Some spoilers are from the prologue, where Nina deals with memories and grief after she hears about Lom’s death. Others are from the story Nina decides to write.
I can’t say THE love of my life, because that would mean that now that I know that you’re gone, hope has died forever. I’m too young for that and all you ever wanted was for me to be happy.
But for a while, you WERE the love of my life. I breathed you from morning till night even though your body was rarely with me.
I would wake in the mornings thinking that today I would see you, and if not today, then tomorrow.
And so I was able to get up, I was able to get dressed and go about my day.
Then – there you were. Today you were able to come. Tomorrow is finally today.
I feel my face light up with joy and for a moment I stand still and look at you, just to drink you in. Then I’m in your arms. They’re strong and I feel the life force refuel me.
We kiss, with passion, with abandon. For now, for an hour or two our world has shrunk to this room.
We talk, we love, we laugh. You tell me you love me and I can show you all the love that I have bottled up since I last saw you.
And then, always too soon, it’s over and you’re a memory again.
For many years you gave me what you could. You gave me a harbour where I could escape from the turmoil of my early life, a life in which you didn’t exist, a life in which there was only strife and hate, petty war and mighty spats, a life in which I was nothing and made to feel even less.
Yes, you gave me hope and sanity and touch.
You saw me and appreciated that I was me.
You touched my lost soul.
You helped me find it.
And for that, I loved you from the bottom of my heart and with all of my lost soul.
His kiss remains light and controlled, but his hands are increasingly frantic as they search for entry into her clothing. He is rewarded with the hem of her shirt, which he pulls up. With a sigh he splays his hands on her back. He absorbs her heat, totally still for a moment, giving her time to catch up with him. .
When her hands start to move very slowly, sliding towards his waistband, his heart sings. He has not put her off. She starts responding to his kiss. Her hands gently, carefully pull at his shirt until there is enough room to slip them in and touch his back.
He breaks the kiss and leans back enough to allow his hands to slide to her sides caressing her from her hips to her ribcage. When his palm first makes contact with the outside of her breast, a moan escapes her.
He can see the startled desire in her eyes.
Lightening his grip, he moves his hands until he cups and lifts her unfettered breasts. Simultaneously, his thumbs come up to brush across her nipples. Her head drops back pushing her lower body into his erection, which is painfully trapped.
Her breasts are soft and mobile, a perfect fit for his hands – not too small and not too big. He teases them until the rock-hard pebbles of her nipples are drilling holes into his palms.
Only a moment ago, he thought that touching her like this, feeling her response, would keep him satisfied forever.
It is already not enough.
He needs to see!
He widens the caress until he hooks the bottom edge of her shirt and pulls it up. Her chest is flushed a soft pink, her nipples are lustrous perfection. He wonders what they taste like, but as he leans forward to take one into his mouth, she freezes, so he replaces one hand on a breast, gently kneading the whole orb and kisses his way up her chest, her neck and jaw, back to her mouth, and then further up to the top of her head.
With her head resting on his shoulders, both are breathing hard. He waits for her to relax again, his hand still moving soothingly along her curves.
His words are no more than a whisper – he fears that if she continues to gyrate her hips he will take her.
Yet her soft moans and uncontrolled rocking tell him that his touch has brought her to a state of arousal that needs to peak – he has already taken her too far. How can he help her achieve that release without betraying her trust, without scaring her?
Nina is sitting in a classroom in the science block at a long bench under the window. An Indian summer sun is warming her hands and face, but her heart is cold.
The glare of the sun is making it impossible to read the text before her but she does not shield her eyes – she is not reading. Instead, her mind is blank. It is the blank before the storm, the blank which does not know which of the million churning thoughts should go first. Every one of those thoughts is too painful to deal with so the mind rejects them all, holds them at bay and remains blank.
Lom is standing in the doorway observing – her utter stillness touches something deep inside him.
He has seen her in the lab many times since the beginning of term. Apart from in class, and even there she sits a little apart from the other students, he has never seen her speak to anyone.
He has noticed her not only because of the aloofness, a separateness that is not arrogant in nature but shy. He has also noticed she never takes off her coat – and she is auburn.
Nina is new at the school and has never been in a situation like this. She has left her family to move abroad, to England, to complete her education. She has come from an international school where she was comfortable and secure in a group of friends who were all high achievers, who studied hard and made the grades.
It is Nina’s thirst for knowledge that is keeping her sane in this strange new environment. Alone in a foreign country, her friends have all gone off in different directions to complete their schooling, some to America, some back to their native countries, she is the only one who has come to England.
So here she is – in a boarding school with rules so restrictive she wants to scream, several years older than the other students in her class, and she is cold. So cold!
She does not fit in.
So she escapes to study and the peace of the lab where she is now basking in the late afternoon sun.
For the first time in days her fingers are warming up – now that is a safe thought to bounce around in her otherwise blank mind.
Nina lifts her head a little to allow the sun to caress her face and closes her eyes.
Lom is still watching, although he is beginning to feel like an intruder. He works in the labs as the senior laboratory technician, so he has every right to be here, but Nina’s attitude is very private, and he is trespassing on her privacy
Then he sees her move, only a tiny movement, but like a sunflower, her face has turned towards the sun and half a smile lifts the corners of her mouth.
“Would you like a cup of tea?”
Lom is as startled at his own words as Nina, whose head whips round so fast she loses her balance and almost falls off the lab stool, which like a bar chair is quite high.
Her eyes are wide, green, and full of suspicion – or is that fear.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” he apologises. “It’s our break time and I’m about to make some tea. Would you like some?”
Nina’s eyes drop to her hands
“That would be nice. Thank you, Mr Morrish.”
