he promised he’d call. If he hadn’t planned on calling me I would rather he just have said good bye, not leave me with false hope. But I was determined not to dwell.
If he hadn’t called by Monday with at the very least news about the weekend’s exhibitions, I would speak to his boss. Obviously there was no point trying to have a conversation with Joel face to face. Each time we saw each other we ended up naked.
I called Cora and we decided to go for a run. I’m sure she thought I had lost my mind when I suggested such an out-of-character thing to do. Usually I was the ‘let’s meet for a cupcake and chat’ kind of girl. But Cora didn’t say anything. She just agreed to meet me by the lake. I’m sure she was waiting to see me before the interrogation started, but on the phone she was nothing but polite.
We’d run three of the five kilometers of the track when we collapsed, puffing and panting. Sucking in long deep breaths, we were both hunched over, hands on our knees, gasping for air. For people who didn’t jog, ever, we had certainly decided to push ourselves.
“So,” Cora wheezed, “are you going to tell me who or what has got us out jogging on a Saturday morning?”
And there it was. The truth, staring at me through hazel eyes. Cora asking me who was making me this person. Deciding there was no point trying to lie, I told her the truth.
We ended up giving up on our run, and camping on a park bench under a tree for a long time just talking about everything. It felt good to confide in someone. I had never done anything like this before, and I wasn’t even really sure what it was that I was doing, but as I said the words out loud, it seemed to make sense. Cora asked a million questions, but not once did I feel judged.
Although I’d come clean and told Cora my dirty little secret, I wasn’t ready to tell the others just yet. “Please, whatever you do, don’t tell Rhiannon,” I found myself begging.
“You should tell them,” Cora encouraged, but I didn’t budge.
“Not yet. I don’t know what this is and I don’t want to jump to any conclusions and end up being humiliated. The fewer people who know about this, the better.” I was determined. I wasn’t going to end up avoiding everything because I’d made a fool of myself.
“Your call,” Cora conceded. “But, for the record, I think you should.”
We stood up and walked on in silence. The weight of my decision clearly didn’t sit well with Cora. But I knew she would keep my secret. Reaching the car, we hugged and promised to talk soon before we went our separate ways. Sitting behind the wheel, I didn’t feel like going home yet, and since I was still sweaty and smelly, shops and restaurants were out. Instead, I climbed back out of the car, finished the water in my bottle, and took off on another lap.
Jogging allowed my thoughts to flow in a conscious stream. They weren’t muddled or clouded by interruptions and distractions. All I had to concentrate on was my steady, deep breathing and placing one foot in front of the other. As I rounded the end of the lake and began heading for home, I increased the pace. Pushing myself harder and faster than I normally would, Joel crept into my thoughts, and I wasn’t sure if I was running to forget him or running to impress him.
With my mind elsewhere, I didn’t quite lift my foot high enough and I went sailing to the ground, landing with a thud. Instantly embarrassed, I looked around, making sure no one saw my clumsiness before scrambling to my feet. I dusted my hands off, pretended to ignore the pain in my ankle and knee, and hobbled as fast as I could back to the car.
As soon as I could I took off home and jumped into the shower. It felt better. Pain subsiding, humiliation fading, I was okay. Since starting myself on this strenuous exercise regime, I’ll admit I was surprised by the changes in everything. I ate more than I ever had, but I only wanted salads and veggies. I felt better and I was more confident. After stuffing myself with a crunchy Asian noodle salad, I had a nap on the lounge. After all, I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before. When my phone vibrated under my pillow I was shocked awake. Joel was on his way over.
He arrived wearing a jumper and sweat pants with a bag of noodles and a bottle of wine in hand. “So, I have news.” He smiled as he breezed through the door, pausing briefly to plant a kiss on the top of my head, almost as if it was a habit.
I climbed back on the sofa, my legs tucked up under me, forgetting that I was supposed to try and impress anyone. It felt good not having to pretend. It was still all new and exciting and I wasn’t sure where I actually stood with Joel. I didn’t want to rush anything, but part of me nervously wanted to know.
I remained silent, waiting for the big news revelation, but he said nothing, frustrating me even more. I folded my arms across my chest and pouted dramatically.
“Gee, that’s attractive,” Joel said, dangling noodles from high above his head into his mouth.
“Like you can talk,” I teased. “So, what’s the big news?” I grunted impatiently, fighting the urge to jump him.
He wiped another face full of noodles away with the back of his hand, I couldn’t help but shake my head in mock disgust. “Well,” he flopped down unceremoniously beside me. “I have an offer for you.” I didn’t say anything; all I could do was raise a quizzical eyebrow. I wasn’t sure what we were talking about any more. “A young couple has put an offer on your apartment. It’s a really good offer. You should at least give it some thought.” His arm draped across the back of the lounge and around my shoulders.
“Maybe if you tell me the offer then I can consider it.”
For the next few minutes we discussed the offer and what I should do. Joel kept dodging my questions, refusing to tell me what I should do, saying it would be a conflict of interest.
“So, is sleeping with your clients a conflict of interest too?” I inquired as casually as I could. I heard the words come out of my mouth and instantly regretted it. “That sounded so much better in my head,” I added hastily, trying to make light of the situation.
Embarrassed, I jumped up off the sofa and backed away. I didn’t want him to touch me. Or look at me. Or even acknowledge my presence. My mouth had a bad habit of allowing words to escape before my brain had finished thinking them through. I hid in the kitchen and although I could hear the deep rhythmic sounds of Joel’s voice, I couldn’t make out the words. Trapped in the kitchen, I had nowhere to go. There was only one entry to my kitchen and only one exit, which Joel was now blocking.
With one hand on his hip and the other high above his head, he leaned invitingly against the door frame. I was captivated. All I could think about was his beautiful body. The humiliation that had consumed me only moments earlier melted and my whole body was rattled. “Are you going to let me actually answer that question?” He smiled, walking towards me.
With his breath on my neck the tiny hairs all over my body stood to attention. I tried to side-step away from him, knowing what would happen if I didn’t, but he blocked me, his hand landing decisively on my waist. I caught myself hoping I had put on half decent underwear when I had got out of the shower instead of the usual granny panties. “I don’t think I want to hear the answer.” As the words rushed from my mouth I was surprised by my honesty.
“Well, don’t…” he mumbled, kissing me roughly and urgently.
The next six weeks went past in a blur.
“Who’s the father?” Heidi repeated Rhiannon’s question.
I was thankful to Cora because she wouldn’t look at me. She was the only one who knew what I had been doing for the past couple of weeks. Only Cora knew the truth. She knew why I had blown my friends off for dinners and movies and usually didn’t even bother to return their calls. I knew they were frustrated with me and I couldn’t blame them, but I still didn’t feel guilty enough to confess.
“Do you even know?” Rhiannon asked spitefully. Her eyes showed pure disgust and in that moment I hated her.
“Of course I know. I’m not some kind of cheap slut,” was all I could offer. I didn’t want to give them a name. Or details. Or any information. I was confused enough by what was happening without trying to answer the million questions that would inevitably come.
“We won’t judge you, Gillian. We love you and we just want to help,” Heidi began. “Does he know yet?”
Gulping at the thought of telling him, I felt the tears welling up again. In the past hours I had already pictured every conceivable reaction from him, from the overwhelmingly ecstatic—in which he would sweep me off my feet, confess his love, and the three of us lived in his mansion happily ever after—to the humiliating and degrading—“It could be anyone’s. Just because I have money doesn’t mean you can pin this on me.”
When I didn’t answer or even make eye contact with them, Cora thankfully came to my rescue. “She doesn’t have to tell us if she doesn’t want to. When Gillian’s ready she will tell us what she needs us to know.” Cora reached out and squeezed my hand supportively.
“He doesn’t know and until I know for absolute certain that this is what it is, no one else knows either. Okay?” I stared at each of them individually until they reluctantly nodded their heads in agreement. “And I don’t want to talk about it anymore either. Until we have to face it, this isn’t an issue.”
“I mean it, Rhiannon. We’re not discussing it.”
“Okay, okay. But I just have one favor to ask…” Rhiannon waited. Blinking back tears, I shrugged my agreement. “Can you please go to the doctor first thing Monday morning? I fucking hate suspense.”
Finally I laughed. I had something to laugh at and it felt good. “Sure, I can do that. But only for you.”
Joining in the laughter, Rhiannon sprung up from the sofa and jumped on my lap, hugging me tightly. I know she wanted to say something, but her promise only moments ago held her tongue.
A silent tear passed over my cheeks; from now on, if the results came back the way I knew in my heart they would, I would never again have a carefree night. The moment that the double blue lines appeared on the stick my life was someone else’s. I was merely the supporting cast now. As strange as it was, and although the circumstances were far from ideal or my dream life, I knew I didn’t have a choice in that. My life now belonged to the child inside me.
Three days later I walked out of the doctor’s surgery more frustrated than when I walked in. He hadn’t done anything. He hadn’t even taken my blood pressure or checked my temperature. He had scrawled on a piece of paper and sent me to another building for a blood test. He did manage to charge me eighty dollars for the privilege of his illegible scribble, but he did nothing to reassure me or put my mind at ease.
It took almost an hour and forty-five minutes in the waiting room before I was called to hostile white walled room, where a surly nurse who clearly wanted to be somewhere else poked the needle into my elbow and filled the vials with my blood. Then came the worst part—the wait. I would know nothing more for two days. Add another two days to the three I had already spent completely terrified, and I lived almost a week with a gnawing anxiety growing rapidly in the pit of my stomach.
While I waited for the call which would irrevocably change my life I lived like a hermit. I never left the apartment. I didn’t answer texts or phone calls. And when Joel knocked on the door I hid behind the cupboard and pretended I wasn’t home. I needed to be alone when the call came.
Being on my own meant I had time to think about what I wanted. I had already made the decision if I was carrying Joel’s child I would have the baby. I couldn’t go through with an abortion even if that meant raising a child on my own. I would tell him if and only if it turned out that I had something to tell him. But for now it would be my own private torment.
It was ten to five on Friday afternoon and my mobile lit up. I didn’t recognize the number, so I timidly answered the phone. “Hello,” I squeaked, no louder than a whisper.
“Is this Gillian Dempsey?”
“It’s Tayla calling, from Dr. Johnson’s office. I am calling with your test results.”
“Congratulations, Gillian. It seems you are pregnant.”
“Excuse me for saying this, but are you all right, Miss Dempsey?” she asked sincerely.
“Okay then, I’ll let you get back to your day. You need to make an appointment to see Dr. Johnson sometime next week just to check everything is progressing normally.” She sounded sweet and concerned. I immediately pictured her as a beautiful old lady with short grey hair and soft hands. She sounded like the type of lady who would spend all day baking cookies for the church bake sale and all night crocheting coat hangers for the local primary school fete.
“Have a good afternoon, dear,” she sang sweetly.
I heard the line go dead and realized I had made only had one-word answers for the entire conversation. Although I felt guilty for being rude, the words that Tayla said began to sink in. And as reality sank in, panic took over.
I was pregnant. I was going to be a mum. In nine months, maybe a bit less, I would be completely responsible for another human being. A helpless, innocent child relying entirely on me to stay alive. And with those thoughts running through my head, I raced towards the bathroom and retched.
Two hours later my bum was numb from the cold tiles and my stomach was empty. I hadn’t cried, though, which surprised me a bit. I thought I would have. It seemed like something I should have done. Mourn the loss of the life that I had, but for some reason I didn’t.
I peeled myself from the bathroom floor, splashed cold water on my face, and summoned the resolve to get on with life. I strolled determinedly to the lounge and picked up my mobile. There were already three missed calls on it from three very eager and nervous friends. They could wait.
