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Monday, 1 October 2018

Chapter Six


Chapter Six

The day had begun like any other. At the bus stop she removed her boots and thick stockings. Bare legs and well-worn shoes were marginally better than roughly-knitted socks, a present from an aunt she never met, and well-worn shoes. They would still draw cheers and sniggers of course. She shrunk against the wall of the shelter as the other children filed in. Girls grouped together and laughed. Largely they ignored her, sometimes they looked her way and tittered. She turned her eyes to the sky and pretended she didn't care, that she didn't want someone to speak to her, show her some act of kindness, that she didn't desperately want to be part of the crowd. She hated being the odd girl with jug ears who sang to herself and wore hand-me-down clothes.

Miss Thomson, the music teacher, asked for anyone who wanted to sing in the upcoming festival to come to her room after school for an audition.

Singing was the one thing Beth loved, the one thing which lifted her from her life and made her heart soar. Her father would not be home until seven o'clock anyway, so there was nothing to stop her from staying behind.

'I'm so glad you came along, Elizabeth,' said Miss Thomson when she saw her. 'I've heard you sing in class. This audition will be a walk in the park for you.' Miss Thomson was nice; she was young and slim and smelt of flowers. 

Afterwards, as Beth left the building, a boy who had also been auditioning, a boy she knew as Magnus, ran up behind her. 'Wait a minute,' he shouted.

Unused to talking to boys, her face reddened.

'You're a really good singer,' he said.

And time stood still. She smiled. Knowing she was.

'The best there today,' he continued.

'Not better than you.'

'Different. Why don't you come and sing with our group? We're meeting up at the hall on Friday night.

'I'd love to,' she said. At the same time panicking because she had nothing to wear. But knowing she had to do this.

On Friday night, she washed and ironed her hair and dressed in her jeans and a blouse which she thought looked half-way decent.

'I've made scrambled eggs,' she said when her father returned from the fields. 'You can heat them up. I'm going out.'

He raised his eyes and looked at her as if he'd never seen her before. 'Going out where?' he asked, an edge in his voice.

'I've been asked to sing with a group.'

'Boys?'

'Yeees, I suppose.' She fisted her hair and pressed her knees together to stop the tremble. She wanted this more than she wanted anything, except, perhaps, her mother to return.

Robbie's face grew red. 'No,' he shouted, banging his fist on the table, making her jump. He had never raised his voice to her before, ever.

'But why?' Her scalp prickled.

'I know what boys are like. You're too young.'

She felt her anger bubble up. She never asked for anything from him. 'I'm only going to sing. Please, I want to.'

He levelled his finger at her. 'Whores and comic singers. You start going out, drinking, getting up to who knows what, next you'll be leaving, just like your mother.'

It was the first time in her memory he'd mentioned her mother without prompting. Suddenly singing with the group was far from her mind. 'Why did she leave, Dad?' Beth pulled in her chair. Talk to me, she pleaded silently. Please tell me what happened. She would have stayed here with him, forgotten the band, if only he opened up and told her what she wanted to know.

'You will not sing with a band and you will not leave this house tonight.' He rose quickly, the chair falling to the ground behind him and clattering on the floor. With a final glare at her he stormed over to the cooker and lifted the lid from the pan. With his voice suddenly calm again, he said, 'Eggs look good.'

'Please, Dad, I want to know about my mam.'

He turned. 'Your mother's dead to us. I never want to hear her name mentioned in this house again, understand?'

'But I need to know...'

She was rewarded by the turn of his back.

Damn him, she thought, years of frustration welling up inside her, threatening to explode. 'I'm going to my room,' she shouted. 'And I don't want to speak to you ever again.' She ran upstairs and slammed the door. Pans and plates rattled downstairs as he heated up the eggs, his anger making his movements fast and clumsy.

'Are you coming down for your dinner?' he called after a while.

'No,' she screamed, kicking the door.

She eased her window open and looked at the ground one storey below. She had to go tonight. If she didn't they might not ask again. She wondered if the tree outside her window would be strong enough to bear her weight and decided it wasn't.

'Have you fed the hens?' Robbie was shouting again.

Wordlessly she marched down the stairs, went to the back porch and got the feed bucket. The chickens had been fed, but she wouldn't tell him. Slamming doors and stamping her feet, she went outside and round the back of the house. From the barn she dragged out several packing cases, which were used to shelter new lambs in the spring, and built one on top of the other, testing them for safety as she went along. If she climbed out of her window and lowered herself as far as she could, her feet should touch the top box.

She went back indoors.

'Are you going to eat something?' said her father.

'No,' she screamed at him.

'Then the dog'll get it.'

'Fine by me.'

She slammed her bedroom door and turned her transistor up as loud as it would go. Once more she opened the window and this time climbed out, carefully lowering herself onto the boxes, jumping from one to the other before the top one wobbled and fell. She hit the ground and stood still, listening for her father's roar as he came round the corner. It never happened. She wasn't afraid he would hit her, he never had, but then she had never defied him before.