She has an accent!
Nina’s mother hires a car and they visit both Canterbury and Rochester Cathedrals, Hever and Dover castles – doing the touristy thing. In addition, they just drive, exploring the countryside, little villages and whatever interesting places take their fancy. They have a great time, which the photos that her mother takes, show.
What the photographs do not show are the fights.
Nothing between them has really changed – good times interspersed with daily, violent rows – violent only in terms of ferocity and decibel levels, never physical aggression – centred around knickers on the floor, not getting up, unmade beds, sinks not washed out after brushing teeth, crumbs left everywhere, not getting up, not turning the lights off to sleep, unfolded laundry and not getting up.
“If you don’t turn the lights off it’s no wonder you can’t get up in the morning!”
“I will put my stuff away when I’ve finished reading this chapter!”
“If you don’t put your dirty underwear in the hamper, I swear I will strangle you with it!”
“Why do you always have to be drunk?!”
“Will you put the food away when you’ve finished with it!”
“Why should I make the bed? I’ll just get back in it tonight anyway!”
“If you don’t get up, we might as well forget today as the day will be over!”
“No wonder you drove my father away! I hate you!”
Nina claps her hand over her mouth as soon as the words fall out.
Her mother is not blind drunk, but noticeably under the influence when that last accusation slams into the room about a week into their holiday.
Nina watches her go still and completely silent, pick up her wine glass and slam it against the wall opposite, lurch up, grab her coat and leave the room. She is as white as a sheet.
Nina bursts into tears, feeling tremendously guilty for what she has said and wishing she was at school, safe in the lab, protected in Lom’s company.
Two hours later, the mother returns, visibly calmer and sober. Her eyes are red-rimmed and she is still pale, much like her daughter.
She cleans up the shards of glass and tries to wash the wine stain off the wall. The room has typical English wall paper with large flowers and a clashing tan, yellow & brown, geometric-patterned carpet.
Nina does not dare move and counts repetitions of carpet pattern – 16 across, 18 along.
“We need to talk about your father, I think…” her mother starts.
She sits down at the little table under the window and motions for Nina to join her. Reluctantly, she gets up from the bed and takes a seat opposite her mother. She does not want to hear this, but she must.
He feels faint.
“I want you to hold me, just hold me for a moment.”
His mouth has gone dry and woolly. She has no idea how much self-control it takes not to clamp her to him and frighten her to death with his fervour.
He rises, never letting go of her hands, and pulls her towards him, giving her plenty of opportunity to pull back. To hug her he has to let go of her hands, so he gently places them on his sides and extends his arms round her.
Their chests make contact, then their legs. For a moment she is stiff and tense but he keeps the embrace light until he feels her relax. Then, imperceptibly at first, her hands move around his back bringing them closer together.
She cannot believe that she asked him and that he is actually giving her a hug. She does not think she has ever felt so secure and supported in her life. She is just a little frightened, but he is so gentle that she relaxes further into him.
Operating on instinct again, her head turns to the side and rests against his chest. He is tall and her ear is near his collarbone. She can hear his heart play a percussion recital and is aware that her own is beating just as hard.
As her arms clasp him tighter, his reciprocate.
Then she feels it – a hardness pressing against her groin and she freezes.
Of course, she knows what it is, but the step it signals is too huge.
“Do you want me to let go?” he offers.
Does she want him to let go? She is sure she does not, but this is going so fast.
“Just…” he whispers, “just don’t move, OK?”
They stand in stillness, holding each other motionlessly, until he feels her fear of his erection subside. Then he loosens the embrace very slightly.
“Are you a virgin?”
Again she tenses, but does not move away and relaxes much quicker this time.
He, on the other hand, is dealing with his surprise at having asked the question.
He is relieved, and yet oddly disappointed. She tells him about her one experience in one sentence.
After savouring the feel of her body for another agonising few minutes, he pulls back just a little more, plants a lingering but simple kiss on her forehead before gently sitting her down on the stool. Instantly her head drops, as if watching her own heaving chest.
His breathing is as ragged when he sits down opposite her.
“That’s enough for today.”
“Why, it was beautiful.”
“But… I could feel… ehm, feel that you wanted more.”
“I only want… I will only take… I can only ever take what you can comfortably give me.”
“No buts. Did you enjoy it?”
She just nods her head, flushing furiously.
“Good. Then that’s enough for me. OK?”
She lifts her head finally to look at him, a slow smile spreading across her face. She is so beautiful in her own shy way, he wants to love her – but she is not ready for that yet, if ever.
“I want you to think carefully if this can happen again. You should not be doing this with me.”
With that he gets up and places another chaste kiss on her forehead, turns round and surreptitiously re-arranges his underwear.
“Can’t you go home?”
The play of emotion on Nina’s face is interesting: Disgust is followed by sadness, which is quickly masked by resignation. Then she hrmphs, which is such an unexpected sound coming from her, Lom laughs. This so startles her, he quickly suppresses his mirth and tries to reassure her that he is not laughing at her.
He does not want her to close up again, but to talk to him. He has no idea what to expect but has a feeling that she has quite a story to tell. He realises that he wants to hear it and that he wants Nina to trust him. And in order to trust him, he knows that he cannot betray her, which means that he must get this burgeoning attraction under control.
His chuckle has brought that look of fear and reservation back.
“You don’t have to tell me why you cannot go home,” he quickly reassures while secretly hoping she will.
Gradually, Nina calms down and seems to drift off into a trance. He feels that if he moves he has lost her and has to start all over again, so he waits.
Eventually, she shakes her head and looks at him, actually making eye contact – her eyes are green.
“I really don’t know where home is at the moment.”