The dial tone seemed louder than normal in my ear. “Hey,” Joel answered. “I was wondering if I would ever hear from you again. I stopped around to see you last night but you didn’t answer.”
“Sorry, I was probably in the bath and didn’t hear you,” I lied. “So, can I see you tonight?” Although this same routine was almost normal to us now, I was still nervous. I had cramps in my stomach and I wasn’t sure if it was from the rumbling or nerves.
Seven Years Later
Joel wouldn’t talk to me. He wouldn’t even look me in the eye. Every morning we danced around each other, failing to discuss the elephant in the room. Things had changed for us. The life we had wasn’t what we had imagined or even planned. Granted, we didn’t really have time to even make a plan. I still felt robbed of that, but life happens. We couldn’t stop it or even slow it down.
Joel and I married when I was six months pregnant with our daughter, Charli. Joel was old-fashioned that way and he refused to bring a child into the world without a wedding ring. In all honesty, the day Joel had dropped to one knee in the middle of a crowded restaurant I would have agreed to anything. I was feeling like a balloon. I was uncomfortable and overly hormonal. We married in a small intimate ceremony attended only by Joel’s parents and my girls—Heidi, Rhiannon, and Cora.
Charli was born at three a.m. on a Tuesday. Joel was by my side through the whole thing, only leaving early to shower and head back to the office. Since I had moved into Joel’s house, he had started working harder and longer, spending more and more time at appointments and out of the house. I tried to talk to him about it but he dismissed my concerns. I was worried I had intruded on his life and run him out of his own home.
“Don’t be daft,” he would counter. “It’s your home too. I’m just working really hard now before the baby comes so that when he or she arrives I can spend more time at home with you two.”
It sounded reasonable. When our baby was born I wanted him to be there with us both, so I didn’t say anything. Then Charli was born and nothing changed. He stayed away more than he was there. Hence, it took me by complete surprise when, almost two years after the birth of Charli, we discovered I was pregnant again. Joel seemed to be okay about it, although he didn’t say much.
It was a very different pregnancy than the first. I was constantly exhausted. I suppose chasing a two-year-old around all day didn’t help. And my back ached. Joel wasn’t as attentive as he had been the first time around, but I couldn’t fault his affection and dedication to Charli.
He would often sneak away from work early in the afternoon for an hour or two and come home and play with Charli. He played whatever it was that she wanted to play. Some days they watched Wiggles videos and other days they had tea parties with all her dolls. It was the best time of the day for all of us. Charli always squealed with delight as Joel breezed through the door, Joel’s face broke out in a huge, dopey grin and I got a very welcomed rest.
Seven months later we welcomed Bianca to our family. I remember clearly the day I brought Charli home from the hospital I had been terrified. My hands trembled and I was too scared to be alone with her for the first two weeks. What if I did something to hurt her? What if I wasn’t good enough? The hardest part was I didn’t have my own mother to call and ask for advice. None of my girlfriends had kids and I was completely clueless. I was alone.
When I brought Bianca home, Joel unpacked the car in the driveway and then sprinted back to work. Luckily his mother was at our place looking after Charli.
“Where is Joel?” Adele asked, trying to contain the disgust plastered across her face.
“He dropped me off and headed back to work,” I tried to explain, feeling pathetic as I defended his thoughtlessness.
“Gillian?” Adele offered.
“I’m fine,” I whimpered, tears welling in my eyes.
The truth was I was embarrassed. I had grown used to Joel treating me like this, like I was the one who made his life something he didn’t want it to be. But it was something that was my own private pain. No one else knew about it. No one had even seen this side of our strained relationship and I hadn’t told my girls about it. The truth was, I was embarrassed about letting my life slip into this state.
“Gillian,” Adele commanded, taking my hands and sitting me down on the sofa. “What has been going on around here?” she asked me sweetly.
Ever since Joel and I married, Adele had become my pseudo-mum. She knew what I had been through and that I had no family of my own, so she took it on herself to fill the void the best she could.
“Nothing spectacular. We are just both really busy. Joel is working really long hours and I am flat out with Charli and now Bianca. But we are okay,” I defended. As I admitted the words out loud, I realized for the first time how bad things had become. We weren’t happy. We weren’t a normal family. At this point I didn’t know if Joel and I were even friends.
“I know he is my son and I love him very much, but if he’s being an ass, it’s okay. You can tell me.”
With the offer on the table, I wanted to tell her everything. I wanted to tell someone everything I was feeling and facing, but I didn’t. I couldn’t tell Joel’s mother about all the problems with our rushed marriage. “It’s fine. I’m just on hormone overdrive this week. We’ll be fine,” I added hastily. I wasn’t sure if that was an attempt to reassure Adele or to convince myself. Either way, to me it just sounded like more empty promises.
As the months passed our beautiful daughters grew and continually surprised and amazed me. But Joel grew more and more distant. No matter what I did or said, Joel just grew angrier and more aloof. Some nights after I had fed and bathed the girls and they were tucked up safely in their beds, I would sit alone on the sofa sipping a glass of wine in the silence and wait for Joel to come home. I yearned for an adult conversation, something more than Dorothy the dinosaur and fruit salad—yummy yummy.
“Why do you always sit in the silence? Turn the TV on or something,” he would snap as he walked through the door.
“Your dinner is in the microwave,” I pointed out.
“Nah, I already had dinner with some clients.” He would wave his hands dismissively.
Each time we went through this I grew more and more frustrated. I promised myself that next time he wasn’t home for dinner without letting me know I just wouldn’t. But the next time came and I would cook his dinner, and place it in the microwave as expected.
The day Bianca turned three, Joel and I received an unexpected shock. I was pregnant again. How it happened must almost be considered a modern miracle. Not only had the communication and affection dried up in our relationship, but by that time it was virtually a sexless marriage. It seemed that when I was awake and in the mood, Joel wasn’t home. And when he was horny, I was asleep or running around after the girls.
“How can you possibly be pregnant again?” Joel spat angrily as I told him one night.
He had come home late as usual, but in a worse mood. He wouldn’t tell me what had happened that day; I just had to bear the brunt of his frustration. I had tried to sit him down and tell him the news, but that too had backfired.
“We barely even have sex these days! Are you sure it’s even mine?”
Coughing at his deliberately hurtful and hateful comment, I climbed off the sofa and walked outside. Inside I was fuming. How could my husband think I would cheat on him? Not to mention where I would find the time or energy to do so? I wanted to scream at him, and throw things, and generally take out my white hot rage on him. But with the girls in bed, I didn’t want to wake them. Walking away was easier.
Stupidly, I thought Joel would follow me out to the yard. Once he realized how hurtful his comments were, I believed he would come after me. After three hours sitting by the pool, I went inside and crawled into bed. Joel was already snoring beside me.
When I woke the next morning he was already gone. Pregnant, pissed off, and sick of dealing with his bullshit, I called Adele and asked her to come over and babysit for a couple of hours. When I told her that I was expecting another child she was cautiously delighted. “How did Joel take it?” she asked nervously.
Tired of protecting Joel’s perfect image from his mother, I told her his spiteful words. Clearly shocked by her son’s tantrums, Adele assured me that no matter what Joel said or did, from here on I had her full support. She never even doubted the child I was carrying was her son’s.
While the girls enjoyed an exciting morning with Grandma, I went looking for my husband. I knew where he would be but I was tired of how we were. This was going to end now.
“Can I sit here?” I asked, pulling out a chair in the cheap café around the corner from the office.
Joel was busy stuffing his face with toast, bacon, mushrooms, and scrambled eggs. When he looked up into my face, I saw him gulp down his food and shake his head silently.
“I don’t want to do this, Gillian. Not here. And definitely not now,” he stated firmly, leaving no room for debate.
“No,” I countered as firmly as I could. Taking a deep breath, I tried to steel my resolve. “Last night I told you that we’re having another baby and you asked me if it was yours. Why would you even ask that?”
I know he could see the pained look on my face and he knew instantly that he caused it. Guilt danced in his eyes, but then it was replaced by something else. Something I hadn’t seen before. “How could it be mine? We never see each other,” he spat under his breath.
“You are the only person I see. Male or female. From the time I wake up in the morning to the time I go to sleep, more often than not alone, the only people I see are Charli and Bianca or your mother. You don’t even bother to come home and spend time with your daughters anymore. Do you hate your family so much that you can’t even bear to be at home with us?”
“Is that what you think?”
“Yes. And if I’m wrong, tell me why you won’t come home. I know you work, but you can’t call people at ten o’clock at night.”
“I don’t hate you,” was all he offered.
Sighing, I felt my resolve weakening. Something was going on with him, and I was desperate not to let him make me feel sorry for him. Everything he was going through was a direct result of choices he made. “What’s going on with you?” I asked, taking his hands in mine.
“I just have to work. Don’t you understand that? I have to work long hours and weekends to keep you girls in the life you have. I need to pay for all of the swimming lessons and Wiggles concerts and ballet tutorials. I work so my girls can have everything that you want.”
“Well, if that’s the case, sell the house. We don’t need a mansion with a swimming pool. Or the top of the line cars. What your girls need is their dad. They need to know that he loves them and that he will be there for them. Charli was devastated that you didn’t make it to her ballet recital the other day, and it had nothing to do with you buying her something. She wanted her dad to be there so she knew that he was proud of her,” I tried to explain.
“I am proud of them. They’re my girls,” Joel admitted. He looked so miserable. The look on his face showed I was getting him to see what he had done wrong. In trying to provide for his family he had failed to give them the most important thing.
“So what about this new baby?” I asked nervously. I wasn’t sure I actually wanted to know his answer, but I had no choice.
“What about it?”
“What do you think about it? What do you think we should do?” I gushed. The questions dribbled out of my mouth before I could stop them.
“Are you sure we’re in a good position to bring yet another baby into our already hectic life?”
“Well, I’m only seven weeks at the moment, so we have options.” I can’t believe I said that. Abortion was not an option for me, and never had been, and here I was giving Joel the choice.
“No…no. It’s not that. It’s just I wasn’t expecting to be going through this. Not again.” For the first time since I had sat down, Joel actually looked at me. He stared at me for a long time, not saying another word.
“You know that I didn’t do this on purpose?”
Shaking his head, Joel conceded. “I know.” He smiled, lifting my hands to his mouth and kissing them gently.
It was the first time in a long time that Joel and I had time to be ourselves. I remembered that first night in the bar, and there we were, seven years later, having our first real conversation in months.
“Look, Gillian,” he began, and I knew the moment had passed. “I have to get to a meeting now. But I promise I’ll be home for dinner tonight, and then once the girls are in bed, you and I can talk. Sound okay?”
I shrugged despondently. What could I say? He wriggled into his jacket before bending down and kissing me lightly on the centre of the forehead. “Gillian, you know that I love you, don’t you?”
I didn’t answer. I didn’t trust myself to say anything. Joel smiled again, and his hand came to rest on my stomach. He rubbed it gently, kissed my cheek, and vanished.
I watched him walk down the street, frustration bubbling inside of me. I was furious at the way he had dismissed my concerns. He hadn’t even bothered to answer my questions. He had just said “not now” and walked away. Surely I deserved better than that.
I gathered up my things and walked away, slipping my sunglasses on to hide my red eyes. I knew Adele wouldn’t mind looking after the girls for a while. I needed to walk. Take the time to figure out what I wanted. I knew it wasn’t what we had now, but what it was that would make me happy—I had no idea where to even begin trying to figure it out.
I wandered down to the lake and started around it. It was a bright sunny day; the breeze was refreshing on my face. The lake was dotted with people rowing, kayaking, and fishing in the shallows. There were kids riding bikes along the edge, dads running nervously behind making sure there were no falls or spills. I dodged a young lady with blue hair as she zoomed past aggressively on her roller blades.