Backstage she froze. Sorry,' she said. 'I shouldn't have come. I can't go out there.' She closed and opened her fists. What had she been thinking? She was dressed like a tramp and looked like a monkey, she would make a fool of herself and everyone would laugh at her. She felt physically sick.
Magnus opened a large coke bottle and handed it to her. 'Have a drink, it'll calm you.'

'Coke?' She screwed up her face.

The others laughed.

'With a wee bit o' Dutch courage added,' Magnus thrust it at her.

She put the bottle to her lips and drank. It burned all the way down, and it seemed there was very little coke in it. She drank again, forcing the liquid past her throat that tried to close in protest.

'Hey, leave some for the rest of us.' Magnus took the bottle from her. 'That's my dad's best vodka in there.'

Unaccustomed to strong liquor, Beth had already stopped shaking. By the time they were due to go on stage she was stepping on air, the room spun and she could have sung for the queen. 

That was the beginning. Once she started to sing she forgot her father's wrath, forgot her big ears, forgot everything except that it was her turn to shine. By the time her song ended, tears were streaming down her face.

There were many such nights afterwards, and as her love of singing grew, so did her father’s anger, until the cold atmosphere dwelling within the house, became hostile and restrictive.





Saturday, 22 September 2018

Chapter Five

Chapter Five

Once back home, Beth dumped the shopping bags on the draining board and lit the stove. By now the water should be hot enough for a bath. She prepared herself a meal of ready-cooked chicken and salad and put some frozen chips in the oven to cook. While she waited, she wandered through to her father's bedroom and stripped off his bedding. After making up the bed, she sat in front of the dressing-table for a few minutes rest.

Lifting her head, she caught her reflection in the mirror and imagined her child-face staring back at her. She had loved sitting here surrounded by her mother's things. Her perfume, her lipstick and rouge, her soft-smelling face powder in the box with the pretty lid.
'Mother of pearl,' Veronica told her, allowing the child to run her fingers over it. 'It'll be yours one day.' And she picked up her hairbrush. 'Let's brush each other's hair.'
The pleasant memory faded. Beth rubbed her eyes and rose to her feet.

Downstairs, she ate her meal, took a bath and dressed in her nightclothes. A glass of wine and the heat from the stove made her drowsy, the wind outside brought back fluttering wings of memory. In an effort to keep them at bay, she rubbed her hands together, lifted her guitar and began to strum. Her fingers were no longer as supple as they needed to be for professional playing. Andy was right to persuade her to buy the club. She began to sing, something she only did when she was alone. She chose a song she wrote years ago, the song which took her into the charts.

I wish I could go back to what I used to be
A simple little girl, so innocent and free
Somewhere along life's path, much has been lost and little gained
Somewhere along life's path, it has rained.

Frustrated by a voice that could no longer hit the high notes, she set her guitar aside, wiped her cheeks and poured another drink, emptying the bottle. Why did she keep trying to sing? Did she really think one day a miracle would happen?

Back in her other existence, singing was her world, filling up the empty places. And it wasn't just the songs; she revelled in the adoration of her fans and the applause that electrified her. She loved the life, the money, the parties, aah, the parties. And Lewis. Rat that he turned out to be. He swept her off her feet with his promises, his suave good looks, his flashy cars, his elaborate lifestyle, his guarantees of fame and fortune. He made her over and turned her into a star and she forgot her promise to Andy and Desmond to find them a job in the industry once she had her foot on the ladder. When she overtook Leo Sayer in the charts, it filled her with a false sense of her own importance. And then, one morning it hurt to swallow. The doctor warned her of the dangers of straining her vocal cords. He told her to cancel her next concert, her next tour, to stop smoking, and she ignored him, forcing the songs from her heart even when the very notes which gave her life caused shooting pains from ear to ear. Eventually she was diagnosed with polyps on her vocal chords. They coarsened her voice making it less than perfect. Encouraged by pressure from Lewis, she agreed to have the offending growths removed.

Hammond had a friend, a surgeon who, he said, once owned a practice in Harley Street, and she trusted his choice. But the knife did more harm than good. The damage was irreversible. She soon realised it had all been smoke and mirrors, none of it was real. She was a voice, not a person at all. As her fickle fans found another idol, Hammond dropped her for a new protégé, and Beth the pop star disappeared. When she caught him in bed with his latest conquest and he laughed at her hurt, she took solace in alcohol and drugs that filled the void as her dream faded.

One night, alone and drunk, nursing the feeling she had nothing left to live for, she called Andy.

'It's Beth,' she slurred, when he answered. There was a long silence.

'I understand you won't want to talk to me.' She hung up and started to cry in earnest. She lost everything, everyone. For a long time she stared at the bottle of sleeping tablets on her bedside cabinet. Then her thoughts turned to Berriedale and her father. If he'd only installed a telephone. But she could call the local hotel, they would get a message to him. She reached out her hand and as she did so, the telephone rang.

'Hello.' She pressed the receiver to her ear.

'Beth, where are you?'