I walked for almost two hours before I made my way back to the car. I had made some decisions about what was going to change. My biggest problem was getting Joel to put his ego aside and listen. The truth was I was afraid of Joel. In all the time we had been together I had only seen him truly pissed off once, and all I had wanted to do then was duck for cover. When Joel was in a bad mood I was petrified. Not just for me, but for my girls as well.
“Would you keep your bloody voice down? The girls are in bed,” I snarled under my breath.
Joel was in the middle of yet another drunken rant. I could barely understand a word he was saying. He had come stumbling through the door at quarter to ten. He’d missed dinner with his family, but luckily he hadn’t missed drinks with a client.
“Don’t you dare tell me to keep my voice down! This is my house. If I want to yell and scream when I come home, I damn well can!” Joel boomed fiercely.
“I pay for everything, so yes, it is my house!”
“And what do I do?”
“That’s a very good question. What the fuck do you do?”
“You’re kidding me, aren’t you?”
“Do I look like I’m telling jokes here?” he slurred angrily.
“I look afteryourdaughters. It’s not like you’re ever around to do anything for them!” I countered.
“I can’t be here! Someone has to work.”
Sighing, I found myself softening. “You still don’t get it, do you?” I shook my head. It was the same argument we had been having since Charli’s birth. “They would be happy without the money. We don’t need fancy cars and holidays. Your daughters need their dad. They want their dad. They would be perfectly happy to spend an afternoon in the park down the road just playing on the swings with you. That’s what is important to them.”
Staggering towards me, Joel grabbed a hold of my arm roughly. He squeezed it, instantly making it sting with pain. I tried to wriggle out of his grasp but he held firm. “We don’t all have the luxury of sitting on our fat arses all day. Some people have to work. And my job, that’s the job that keeps you in the lifestyle you had no problems settling into.”
We were standing face to face now. Joel’s cheeks were red, his eyes half closed, and the stench of bourbon was heavy on his breath. “Well, I’ll get a job and go back to work and you can stay at home all day,” I offered. I knew I was treading on dangerous ground, but if that’s what his big problem was, it didn’t seem like rocket science to make it better.
“Don’t be stupid!” he snapped, releasing my arm and pushing me away from him.
I wasn’t expecting the shove, and fell backwards into the corner of the granite kitchen bench. A shot of intense pain seared through my body and I slumped over.
“Who the fuck would give you a job?” he continued. He grabbed my chin and forced my eyes to meet his.
This time I managed to wriggle out of his grasp. Stepping away from him, I wrapped my arms around my stomach protectively. “I could get a job doing lots of things,” I answered meekly, my resolve faltering under the pressure.
The decisions I made earlier were now just a memory. I wasn’t game to push Joel on anything at the moment. In all honesty, I just wanted this to end. I was praying Joel would give up, go to bed, and just pass out. I didn’t want to talk to him or even be near him when he was drunk. And now was definitely not the time to be making decisions or forcing him into something.
“Don’t you get it? No one would hire you. You have no skills and you are nothing!” He was mad. If it was possible, steam would have billowed from his ears.
“That’s what you think,” I mumbled under my breath, immediately regretting saying anything at all.
Instantly he was back on me, his hands pinching my collarbones. When he started shaking me violently, I couldn’t help but whimper out loud. Tears were streaming down my face like a waterfall.
In the years we had been together, and through all the ups and downs we had faced, Joel had never been physically abusive to me. I had received more than my fair share of emotional abuse, but he had never laid a hand on me. Now I was shaking on my own. My legs were barely holding me up.
“Fuck off! You think someone would employ you? For God’s sakes, Gillian, you’re pregnant again. Remember? Who would hire someone that is up the duff?” Tiny bits of spittle flew from his mouth and covered my frightened, tear-stained face.
I didn’t say anything. Things were deteriorating faster than I could have imagined. There was nothing I could say at this point that would make anything better, but I knew that anything I did say would just make it worse. Much worse.
Obviously fed up with my lack of fight, Joel pushed me away and I fell to the floor. By this point I was sobbing uncontrollably, cowering on the floor. Joel looked at me, shook his head, and stalked off. With a slam of the door I knew the tirade was over. For tonight, anyway.
After a long while I scooped myself up off the floor and stumbled back to the lounge. Staring in the mirror, I saw the huge red marks already showing on my shoulders. I knew tomorrow they would be deep, blue bruises. Not game enough to go to my own bed, I checked on the girls. Luckily they had slept through the whole ordeal. I returned to the lounge, curled up on the sofa, and cried myself to sleep.
I awoke the next morning stiff and sore. I was more bruised than I expected and the night curled up on the sofa didn’t help. The sun wasn’t up yet and the girls were still silent. I padded quietly into the kitchen and made myself a cup of hot chocolate, something I hadn’t had for years, but right now it was the only thing that could make me feel even slightly human.
As I swallowed the last mouthful of chocolate I realized I wanted a shower. I needed one. Dreaming of the hot water cascading over my aching body, I trudged slowly towards our bedroom. I know it was stupid, it was my home and just my husband on the other side of the door, but I was trembling again. I didn’t want to wake him. I shouldn’t have worried.
Taking a long, deep, calming breath, I pushed open the door and dared to enter. He wasn’t there. The bed was made but the room was empty. I walked into the en suite and everything was in its place, but no sign of Joel. I don’t know if I sighed in relief or in disappointment.
Stripping off, I stared at myself in the mirror. The marks on my shoulders and wrists were red and irritated. But it was the bruise on my kidneys from the collision with the kitchen bench that was the worst. I took my time in the hot shower, letting the steam fill the room. Stepping out of the shower, I stretched, trying to work the kinks out of my neck and back. I felt better. Not great, but slightly more human. At that point I figured it was as good as it was going to get today.
I was sitting on the edge of my bed wearing only my panties and bra, when Charli wandered in. “Hi sweetie.” I smiled, pulling her into my arms.
“Mummy, are we going to Grandma’s today?” she asked hopefully.
I heard her words, and reality sank in. I couldn’t see Adele today. She would know. She would see through any lie I told her.
“Not today, Charli. Mummy isn’t feeling very well this morning so we might just stay at home, if that’s okay?” Straight away I was overcome by guilt. Already I was letting my cowardice change our lives. I hated myself for it, but it was the best I could do for now.
“Are you okay, Mummy?” Charli asked, looking concerned. She placed her hand on my forehead, like she had seen me do before.
“Do you remember when Mummy was having Bianca?”
“When you got fat?” she asked, with all the honesty only a child could possess.
“Yes, when Mummy got fat. Well, Mummy is having another baby,” I told her. I needed to tell someone and Charli was going to find out eventually. “Would you like a little brother or sister?”
“I already have a little sister.”
“You might get another one.”
Charli looked thoughtful. “No, thank you. I already have to share my toys with Bianca.”
I hugged Charli tightly. She was so honest and straightforward. She was really the love of my life. Her beautiful blonde hair was wild and her pink pajamas were all wrinkled. “I need to get dressed. Can you go see if Bianca is awake and I’ll be out in a minute to get you some breakfast. What do you feel like?”
With her hands on her chin, Charli thought hard. “Pancakes,” she announced decidedly. Sometimes she was so much like Joel it was scary. Her decisiveness was a trait stolen straight from her father.
“Okay, I’ll make pancakes,” I agreed, watching as Charli skipped animatedly out the door.
Hurriedly I pulled on a pair of jeans and a shirt, taking the time to make sure all the marks were covered. I wasn’t planning on seeing anyone today, but I didn’t want to take the risk of someone unexpectedly showing up and seeing the bruises.
Covered head to toe in pancake batter and sticky maple syrup, due to Charli’s insistence on flipping the pancakes herself and Bianca’s insistence on pouring her own maple syrup, I texted Adele and told her I wasn’t feeling well. I couldn’t bring myself to call her. Under her intense questioning, I knew I would buckle. I would undoubtedly say something wrong and she would appear from nowhere, ready to help.
It was a full fifteen minutes before the phone buzzed to life, a record for Adele. I was hurriedly trying to clean up Bianca’s sticky hands that she had already managed to run through her mousy brown curls.
“Mum!” Charli squealed happily. “Can I answer the phone?”
I already knew who it was. The only person who ever bothered to call during the day—Adele. “Yes, Charli,” I called back, rushing as much as I could. I must have been too occupied trying to listen to Charli’s conversation that I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing. Bianca was now in tears. I had been wiping her face with a face washer and must have rubbed too hard. Now she was crying. I tried to soothe her but she just screamed louder and louder.
“Grandma, did you know that Mummy is going to have another baby?” I heard Charli ask excitedly.
I didn’t know if I was glad I couldn’t hear Adele’s response or if I needed it. Scooping Bianca up in my arms, I forgot about her sticky fingers and rushed out to Charli. But I was too late. She was hanging the phone back up on the wall, as I came through the door.
“Grandma’s coming over,” she called over her shoulder as she skipped down the hall happily.
I didn’t bother to mask the defeated look that consumed my entire body. That was the last thing I needed today, but I knew calling Adele and telling her not to come over would only arouse her curiosity further. I would just go put some makeup on and a long sleeve shirt to hide the red welts on my wrists and I would survive. I had to.
“Great!” I faked, watching as Charli sat down on the floor next to Bianca. “I have to clean up the kitchen before Grandma gets here. Charli, can you please go and get dressed and make sure Bianca gets dressed too?” I called after her.
“Yes, Mummy,” she sang, breezing back into the kitchen. I watched with amusement as Charli picked Bianca up from under her arms and half dragged, half carried her towards the bedroom.
I cleaned up as quickly as possible and checked on the girls. They were both dressed, albeit in mismatched clothes, and were playing happily on the floor. The Barbie bucket had already been up ended but they were playing quietly. Bianca was chewing on Barbie’s leg while Charli fought her awkward shaped body into a pair of pants and shoes.
Taking advantage of their distraction I raced around the house and tried to get some jobs done. I threw a load of washing in the machine, wiped over the bathrooms, and picked up the toys from the family room floor. I was just boiling the kettle when Adele sauntered through the front door looking like she had just stepped from a magazine.
“Gillian,” she sang whimsically.
“In the kitchen,” I called back, taking the opportunity to wipe my face, take a deep breath, and adjust my sleeves.
Before she was even in the same room, Adele was asking, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It’s only just been confirmed. I’m seven weeks. I only found out a couple of days ago. I only had the chance to tell Joel last night,” I admitted. I had learnt long ago that there was no point lying to Adele, she always knew. I don’t know if it was a motherly instinct that she had developed over the years or just a sixth sense when it came to Joel’s shortcomings.
Adele hugged me tightly, stroking my hair as she did. Without knowing it, she had inadvertently pressed down on my aching shoulders and squeezed my kidney bruise. I must have let out an involuntary gasp, causing her to jump back, still holding my hand.
“What is it, dear?” she asked sweetly, sounding older than she was.
Adele had soft, delicate features that were always looking their best. She was always perfectly manicured and pedicured. She enjoyed weekly facials and I had never seen her without her hair styled and makeup impeccable, not even when she had shown up at the hospital in the middle of the night to pick up Charli the night Bianca had been born.
“No…no, it’s nothing, really. Just a bit squeamish, that’s all,” I lied.
“Must be a boy, then!” she exclaimed happily. “You had barely any morning sickness with the girls. When are you due?”
“Doctor says I’m due on October thirteenth.”
It always amazed me how someone so prim and proper, someone who appeared at all the right functions and knew everyone there that was worth knowing, was so into star signs and astrology—something I neither knew nor cared much about.
Without another word, I sprang up, ran down the hallway, leapt over Bianca halfway down the hall, and made it to the bathroom. Just. Afterwards, I clung to the toilet bowl, panting and sweating, my head resting on the cool porcelain. I was dizzy from dehydration and already exhausted. I hadn’t even made it to lunch time yet.
“Gillian, are you okay in there?” Adele called out through the door.
“Fine, thanks. I’ll just be a minute,” I said, wiping my face with the back of my sleeve.
“Can I get you anything?” she offered generously.
I knew that if I asked for anything, Adele was just the sort of person who would have moved heaven and earth to accommodate. “I’m fine. I just need a second,” I replied, dragging my lethargic body from the floor.
When I looked in the mirror I didn’t like the person I saw staring back. Even after splashing cold water on my face I was still a ghastly shade of white. My eyes were outlined by dark, unhappy circles under my eyes. I pulled at my shirt and saw the marks on my shoulders. The nasty, dark, and definite finger indentations that covered them. Right in that moment, I was a battered wife.
The doorbell rang unexpectedly and I felt myself jump. “Do you mind getting that for me?” I called out.
“Absolutely,” Adele returned helpfully.
I hurriedly adjusted my jumper, brushed my teeth, and hustled out the door. As I emerged from the hallway, I heard Charli squeal with delight, “Wow! They’re pretty! Who are they for, Grandma?”
“They’re for your mum.”
Intrigued, I sped up and made my way into the lounge room. As I walked towards the chaos, I saw Adele closing the door a huge bunch of white oriental lilies in her arms. She looked up and saw me flashing a perfect smile.
“Someone’s a lucky girl.” She smiled as she handed me the huge bouquet.
I took the flowers, inhaled deeply before pulling the card from the middle. Turning it over in my hands, I forced myself to open it.
Congratulations, Beautiful. I look forward to welcoming our new baby to the world with you.
Without hesitation I burst into tears, dropped the flowers on the tiles, and slunk to the floor. Silently Adele picked up the flowers and read the card. She finished reading and looked directly at me. “What the hell did he do to you this time?”
After three gut-wrenching hours of tears and explanations, and even a visit to the doctor to check on my bruises, I was exhausted and just wanted to collapse. But Adele wouldn’t hear a word of it. She kicked me out of my own house. She dropped two hundred dollars cash into my sweaty, shaky hand and told me to get out and relax.
“It’s not about you, Gillian. I’m taking care of my newest grandchild. You, my dear,” she started, her hands on my cheeks, “You need to go out and have some time out. Forget everything that has happened and just go out and have a laugh. Go shopping, go to the movies, and meet a friend for coffee. Do whatever it is you feel like; just go have some time for you.”
“But the girls…”
“I am quite capable of looking after my granddaughters for the afternoon. And I will deal with Joel when he gets home.” Her tone had an air of disgust about it.
I had never wanted to tell Adele what happened. And I definitely had no intentions of telling anyone else. But when she tried to help me up off the floor she had seen not only the marks on my wrists but also the welt on my back. After that, any lie I even attempted she dismissed with a wave of her hand. And I had caved.
“I’ll be home before Joel gets here,” I said with as much determination as I could muster.
“I’ll call him and get him home earlier. I need to have a very serious conversation with my son,” Adele announced defiantly.
“Please Adele…please just leave this one alone. I’ll talk to Joel when I see him. There is no need…”
“No need! I raised my son better than that. He should never have laid a hand on you…”
“I know. Adele, I know.” I tried to placate her. “But this one is between Joel and me. We’ll work it out.”
Sighing heavily and shaking her head with disappointment, she said, “Gillian, I am his mother. And I will talk to him about this. But I don’t want you to worry about anything. Go! Relax! I’ll see you later this afternoon. Go! Enjoy yourself!” She smiled and gave me one final push out the door.
Once I was outside I was even more lost and confused than before. I stumbled towards the car, climbed in, and started to drive. I didn’t know where I was going, but the further I drove the more enraged and annoyed I became. I messaged Heidi to see if she had some spare time to catch up. School would be finishing soon so she would be free for the day.
I took myself up to Regatta Point and settled at an outside table overlooking the lake. The pimple-faced waiter managed to spill my water all over the leg of my pants. My day was going from bad to worse. After placing my order as quickly as I could I sent him away. I didn’t want him to see me cry. Dabbing at my eyes with the starched white napkin I realized how pathetic I had become. Crying in public, ashamed of who I was, I had become a stranger to my friends. And, more embarrassingly, I was a stranger to myself. I didn’t even know who I was anymore when I wasn’t being Charli and Bianca’s mum. Let alone what I liked.
I sat there absentmindedly sipping my coffee. I was staring off into space when Heidi arrived.
“Earth to Gillian!” she teased, easing herself into the chair opposite me.
“Hi,” I said, absently pulling at my jumper, ensuring that my wrists were covered. I had no intention of telling Heidi what had happened with Joel. I just wanted to have an afternoon of escapism.
“So, what’s going on?” she asked as the pimple-faced waiter reappeared and took her order before disappearing into the bowels of the restaurant.
“Not a lot. Adele is babysitting for the afternoon and she kicked me out to have an afternoon off. So here I am.”
“And here I am. It’s so good to see you, Gillian. It seems like forever since we got you to ourselves,” Heidi said honestly.
I instantly felt guilty. I knew I had been neglecting my friendships but I couldn’t see any other way. By the time I looked after my girls, kept the house clean and organized, it seemed like I didn’t have time for anything else. With Joel working as much as he did, these days I was basically a single mother.
“I’m so sorry, Heidi,” I began, feeling like I should be apologizing.
“For everything. Not being around. Not having time to be there, or go anywhere, or do anything. I feel like I’ve been neglecting everything and everyone,” I admitted painfully.
“Don’t be silly, Gillian. We understand. You have two beautiful girls. Of course they come first. And so they should. Gillian, you’re a mum.”
“But I don’t even know what’s going on with you these days…”
“Of course you do. I’m teaching kindergarten. I’m still seeing Rowan. We’ve been together about eighteen months now. Other than that, nothing much has changed.”
Heidi looked at me with wide sad eyes. I don’t know if she was disappointed that nothing had changed or maybe it was my own reflection that I could see was miserable. But there was something in her tone that made me think that Heidi knew exactly how I was feeling.
Forcing my own dark thoughts from my mind, I encouraged, “How are things going with Rowan?”
“Really good I guess. We’ve had a few discussions about moving in together, but nothing ever seems to come of it. I think he likes the fact he can get away from me when he wants to. But we’re doing okay. Both working pretty hard, so we fight a bit because we’re tired all the time, but I’m sure you know all about being wiped out. How are the girls?” she deflected.
I was impressed by her honesty. Heidi was obviously disappointed with her relationship, but hanging in there. I could tell that she wasn’t overly happy, but it was better than being alone.
“The girls are good. They argue and fight, but we cope. Bianca is sleeping through the whole night in her own bed now, which is a blessing. For a while there, she wouldn’t sleep unless she was in our bed, but thankfully she’s back in hers now.” Focusing on Bianca and Charli kept me from saying anything about Joel.
Sipping her decaf skim latte, Heidi looked like she wanted to say something, but instead drank her coffee. I recognized her avoidance, because it was something I did regularly.
“Have you heard from the others? How are Rhiannon and her lecturer? That lasted longer than I would have guessed,” I asked, hoping for an afternoon of mindless gossip.
“Well, I saw Rhiannon last week and she was going to move in with Luke in the next week or so. He left his wife. Can you believe it? Now that he’s no longer her teacher, their relationship no longer has to remain a secret. We’re even allowed to meet him in the next couple of weeks, or so she says,” Heidi began excitedly.
It was so much easier to talk about someone else’s life than admit what was wrong with your own. Even I was more eager to gossip about someone else than think about my own issues.
“That’s surprising. They have been together for ages and now, finally, we’re allowed to meet him. I was beginning to think she was embarrassed by us. It was either we embarrassed her or he was imaginary.” I laughed.
“Nah, I think it was just the wholehe could lose his job if anyone found outthing that kept it so secretive.” Heidi laughed.
She had grown more beautiful as the years had passed. Together with her teaching and Girl Guide duties, Heidi spent a lot of time at the gym. She was the fittest person I knew and every year she was a serious competitor in the annual City to Surf fun run to Sydney’s beaches. I could never work out how running could be fun, but for some unknown reason Heidi loved it.
“Any news from Cora?” I asked nervously.
Cora and I hadn’t spoken in almost twelve months. It had started as a silly argument that just never ended. I was tired; Bianca had colic and wouldn’t sleep. I had been running from doctor to specialist and back trying to find out why she wasn’t putting on weight and why no matter what I did the colic wouldn’t pass. Cora needed a favor and I simply couldn’t fit it in. Hurtful words were said and then life got in the way. After I calmed down I had meant to call and apologize and make things right, but every time I went to, something else happened. Weeks became months and by then it was too far in the past, I rationalized. I knew it was stupid and I should just call and make it okay, but I couldn’t. I was embarrassed that it had taken too long.
“I got an email from her last week. She’s living just north of Oxford working in a hotel. She lives in the attic there, rent free, so she’s pretty stoked with that. She works ten days on then four days off. It sounds like pretty much every time she gets a couple of days off in a row, she takes off somewhere for an adventure. She went to Ireland not that long ago and this weekend she was heading to Scotland for a couple of days.”
“Sounds exciting,” I had to admit. Part of me was jealous. It would be such an adventure to travel around the world, seeing everything, trying anything.
“Have you heard from her?”
“No,” I said, unable to look Heidi in the eye.
“You should email her. I’m sure she would love to hear from you.”
“I don’t know.”
“You can’t let this go on forever, Gillian. It’s already been going on way too long and it’s over nothing really. Just talk to her.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Don’t think. Just do it. It’s not worth it.”
I didn’t say any more about it. I didn’t know what to say. Heidi was right. I was embarrassed. I should email Cora. Or call. Or text. Or something. She could be the one I could talk to about what was going on with Joel without any repercussions. She wasn’t close enough to do anything or make it harder than it already was.
“How are things with Joel?” Heidi asked at point blank range.
I squirmed in my seat and downed what remained of my coffee. “Okay,” was all I offered. Again, I pulled at my jumper, instantly thinking that the sleeves had crept up and she had seen my wrists.
I was caught. Heidi had seen through my pathetic attempt at lying. I signaled for the waiter and ordered another coffee and the largest slice of chocolate mud cake I could. “I’m pregnant again,” I blurted out as Heidi stared at me.
“My God…No wonder you need time out. Were you even trying for another one?” she asked pointedly.
The waiter returned with my cake and coffee and just as he was about to walk away again, “I’m going to need a piece of cake too. A big piece,” Heidi ordered. “What did Joel say?”
“Let’s just say he was less than thrilled,” I admitted.
It was so easy to tell the truth to Heidi. And the whole truth. I wasn’t embarrassed or trying to protect him. Heidi had been there in the beginning, and I knew that she would be there in the end. No matter what happened.
“Hang on a second.” Heidi smiled, holding up a finger.
I watched in silence as she dug through the biggest handbag I had ever seen. She dug out her phone, quickly sent a text, before tossing it back in her bag and turning back to her cake.
With a mouthful of mud cake, Heidi announced, “Finish your cake and don’t tell me anymore. We’re meeting Rhiannon at her apartment in fifteen minutes.”
“No!” she said more forcefully than I had ever heard her speak before. “Something is definitely up! I can see it on your face. And around your wrists. We need Rhiannon.”
I was mortified. I was being so careful not to admit the truth and hide it from everyone, when it was written all over my face anyway. “Heidi, it’s not what you think,” I tried to lie.
As the lie passed my lips, I felt my world crumble. Who was I kidding? It was as bad as it sounded. My life was nothing like the one that I had wanted. I stuffed mouthfuls of cake into my mouth. So much that I struggled to even close my mouth when I chewed.
Heidi pulled some cash from her purse, dropped it on the table, took my hand, and half dragged me from the restaurant. I didn’t speak. I didn’t know what to say. I was defeated.
Heidi basically threw me into the front seat of her car and before I knew it we were speeding through the car park on our way to Rhiannon’s. “I…I don’t want to do this,” I confessed. “I’m just tired and Joel’s overworked. And we weren’t expecting to have another child. We hadn’t even discussed having another baby. So it shocked us, that’s all,” I tried to rationalize.
“Well then, tell me what happened to your wrists?” she asked, not even looking me as she dodged in and out of the peak hour traffic.
“Do you know how I know that you’re lying? ’Cause you are a bad liar.” Heidi’s face showed no compassion. She didn’t even look like the Heidi I knew and loved. She was angry and determined.
A moment later, after cutting off three cars who tooted their horns at us in anger, we screeched into a vacant car space at the front of Rhiannon’s building. She lived in a two bedroom apartment on the eighth floor. She had bought the apartment a couple of years ago, brand new. It came with all the luxuries one could want. The complex contained its own bar and café, gym, and indoor swimming centre.
Heidi pressed the buzzer for Rhiannon’s apartment and instantly the door sprung open. We ducked into the lift and in silence we watched the numbers climb. I didn’t look at Heidi and she didn’t look at me.
Silently, we crept along the corridor. Without knocking, Heidi pushed opened the door and let herself in. Rhiannon was in the kitchen, tea towel in her hand.
There were no pleasantries. Instead, as soon as Rhiannon saw me come through her door, she looked and me and asked, “What the fuck is going on, Gillian?”
“Mum, I don’t really have time for personal calls at the moment. I’m right in the middle of something,” Joel said, annoyed as he answered the phone.
“I don’t really care what you think you do and don’t have time for. You need to get your arse home now!” Adele commanded. For a prim and proper woman, she could be very persuasive when she wanted to be.
“I have back-to-back appointments until after eight tonight. I’ll be home when I finish,” Joel countered. He could just be as stubborn as his mother.
“No, Joel. You will come home right now! Flowers won’t fix this,” she advised.
Joel gulped. His mother was at his place. She knew about the flowers, which meant there was a very strong chance she knew why he sent them. He was in the shit. Deep shit.
“Let me see what I can reshuffle,” he said quietly.
“Home within the hour,” Adele snapped forcefully before hanging up.
Joel swore and cursed. His day was getting worse by the second. He already had a shocker at work, even telling his boss exactly what he thought of him, landing him a meeting with the CEO the following day. Joel knew that it didn’t matter how good a salesperson you were, there were some lines that, if crossed, were a sure way to prematurely end your career. He may just have jumped the line and kept running.
He leant back in his chair, rubbing at the stubble on his chin. He couldn’t think of anything worse than going home and facing his mother, but the longer he put it off, the worse it would get. Joel had been in enough fights with her over the years to know the more time he gave her to stew in her rage, the worse it grew.
Sighing heavily, Joel took off the headset and tossed it on his desk before shutting down his laptop, grabbing his car keys, and heading for the door.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going now?” Joel’s boss snapped. He was already pissed off at Joel’s confrontational outburst earlier on. Joel was getting not an inch.
“Home,” Joel barked.
“You have work to do. Get back to it.”
“No. I can’t. My mother just called and something’s going on with the girls. I have to go home.” He backtracked as fast as he could. He had used the kids for a million different excuses and each time it had worked without question. Joel just prayed it wouldn’t fail him this time.
“Whatever…just hurry up and get back here! You haven’t even made a sale in the past three months. If you don’t make one soon you’re going to have bigger problems than your daughter breaking a fingernail,” he snorted, storming back into his office and slamming the door to make a point.
In the car on the way home Joel drove too fast, too erratically. He almost caused three accidents in only five blocks. The stereo was up full blast, and he sang along loudly, working out his frustrations on the steering wheel as he pounded along with the beat.
Less than ten minutes later, with a screech of the Audi’s tires, Joel came to a halt at the top of his driveway behind his mother’s champagne colored BMW X5. He hadn’t even made it to the front door before the tirade began. Adele was waiting, arms folded across her chest, and she didn’t even bother to try to hide the incredulous expression on her face.
“What? What the hell was so important that you call me at work and demand that I come home? I’m not twelve anymore. You can’t just make these demands. And I am not going to just drop everything and…” Joel didn’t even get to finish his rehearsed speech.
“Joel Jacob Matthews, don’t you dare talk to me in that tone. You have no idea what you have really done. Get inside,” Adele commanded, her brows furrowed.
Joel looked at his mother. He’d seen her angry before but never this pissed off. She looked like she was about to throw him over her knee and beat him like he was a five-year-old. And when she summoned him by his full name, he knew he wouldn’t be able to sweet talk his way out of this one.
He slunk into the lounge room, head down, a scowl on his face. Adele followed him in without a word. Silently she checked on the girls and wiped Bianca’s runny nose. After making sure they were okay, Adele gently closed the bedroom door, not wanting her granddaughters to hear what was about to be said.
Adele strode purposefully back into the lounge and sat opposite her son. He was nervous. He had already undone the top button on his shirt and loosened his tie, sweat beads gathering on his top lip. “Well?” he asked smartly.
“Don’t you have something that you would like to explain to me?”
“Don’t be smart with me, Joel. I am still your mother and what you’ve done is completely unacceptable. Do you get that?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Okay, well, maybe you can start by telling me how your wife got the marks and bruises on her shoulders, wrists, neck and back,” Adele invited, steely cold.
“That’s between us, Mum. It’s none of your concern,” Joel spat back defiantly.
Adele took a deep breath, sighed heavily, and looked at her son. She barely recognized the angry man sitting in front of her. He seemed so lost and alone. Adele understood that Joel’s life hadn’t turned out the way he had envisaged. He had never wanted the wife and kids, especially so early in his life. But he had them. Now he had to deal with it.
“Joel, what happened to you? Why are you so angry with everyone? Including me?”
Running his hands through his hair, Joel was defeated. His head dropped sadly into the back of the sofa. Joel stared longingly at the ceiling, searching for answers. “Why can’t everyone just get off my case? I work hard to give my girls everything they could possibly want. Gillian has everything that she wants. I don’t know why she has to bitch and moan all the time.”
“I raised you to be smarter than that,” Adele sighed, shaking her head. Joel looked at his mother, bewildered.
“What are you rambling on about now?”
“Your daughters and your wife—they don’t need your money. They need you. Gillian needs you to be her husband. Her partner. Her lover and her best-friend. Not her bank account. And your daughters, Joel, they just need you to be there. They barely know you. And that’s your fault. You need to spend some time with your girls. Take them to the zoo. Play Barbies with them. They won’t care what it is. Just be a part of it.”
“I’m trying, Mum, I’m trying.” Joel collapsed. A twisted, crying mess, Joel twitched. Satisfied, Adele held her son. For a long time not a word was said. They just sat in silence, Joel sobbing in the safety of his mother’s arms.
A screech brought the silence to an abrupt end. “I should go and check on them,” Adele went to move.
“I’ll go,” Joel said, jumping to his feet, wiping his eyes with his sleeve and disappearing down the hallway.
As soon as Joel had vanished Adele felt guilty. She had pushed and pushed her son until he had completely broken down. Silently berating herself, she sat and waited for him to return. After half an hour, when Joel still hadn’t reappeared, Adele went looking for him.
Stepping into the rumpus room, an unexpected smile consumed her. Joel’s tie was wrapped tightly around the teddy bear’s neck and Joel sat cross legged on the floor, Bianca balanced in his lap, having a tea party with every doll and teddy in the house. Not wanting to interrupt such a special moment, Adele ran down the hallway before she was spotted and began wading through the mountain of washing.
“What the fuck is going on, Gillian?” Rhiannon demanded as the door slammed closed behind me.
“Rhiannon, just back off,” Heidi instructed, pushing me forwards.
As soon as I was inside I was overcome with not only guilt but also fear. I hadn’t seen Rhiannon’s apartment since she moved in. It was the sort of apartment that everyone wanted. A grown up apartment. Tastefully decorated with suede beige lounge chairs and white kitchen cabinets without the tiny handprints covering them. Everything was immaculately spotless, but it had its own place. I felt bad that even years after Rhiannon had moved into this light and airy place, with a view of the lake, I had never seen it.
“This is stunning,” I exclaimed honestly, taking in the breathtaking view. I didn’t want to sit down. I wanted the grand tour, to see the rest of a grown-up apartment. Secretly I was dying to see the bathroom. For some weird reason, bathrooms fascinated me. The things that they could do with tiles. It just made everything look clean and new and fresh.
With her arms crossed angrily across her chest, Rhiannon was seething. “God, Gillian, enough! Heidi doesn’t send me a desperate text saying you’re coming to see me now if something pretty huge isn’t up.”
“What the hell do you want from me, Rhiannon?” I snapped.
“The truth. For once, Gillian, just tell us what’s going on with you. Let us help you. All you have to do is tell us how.”
I looked at Heidi, who just shrugged helplessly. I stared at my two best friends in the whole world, my family, and I cracked. Suddenly my world started spinning. I felt sick. Something wasn’t right, I knew it wasn’t, but I wasn’t really sure what was wrong. I never got the chance to figure it out. The next thing I knew I was lying on Rhiannon’s lounge, a wet washcloth on my forehead. Heidi was trying to feed me orange juice through a straw. I tried to stand up, but Rhiannon forced me back down.
“What is wrong? Let me up.” My head was foggy and I wasn’t feeling very well, but I was still okay. The spinning sensation was still there and out of nowhere I was exhausted, more tired than I ever remembered being before.
“Gillian!” Heidi snapped. “Shut up, lie there, and talk to us. You just collapsed unconscious on the tiles, so stop being so damn stubborn and for once do as you are told. Just stay there, please.”
After a while I noticed Rhiannon. She was standing in the doorway, one hand on her hip the other clutching a can of Diet Coke. She stared at me with sad bewildered eyes. Then as meekly as a mouse, Rhiannon asked, “Gillian, how did you get the bruises on your back?”
Humiliated, I began mumbling and tugging at my top. “But how did you…how do you…” I knew I was only rambling to try and buy myself some time to think of a plausible lie. It was bad enough that Adele knew the truth, but Rhiannon and Heidi really didn’t need to know. Too many people knew already.
“When we picked you up your shirt rode up. Gillian. We love you, but you’re covered in disgusting black and blue bruises. They’re on your neck and your shoulders and your wrists. My God, Gillian, what happened to you?” Heidi asked. “Please let us help you. For once, just stop being so damn stubborn. Stop trying to deal with this on your own. We can help you. All you have to do is let us.”
Looking into my neglected friend’s face, I burst into tears. Instantly my nose was running, my eyes were blurry, and I was struggling to breathe between sobs. I cried openly and honestly for a long time. I felt like I couldn’t stop. There was just too much pain and misery behind my tears. Nothing could stop them from coming, nor even slow their flow.
After what seemed like a lifetime, I sucked in a deep breath, ran my fingers through my hair, rubbed at my eyes, and looked up again. They hadn’t moved. Not even an inch. Heidi and Rhiannon were still sitting there beside me, patiently waiting for me to pull myself together.
“You okay?” Rhiannon asked, squeezing my shoulder supportively. With all the energy I had left, I nodded.
“So?” Heidi enquired timidly.
Gulping back more tears I confessed everything. I told them about how, after Charli was born, Joel and I grew so tired we barely had time for each other anymore, and then how after Bianca was born the cracks in our already fragile marriage just became too wide to hurdle. How the long hours Joel was working were making him crazy. Eventually I got to the part where I told him I was pregnant again and he blamed me for the long hours he had to work. He confessed that it was my fault he never got to see his family because I was too lazy to work. I surprised even myself when I told them about him pushing me across the kitchen and crashing into the corner of the kitchen bench and the horror that had followed.
Once the barrage started spewing forth from my mouth, there was nothing I could do to stop it. By the end of it, Heidi was a blubbering mess, Rhiannon was the angriest I had ever seen her, and I was just drained. But the emptiness inside me wasn’t a bad thing. It was as if the private hell I had been enduring for so long suddenly didn’t seem that bad. I had someone to share it and help me through it, to take away some of the hurt and anger and bitterness. Someone with new insight and a different way of looking at things.
There was something comforting about Heidi and Rhiannon in that moment. I had been a bad friend—I would be the first to admit it and the last to deny it—but suddenly everything seemed different. All the years of neglect that I had put them though, all the times I had bailed on dinner or cancelled last minute on catching up, even all the text messages and emails that I had forgotten to return didn’t seem so bad anymore. The guilt that I had been carrying around, promising myself that one day I would make things right again, it all just seemed to simply vanish. After a very well timed hug, a few tears, and a collection of expletives, the bond between us was stronger than ever. And that gave me not only the strength to start but also the hope to win.
After an hour I collected up my things. “I’m so sorry. I have to go. Adele will be going mad with the girls by now. I better go and save her.”
I hugged each of them tightly. Heidi squeezed a bit too tight and I let out an involuntary gasp of pain. “Are you sure you’re all right?” Rhiannon questioned again.
“Yeah. Just some deep bruising, nothing to worry about. It will be fine in a couple of days. It looks worse than it really is,” I admitted, tugging at my shirt protectively. I didn’t need a doctor to tell me what was wrong with me. This wasn’t my first rodeo.
I had barely gotten out the door before they surrounded me in the gentlest and warmest hug I had received in a long time. Straining to hold back my tears, we stood there for a long time in the warm, silent embrace.
“You know where we are if you need us,” Heidi reminded me again.
“And there is always a spare bed for you and your girls if you need it,” Rhiannon added.
“You sure you don’t want me to drop you back at your car? It’s no trouble, really.”
“Thanks, but the walk will help clear my head.” I kissed them both again and jumped in the elevator back to the ground floor. And back to reality.
Walking alone along the footpath, the sun setting behind a city of skyscrapers, there was a chill in the air. It was normal in Canberra; a beautiful day, and then the moment that the sun vanishes all the warmth is gone. The cool breeze made the tips of my ears sting and my nose run. But it was exactly what I needed. As I watched my breath condense in small, fluffy white clouds in front of my face I tried to prepare myself for what I would find when I got home. Would Adele be pulling her styled hair out? Would Joel even be there? Would the house still be standing or buried beneath a Barbie mountain? With a million thoughts in my head, I couldn’t help it. I walked slowly.
I reached my car and, as the engine sputtered to life, the clock in the dashboard lit up, revealing the time. I knew I had been gone a long time, I just didn’t realize how long. It was already past seven. I should have cooked dinner by now and be getting the girls ready for bed. Silently cursing myself for being so selfish, I pushed my way into the evening traffic across the bridge and headed home.
Minutes later I pulled into the driveway and was shocked to see Joel’s car parked there. Once the shock wore off, the fear took over. Joel’s car was there, but Adele’s wasn’t. She’d called Joel. He had come home. Now I’d have to face him.
I knew it was coming. Of course I would have to face him sometime. We lived together. We shared a bed together. A life together. Children together. Even if we wanted to end this, we would never be able to just walk away. I would always be a part of Joel’s life and he would be a part of mine. As that realization sunk in, I took a deep breath, slung my handbag over my shoulder, and marched to the front door deliberately.
As I pushed open the handle I couldn’t believe what I saw.
I didn’t realize I was holding my breath as I stepped over the threshold and into my home. Joel saw me come through the door and with a wide, warm smile, he greeted me the moment he spotted me. Honestly, I was frightened by what I saw. The table laid before me was immaculate. A perfectly pressed black satin tablecloth with red napkins and silver napkin rings. Two long silver tapering candles stood in the middle of the table, their flames flickering about with wild abandon.
I couldn’t control it. Without thinking of the consequences I found myself blurting out, “What’s all this about?”
“It’s an apology and a celebration.”
“That’s an odd combination.”
“Well, I guess I should start with an apology for last night. I should never have said the things that I did. And pushing you. You didn’t deserve it. I was out of line,” Joel began, the expression on his face full of sadness and remorse. I knew him well and I could see the pain in his eyes. Joel was hurting and secretly I was pleased that he was. His apology was sincere and from the heart, not forced from his lips by his mother.
Instinctively I tugged at my sleeve, making sure the bruises were hidden from sight. If Joel was feeling bad, I wasn’t going to dig the knife in any more than it was already lodged. But Joel saw me do it. He reached out and took my hands in his. My hands were trembling and clammy. I wished they weren’t, but it was an uncontrollable reflex. As much as it killed me to admit it, it was the best feeling I had felt in a long time. The tenderness in his touch made an all too familiar heart flutter return. Something I hadn’t felt in years. Joel rolled back my sleeves ever so gently. With one look at my wrists he dropped my hands and jumped back, aghast.
“Gillian!” Joel exclaimed as he continued backing away from me until he stepped on a Barbie doll and stumbled, cursing under his breath.
Terrified by the look on his face, I didn’t know what to say. Inside I was still furious at what had happened. I know he’d apologized and he was honestly sorry for doing it, but the fact that he could actually do it bewildered and petrified me. Cautiously I stepped towards him. “Joel?”
“Gillian, I am so sorry I hurt you. I don’t know what’s gotten into me. Please, join me for dinner,” Joel offered honestly, pulling out my chair before serving the plates and pouring wine.
For a long moment we sat together in silence, sipping wine and nibbling at our dinner. It was a strained silence that hung between us. I was too frightened to say something that either of us would regret later. It was a truce. Somehow we’d agreed to a reprieve without words. I wasn’t sure when or where we’d learnt it, to speak without words, but somewhere in the silence I heard him reassuring me.
Then suddenly, without warning, Joel began coughing and spluttering. Grabbing at his throat, he coughed and hacked and gagged. Without a word I jumped up and was hitting his back, willing him to breathe again. Moments later the drama subsided and Joel slumped back in his chair, breathing deeply.
Sipping at his wine, Joel confessed, “When you first told me that you were pregnant again I was so blinded by all the dark thoughts in my head. I couldn’t see any good coming from having another child. We are already so lucky with our two beautiful daughters I didn’t want anything to ruin it. And you and I, well, we don’t really even know each other anymore. I have been so consumed with work we never get to spend any time together. Just us. Doing the things that we like. If we ever do see each other, it’s either in passing or we are meeting out the front of a ballet performance for Charli or at Bianca’s parent-teacher evenings. I don’t even remember the last time you and I just hung out together.”
I couldn’t disagree with him. I couldn’t even remember what we thought was fun. But as soon as the thought crossed my mind, I wondered if Joel and I had ever actually had fun. In my memory Joel and I had a couple of crazy nights of passion and then responsibility kicked in. Since that moment our lives hadn’t been our own.
“Joel, I want to ask you something. And I need you to be honest with me. At the very least you owe me that much.”
“I owe you that,” he agreed, his eyes betraying his defeat.
I dropped my knife and fork on the plate with a ding. For a long time I had wanted to ask, but I had always been too afraid. It was something that had played on my mind for years. The words had danced on the tip of my tongue the day of our wedding. When the celebrant asked if anyone objected, the thought crossed my mind to ask Joel then, but it didn’t seem the right time. And every day since, it still never seemed the right time, but now time had beaten me. If we were going to make it, now was the time to ask for the cold hard truth. “Did we ever have fun? Were we ever friends? Or was I just a fling that trapped you?”
In the silence that followed I was almost paralyzed. Right there, in that moment, I wanted nothing more than the floor to open up and swallow me whole. I wished I’d kept my big mouth shut, but now it was out there. I couldn’t take it back.
Joel looked appalled. I couldn’t read him. I don’t know if he was dismayed by the fact that I had asked my question aloud or if he was disgusted. But I was too stubborn tonight. Spending time with my girls had made me realize that I deserved more. I deserved to be loved and treated with respect. Not only for me, but for my kids as well. And on the drive home, I had made a promise to myself that no matter what happened next, no matter what Joel said or did, Bianca and Charli would not grow up in a home filled with hatred and bitterness.
“Is that what you really think?” he asked through pained, tortured eyes.
I felt myself turn bright red. I was ashamed I’d even asked. But then fury and rage set in. Why should I feel humiliated about asking for the truth? I needed it. I was still so angry and so hurt after everything that had happened in the past twenty-four hours that I felt like I had been forced into asking. Struggling for breath, I swallowed hard. I opened my mouth to speak but nothing came out. Instead I just nodded pathetically.
Joel put down his fork, folded his hands in his lap and looked at me. No, that was a bit of an understatement. He stared at me intently. There was something in his eyes that I had never seen before. Something new, something scary. “Gillian, I know that I have hurt you in more ways than you can imagine. And I’m sorry for that. More sorry than you will ever know. If I could take it back, I would. But I’m not that naïve. I can’t. So you’re just going to have to believe. If it takes me days and weeks and months and years to prove that to you, then that’s what I am going to do.”
Joel reached out to hold my hand and instinctively I flinched. I didn’t mean it and I didn’t do it consciously, but I can’t pretend I didn’t cringe. And what made it worse, Joel saw it. Again, I had hurt him. “Gillian?” he asked as slowly he tried again. This time I focused and made sure I didn’t budge an inch.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled unconvincingly.
“I know I’ve hurt you in every way that a person can hurt another, but you have to believe me; I would never again do that to you.” I watched as Joel sipped his wine. His words were sincere, but looking down I could see the marks on my wrists and everything became real again.
Sighing heavily, I found the words tumbling from my mouth before I could stop them. “You didn’t answer my question. Did you ever love me or do you think that I just trapped you into a life you never wanted?”
“Yes,” was all he offered, downing the rest of his glass of wine before hastily refilling and draining it again.
I admit I was nervous but it was more than that. I was absolutely petrified. Gulping, I forced the words out. “Yes you loved me or yes I trapped you?”
Joel put the empty wine glass back on the table. He looked at me with wide vacant eyes. Something had changed. The moment had passed. Gone was the tenderness in his face and instead there was an insurmountable distance between us. “Yes, you trapped me.”
My heart broke. I would have sworn they heard it around the world, the deafening sound of my heart shattering into a million pieces. Silent, salty tears streamed down my face and I didn’t even notice they were there. In my heart I knew Joel and I never had a normal courtship from the start. Well, we did, but it was in hyper-drive. Everything that a normal couple goes through in the first three years of their relationship, somehow Joel and I crammed it into the first three months.
Again he reached out to take my hand and I pulled away. The difference was this time I knew I had done it. And this time I had deliberately tried to hurt him. I wanted him to feel the same pain that was killing me. I knew it was childish but I didn’t care. He broke my heart. I wanted nothing more than to destroy his.
“Gillian…please just say something. Anything.”
“Trust me, you don’t want to hear what I have to say right now,” I spat back nastily.
“Let me explain.”
“Fuck off! What the hell do you want to explain? Why are you still here when I trapped you all those years ago? Why haven’t you just left if you’re so damn unhappy?” I pushed my plate away. I was too repulsed to eat.
“Calm down,” Joel snapped heatedly.
“Don’t tell me to calm down. You have no right to tell me what to do.”
“Shut up and let me finish, damn it! Yes, at the time I resented the fact that you were pregnant with Charli. I felt suffocated. But let me tell you I wouldn’t change the fact that we, you and I, are the proud parents of a beautiful daughter. And you can’t judge me for that. Yes, you told me you were pregnant and I freaked out. Who wouldn’t? We barely knew each other. But let me remind you, you freaked out as well. We weren’t ready. I wasn’t ready. But I don’t know why you doubt that I ever loved you. Do you remember the first time that I told you that I loved you? Do you?” he asked.
By now I was sobbing. I couldn’t fault anything he had said. I did freak out about being a mum and everything else that was happening to me. With hormones ravaging my body, I found myself suddenly married and pregnant without a chance to figure out if this was something that I actually wanted. Now I just felt like a hypocrite for questioning him. “No,” I declared, embarrassed.
“We were in the hospital. After twenty-two hours of labor, you were exhausted. Your hair was matted, your face was red and covered in sweat. Your wide eyes were pretty much hanging out of your head. My hand was numb from where you had spent the better part of the day before crushing it, and in your arms you held the most precious thing in the world, our daughter.” Joel’s eyes were full of tears. They were on the verge of spilling over and trickling down his cheeks. “Charli wrapped her tiny little hand around my finger and I realized how perfect she was. She was the spitting image of her mother. And I knew in that moment, I just knew, that I loved you. And not because I had just been through hell, but because you had given me something that no one else ever could.”
“I don’t understand. You think I trapped you and ruined your perfect life, yet the day that I sealed your fate you decide that you love me? Does that make any sense to you?” I had given up trying to be diplomatic. In my mind I was in that place where I had nothing left to lose. I might as well put all of my cards on the table and hope Joel didn’t call my bluff.
“Charli isn’t a bad thing. She didn’t ruin my life. I’ll admit that she completely transformed it. But it got even more wonderful. And when Bianca joined our family things just got better. I love you, but I had no idea how much our kids would transform our lives. My life. When Charli arrived I was amazed at how instantly and how much I loved her. Then Bianca joined us and I didn’t love Charli any less, I just found more space in my heart for her,” Joel confessed openly.
I don’t know why I was being such a heartless bitch, but I couldn’t help it. “You didn’t get more capacity to love, Joel. You just stopped loving me and poured everything that you have into your job and your daughters.”
“Is that what you truly believe? Deep down in your heart, past the pain, do you really think that I don’t love you?”
“Give me a reason to believe something else. Anything else,” I challenged.
“Gillian, I love you.”
“Prove it,” I retorted with all the venom I could muster. In that moment I was nothing more than a heartbroken, defeated, furious bitch. We both knew it. The only difference was I didn’t care. Joel had hurt me and in that moment I could think of nothing more satisfying than revenge.
“How, Gillian? Tell me what I have to do for you to believe me. What’s it going to take for you to get past this?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sure you do or you wouldn’t have brought it up. You know exactly what you want.”
“No, I don’t.”
Joel huffed heavily. He was trying to play the victim now; make it sound like everything was being done to him and nothing was his fault. God forbid he actually step up and be a man and take some responsibility for a change. “Just tell me what you want. Stop playing these childish, pathetic games and just tell me what it is you want, Gillian.”
I stared at him. The man sitting beside me was not the man I met in the office that day. The man I met that day had passion, had fire, had confidence and had that strange sex appeal that made my insides squirm. But that man was gone. I hadn’t seen him in years. Our marriage had become the typical joke. As soon as the ring had been placed on my finger and our daughters were tucked up in their beds, the passion fizzled. We no longer bothered to make time for each other. We’d given up trying to impress each other. And I’ll admit I was as much to blame as Joel was. I could go days without shaving my legs and I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I had even bothered to get a bikini wax. But we had kids and careers and lives that seemed to get in the way. Unfortunately, our problem was that we accepted it as the way it was rather than fighting for something better. Fighting for what it was we wanted. Fighting to reclaim us.
“You really want to know what it is that I want?” I threatened.
“I’m begging you, Gillian. Tell me. What is it that you want?”
I took a breath, trying to tame the barrage inside me. “I want a life. I want a husband who comes home to his family and is happy to be there. I don’t want someone who comes home and looks at me as if I am in the way. I want you to want to be here with us. And more than that. I want to be able to have time off. Time to be me. Time to spend doing the things I like. I don’t always want to be the responsible one. The one who makes sure the kids are fed and bathed and homework is done. Occasionally I would like someone else to do that. I feel like I am doing all this alone.” I forced myself to pause. I didn’t want Joel to think I was berating him with my tirade, which in fact was exactly what I was doing.
But as the words flowed freely from my heart I finally grasped that that was exactly what I wanted. I don’t know if I knew it before that moment and just never said it aloud or if I just realized that that was what I wanted as I said it. I wanted a partner, not just someone who showed up occasionally.
“I can do that. I can be that man for you, Gillian. You just need to let me,” I heard Joel say no louder than a whisper.
It took me a full minute to comprehend what he had said. “Sorry?” I asked nervously. I needed him to repeat it. I didn’t want to pin my hopes on something that I thought I heard. I wanted solid commitment.
“I can do that for you. I can be here. I can help you.”
“Don’t do it out of guilt or just to shut me up, Joel. You need you to do this because you want to. You need to want to spend time with your family. And that’s what we are, Joel. And believe me, I know it’s scary. We are still so young and we have two daughters and another on the way. But we have made it this far, there’s no point giving up now.” I was hoping I wasn’t pushing him too far, but instead encouraging him to choose what was best for him. Then all I had to do was hope that what was best for him was also best for the rest of us.
I watched as Joel’s head sunk into his hands. I stared at his hands, waiting. With the memory of last night in my mind I was silently terrified of him exploding, but it needed to be said. There was no point ignoring this any longer. If I wanted my life to get better, I had to start somewhere. That’s when I noticed his left hand. His wedding ring was missing.
“Where is your wedding ring?” I questioned incredulously. We could fight and argue, but in my eyes taking off your wedding ring meant something, something real, something hurtful.
“God, Gillian, it’s never just one thing with you, is it?” Joel shook his head. He was angry now. His face was red and his eyes bulging. Grabbing his napkin from his lap, Joel threw it down on the centre of the table with force that I had never seen before. Pushing his chair away from the table, Joel stormed into the kitchen. I didn’t follow him. I was frozen to the spot, too afraid to move or make a sound. And in that moment all I could think of was Charli and Bianca. Asleep like angels, tucked up in their room, they didn’t need to hear or see this. Suddenly I wished that they had gone to stay with Adele for the night.
Storming back into the room, I could smell the rum from the tumbler in his hand. “You say that you want a break from your kids, then why are you having another one? You say you want me to want to be here, but why would I want that? Why would I want to come home and be stuck here? Why would I want to spend time with you when you don’t even want to spend time with yourself?” Joel stormed, downing the rest of his drink.
“They’re your kids too, Joel. It takes two, you know. You should want to be here. You say you love me, yet you and I haven’t done anything or been anywhere alone together in over three years. I want to spend time on my own, but without you here to take care of the girls, I can’t. I can’t just go out and do my own thing and leave them here to fend for themselves; they’re still little girls,” I defended. I should have been prepared to defend what I wanted, I should have known he would turn it around, but I hadn’t thought it through that far.
“Fine!” he puffed dramatically. “I’ll do whatever you want me to do. I will be home every Tuesday and Thursday by six. On Tuesday night I will organize dinner for the four of us and we will have family time. No other commitments, just the four of us. I will bathe the girls, help with homework, and do whatever else needs doing around here. So after dinner is done, you can do anything you want. It’s up to you. Then on Thursdays I will come home at six and you can go out. I will spend the night with Charli and Bianca and you can do whatever. Go to the movies, out for coffee, visit the girls, I really don’t care. Is that good enough for you?” He was so clinical and unemotional about his declaration I found myself wondering if he actually meant it or it would just be another thing that he was going to do until something better came up.
But now was not the time to jinx him. Instead, I found myself nodding meekly.
“So now you shut up? You got what you wanted and now you’re quiet.” Joel shook his head as he walked back into the kitchen.
“Where’s your wedding ring?” I dared ask again.
“What?” he snapped, reappearing with his glass refilled.
“I just asked where your wedding ring is,” I repeated.
“I took it off.” He drained his glass, put it on the counter, and sauntered into our bedroom, slamming the door as he passed. I knew in moments he would be passed out on the bed, snoring.
I couldn’t bring myself to sleep in my own bed that night. I looked at the clock and it was a little after two in the morning. I hadn’t noticed the time passing, but I had been staring into the blank television and, as the minutes ticked by, I curled my legs beneath me and hugged myself absentmindedly. I was hurt. But I was hanging in there. Right then, in that moment, that was all I could do. I stretched out my tired, aching muscles as much as I could before curling up into a ball. It wasn’t so much a sleep as it was a thousand cat naps strung together with unwanted moments of panic.
The night passed slowly, but when I woke the haze in my head still hadn’t cleared. If anything, it was denser than before. Feeling like I had been hit by a bus, I padded softly towards the bedroom, trying desperately not to wake anyone. I stole a glance at the clock. It was a little after five. The house was still silent and dark. I knew I had at least another hour and a half before the girls began to stir.
I opened the door, and to say I was shocked by what I saw was the understatement of the century. I’d imagined I would push open the door and sneak in to see Joel spread-eagled on the bed snoring happily. But he was nowhere to be seen. He must have snuck out the side gate before I woke.
Instead, the room was buried beneath a mountain of boxes. I don’t know where they had come from, but standing beside the bed, taller than me, was a cardboard tower. Startled, I walked through the wardrobe into the en suite. I splashed cold water on my face, then tipped my neck and heard the crack caused by the uncomfortable couch. I noticed that something wasn’t quite right. Glancing around the en suite, something was missing, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Convincing myself I was going crazy, I turned and left. I almost made it out of the wardrobe before I noticed what had vanished. Me.
All my clothes were missing from the closet. None of my shampoo or moisturizer or perfume was on the countertop in the bathroom. I immediately became enraged and obsessed. I found myself pulling open drawers and opening cupboards. Everything I owned was gone. None of my pajamas were in the pajama drawer. My sock drawer was empty. The bathroom cabinet had been wiped clean. Every trace of my existence in that room was gone.
Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. It was all too much. I slid down the door frame and sucked in deep breaths. I wasn’t sure where the tears had come from, but they streamed undisturbed down my face.
“Mum!” the howl came. Someone was awake, but I couldn’t pull myself up from the floor. I was paralyzed with shock and dismay. Then the call came again and the time for my own drama was gone. Just like that. One word and all my thoughts and problems were no longer a priority.
Eventually I dragged my astonished, aching body from the floor and stalked back out of the room. I didn’t mean it but I let the door slam behind me, shaking the windows.
“Oops,” I heard myself apologize half-heartedly.
I found the girls were awake and already in the middle of getting dressed. I looked at Bianca and her mismatched clothes and found myself smiling. When I realized I was smiling, I stopped myself. But that was the last thing I should have been doing. I had just discovered that my loving, caring husband had packed all my clothes and toiletries into boxes and kicked me out of my own bedroom. There was nothing to smile about. Yet there I was, standing in the doorway to Bianca’s room, unable to wipe the stupid, cheesy grin from my face. And in that moment, with my hands resting protectively across my pregnant belly, I made a decision that would change everything I knew. No matter what Joel said or did to me next, he would never hurt my children. And he had no hope in hell of getting rid of me and keeping them. It was all or none.
“Mummy,” Bianca sang sweetly, looking up at me with wide, innocent, hopeful eyes. “Look, Mummy. I did my own hair. Is it pretty?”
Using all my strength, I managed to stifle a giggle. Yes, Bianca had done her own hair, and it was stunning. Somehow she had managed to defy not only reason but gravity as well, and amongst her beautiful brown locks was every clip, every ribbon, and every barrette that she’d ever owned. “Yes, darling. You look beautiful,” I cooed, adjusting a clip that was falling out.
“Can I go and show Charli?” Her adorable wide white smile beamed up at me. I couldn’t help being in love with my daughter.
“Go on, I’m sure Charli will be impressed.”
I just stood there, frozen to the spot as she pushed past me and skipped down the hallway to find her sister. When I heard giggling, I headed back towards the kitchen to begin my day. Make breakfast, prepare lunches, and drop the girls at school before grocery shopping, picking up Charli a new pair of swimmers for lessons later on that afternoon, and a quick trip to the doctor’s before I picked them up again. Even being a mum without a day job was tiring. I never had more than five minutes in a row to myself. But admittedly, I wouldn’t have asked for anything different.
I gave one final fleeting thought to the boxes neatly stacked in my old bedroom. Part of me wanted to storm into Joel’s office and just yell and scream and make a scene, but the other part of me, the more stable, mature part, wanted nothing more than to pack the girls’ belongings, load it all onto a truck, and drive away. The way I was feeling I knew I could have the house sterile and empty again before Joel even noticed. I just wished I knew what his next move would be.
Moments later I was securing the girls’ seatbelts and headed for school.
Striding through the office as purposefully as he could, chest puffed out, trying to look busy and important, Joel barely managed a snort as he was greeted much too cheerily by the busty blonde receptionist behind the desk.
“Someone’s snotty this morning,” she taunted under her breath before refocusing her attention on her long, fake, bright pink fingernails.
“Have you got something you want to say to me?” Joel snapped, appearing immediately beside her. He hadn’t heard the actual words she had said, but he had known for a couple of weeks now that she thought he was a jerk. And she provoked him every chance she could.
“No. I have absolutely nothing to say to you, Mr. Matthews,” she sung sweetly, pushing back from her chair and standing up.
Joel had to admit that this chick had balls. She was right in his face. The further he puffed out his chest, the further she stuck out hers. He was impressed. Not only by the attitude confronting him, but also by the ample size of her bust. He was slightly mesmerized by it and couldn’t stop his eyes from looking straight down the front of her top.
“Good!” He smiled seductively at her, licking his lips. “’Cause if you did I would invite you to do it to my face rather than muttering your sly, smart-ass comments under your breath, Becky.”
Joel noticed the goose pimples that dotted her exposed skin. They made him feel powerful and in control. “No, Joel, I have nothing to say.” She backed up. As she stepped backwards, he came towards her, quickly closing the gap between them.
“I have work to do. I should get back to it,” Becky said, slipping back into her chair and staring at the blank computer screen. Strangely enough, Joel felt completely confident and aroused. He loved the power he possessed. He could see that he was dominating Becky in every way. And she had nowhere to go. She was under his spell. Like his bitch wife had once been. But now she was too fat, too pregnant, and too complacent to be of any use to him. She wasn’t even an ego boost anymore.
With the overpowering stench of Becky’s cheap perfume, Joel’s confidence and erection grew. He bent over her, gently pushing some of the wild strands of her blonde locks away from her face and whispered suggestively to her. “I know you want me. It’s only a matter of time.”
“You’re…you’re married,” Becky stuttered, hers eyes darting back and forth, searching for a savior. “So what?” he whispered again, nibbling her ear. As he turned to leave, Joel just couldn’t help himself. He reached down over Becky’s shoulder and helped himself to a handful of her breast, freezing Becky where she stood.
Shocked, Becky gasped. Frozen to the spot
As she fought back angry, bitter tears, Becky grabbed her bag and ran out the door. She was already frantically dialing her boss’s phone number as she pushed through the double glass doors and out on to the street.
Completely oblivious to the distress he’d caused or the tears streaming down Becky’s face, Joel ducked into the kitchen and poured himself a juice. He wasn’t sure whose it was, but he helped himself anyway. He had a content smile on his face—so far, a great day. He had started with a detox, getting rid of his wife’s shit, before putting that tart sitting out in front filing her nails in her place. He finished his juice and dropped the dirty cup in the sink. Someone else would take care of it. They always did.
Stalking back into the office, Joel slipped into his leather recliner and put his feet up on his desk. He had a mischievous but satisfied smile on his face. So far today he had “cleansed” his room and his life as much as possible of his wife, and still managed to scratch an itch with the bosomy idiot sitting at the reception desk. He felt invincible. The phone lines were quiet, which was unusual, but not eerily so. It was still early and most solicitors he knew wouldn’t have finished their morning coffee and gossip sessions.
Joel sat there completely relaxed. He glanced around his office and saw a lifetime of his achievements. The top of his filing cabinets were covered in trophies from years of hard work, dedication, and manipulation. Photos lined the walls from award ceremonies and half-famous clients. The only indication that he even had a family was a small photo of Bianca and Charli on the back of the door. There was no sign that Gillian was even in his life.
The phone rang and Joel was jolted out of his daydream. As he began to swear and curse down the phone, his boss appeared in the doorway. After a few more moments of bitter words and half-hearted cajoling, he slammed down the phone. “Asshole,” he cursed.
“Yeah, the bitch from 46 McKinley Way just withdrew her property,” Joel snapped a little too forcefully for Samantha’s liking.
Joel and Samantha had never gotten along. Not since the day she was promoted from below Joel to his boss a little over twelve months earlier. She despised the way Joel spoke to and about women. Sometimes he was just rude and other times he was so damn offensive it took all her strength and will power not to slap him across his perfect face.
“You mean the emotionally fragile single mum with three kids, one of which has Down syndrome, whose husband just died in the Middle East building bridges?” Samantha asked, attempting to remind Joel that the woman he was so angry with wasn’t doing this just to piss him off.
She knew that Joel had a temper. Samantha had watched as he grew more destructive and more obnoxious. Controlling him had become a full-time job. She didn’t even have time to sell anything herself. The less she sold, the less she earnt. The less she earnt, the more she hated the fact that these days she was pretty much a glorified babysitter, making sure Joel didn’t do anything that would get them sued was infuriating and unnecessarily time consuming.
“Yeah, that stupid bitch. She’s got no idea how much time and effort and marketing I spent trying to sell that place. And I was so close…” he muttered under his breath.
Samantha could feel the tension brewing. Joel was at boiling point and she knew she only had a short time left to diffuse him before he caused something more than the usual nightmare. “Just give her some time to get everything together. I’m sure she’ll come back,” Samantha attempted to reassure him. Although she said all the right things out loud, internally Samantha knew that it was all bullshit. After hearing the way Joel spoke to her, Joel had no chance of getting this one back.
“Whatever,” Joel grumbled before waving his hand dismissively at Samantha. She gave up and walked out, shaking her head. Things were getting worse, but there was nothing that she could do for now.
Joel watched on with bemusement as his boss stumbled in her stilettos. The cynical part of him wanted to annoy her to such an extent that she couldn’t help but spin so fast that her heels wouldn’t keep up and she fell on her fat arse. In Joel’s mind, that was where she deserved to be. But if anyone asked, no, he wasn’t at all bitter that she had been promoted ahead of him.
For a few moments Joel watched on, not sure how he was supposed to feel. A combination of thoughts floated about inside of him and all of a sudden the room was too small. Too closed in. There was no air. No windows. He needed to get out of there. The claustrophobia was nauseating. Jumping up from his seat, Joel flew out of the office, barely pausing to glance back.
Outside in the fresh air, Joel slumped over, hands on his knees, sucking in long deep breaths. Something wasn’t right but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Then it struck him, like a tonne of bricks. This time he had gone too far. And as fear gripped him, Joel heard whimpering.
Becky was sitting on the garden edge behind him, her face streaked with mascara lines, her eyes wide and red. He could hear the short, sharp, shallow breaths as she gasped between sobs.
Joel couldn’t help but steal glances in her direction. He found himself wondering if it was his fault she was out here, sitting alone in the icy wind, sobbing to herself. Or did she have some other issues, bigger problems than he knew? Surely it wasn’t his fault. She wasn’t that pathetically fragile, was she? But a niggling in the back of his mind made him pull himself together and walk over to stand in front of her.
Becky looked up at him with pure terror. Gone was the pain and anguish, now only all-consuming and paralyzing fear was left. And it wasn’t just fear, it was unadulterated panic. Joel was towering over her, arms folded across his chest, an unreadable expression on his face.
“Please…please just leave me alone,” she whimpered desperately.
Joel scrunched up his face in disgust. He could see that she was clearly distraught, but the only remorse he felt was the concern for his own career. Whether Becky knew it or not, she could destroy everything he had worked for. With one word, all the late nights, weekends, all the hours spent on the phone, all the lies he had told, the very thing that he had molded his whole life around could be gone.
“Becky.” He smiled softly at her. He had been around long enough to know how to play the game. With women it was simple, he’d been taught. And after years of honing his skills, his arrogance made him believe that this would be no harder than closing a deal. A young, dumb girl just had to be played the right way. He lowered himself slowly onto the ledge beside her. “Are you okay?” he offered.
Joel watched with interest as tiny bits of spittle coated her face as he spoke, causing her to recoil. “I’m fine,” she stated matter-of-factly. The instant the words passed her lips, Becky began wiping at her eyes. She squared her shoulders and looked up at Joel’s softening face defiantly.
Without pausing to consider the consequences, Joel reached out and put his hand on Becky’s thigh.
Jumping up from the ledge, she backed away from him, daggers in her eyes. “Don’t you ever touch me again!” she snarled.
“Becky,” he began, standing up and inching towards her. Instinctively Becky found herself backing up until she crashed into the brick building behind her, knocking the corner of her elbow on the rough surface. It wasn’t a deep gash, and there was no blood, but it still stung.
“Fuck off, Joel!”
“Excuse me?” Joel retorted, surprised that she had the audacity to speak to him like that. Didn’t she know who he was?
“I said ‘Fuck off, Joel.’ You ever come near me again and I guarantee a few tears will be the least of your concerns. Not only will you be squirming about on the ground in so much pain you will wish you had been desexed years ago, but by the time you’re able to drag your sorry ass up off the ground, you’ll only be standing up to greet the police.”
“Listen here, you stupid little tart. I don’t know who you think you are or who you think you’re threatening, but I won’t stand for your drama queen antics. You might think you are all that, but you are nothing. Completely replaceable. We can always just get some other big boobed, blonde Barbie to do your job. God knows it’s not fucking hard. So you just keep your mouth shut,” he snapped, tiny bits of spittle covering Becky’s face.
Joel should have quit while he was ahead. The more he spoke, the more Becky grew in confidence. She had him rattled and she knew it. He was making threats and back tracking. He was worried.
“I don’t know how your wife puts up with your bullshit.”
“Don’t you dare mention her!”
“Why not? Do you remember that you actually have a wife?”
“Shut up!” he threatened menacingly.
“What? Doesn’t she know about all the skanks you parade through the office before closing the blinds? Do you think we’re all stupid?”
“I told you to shut up!” Joel roared as he back handed her, leaving a stinging red hand print on her cheek.
Seeing the shock on her face, Joel realized that he had gone too far. He had never meant to hit her. He wasn’t a violent man, he reassured himself. “I’m sorry, Becky,” he apologized as he backed away, embarrassed. “I never meant to…I’m so sorry…” Joel turned and fled.
“This isn’t finished,” Becky stated, but he was already too far gone to hear.