'Andy... Andy I'm so sorry... you were right... I shouldn't have gone...' Her voice failed her and she dissolved into a new fit of weeping.

'Tell me where you are and I'll come and get you,' he said.

Gratitude overwhelmed her. Gratitude which still bound her to him after all this time.

The first night he took her home to his one-bedroom flat in Haymarket, he treated her as if she was made of glass. He gave her his bed and made up the sofa for himself. At the time he was working as a manager for a hardware store and singing in a dingy bar room at the weekends. He had had a lady friend, he told her, but that had recently ended.

‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘I’ll soon have you back to normal. Lots of sleep and good food. I eat most nights at the café on the corner. Mario makes the best pasta dishes outside Italy! Your voice’ll soon come back, you’ll see.’

‘It won’t,’ she said. But he ignored her, and gradually lost patience with her despondency.

A few weeks later, when he came home to find her still in her dressing gown, he heaved open the curtains and uttered a snort of disgust. ‘It’s about time you got yourself out of this state,’ he said. ‘I can’t go on keeping you for nothing. I promised the lads you’d come with us on Saturday night. And no more of this.’ He snatched the cigarette out of her hand and threw it into the bin.  ‘They don’t do your voice any good.’

‘I told you, I can’t sing.’ Wounded by his harsh words, she rose and pushed her fingers through her tangle of hair.

‘Won’t sing, you mean. It’s all in the mind, Beth.’

‘If that’s the only reason you took me back, I wish I’d stayed away.’

‘I’m beginning to wish that too.’ He stormed out of the flat slamming the door, and she didn’t see him for several days. When he did come back he was sheepish. ‘Look Beth, I told one of my friends about you. She thinks you should talk to someone, a professional.’

‘You spoke about me to a stranger?’ She couldn’t believe this.

He ran his hand over his head. ‘There’s the drinking too. And the nightmares.’

‘What drinking? I’ve never touched a drop since I’ve been here. And I’ve always had nightmares when I’m stressed, and you telling me I can sing if I try is stressing me no end.’

‘Come off it. It’s only a matter of time before you fall off the wagon and you haven’t had a decent fucking night’s sleep since you came back. And neither have I. Look, I’ve managed to get an appointment with a therapist. Not cheap, but it’ll be worth it to see you back to what you were.’

‘For God’s sake, will you listen. My vocal chords are damaged. My voice is weak. It’s not going to happen.’ She stormed into the bedroom, pulled her holdall from under the bed and started throwing her clothes into it.

‘What are you doing?’ shouted Andy, grabbing her arm.

‘You’re like all the rest. You just want me to make money for you. Well, get this through your thick skull, the golden goose is laying no more eggs!’ She jerked away from him.

His voice lowered. ‘Aw, come on. I didn’t mean it like that. Where are you going to go? Look, I won’t pressure you anymore, honest. Just see this doctor, what harm can it do?’

She suddenly felt the strength drain from her legs and she sank down onto the bed. It was true she had nowhere to go, and she did need help. Her life had become a mess. ‘And you’ll stop going on about me singing?’

His hand made a crossing motion on his chest, but his eyes remained unconvinced.

Doctor Madelaine, as she called herself, did help her. She even helped to convince Andy that Beth’s loss of voice was physical. But, as the layers of her past began to peel away, the nightmares became worse. It was then he decided the therapy was a waste of money.

She had been happy enough to leave, although it was against the advice of Doctor Madelaine. There was a door in her mind that she was scared to open, and without Andy’s support, she could not go there.

Finally accepting that her voice loss was permanent, Andy came up with the idea of the club and she welcomed it. It gave her the opportunity to surround herself with the life she was no longer part of.

She continued to write songs for a while, but unable to find a market for her stuff, she turned to poetry, deep meaningful lines into which she poured her heart and soul.

Lost in the past, she closed her eyes and allowed herself to be comforted by the settling of the fire, the whistle of the wind outside and the faded music in her head.

Suddenly the eagle sat before her, his great wings folded against his sides, his eyes yellow. He did not speak, at least in the way Beth knew, with voices that splintered the air. His voice was the voice of the wind, the voice of the river running through the glen fast and furious with the swell of spring and melting snow.

'I am your friend,' he said. But she knew he lied. She knew he had come to seek revenge. He moved closer and the face filled her vision, the scent of the mountains filled her nostrils, and she heard the beat of his heart matching her own. The hooked beak brushed her shoulder. She closed her eyes waiting for the slash to her throat. It never came.

And then he had gone. She watched him spread his wings and rise into the sky, higher and higher, and the terror filling her heart slipped away. The wind was cold on her cheeks and she shivered, the loneliness of her early life closing in on her. 'Mammy,' she cried.

She woke with a start. The curtains, flapping like the wings of a bird, reached towards her. The rising wind filled the room. The window was swinging open. She rose and pressed it closed against the determined gale. Immediately behind her something crashed. She spun around, eyes flying first to the floor where a ceramic lady that had once belonged to her father's grandmother, lay shattered on the lino. Then her eyes swept up to the sideboard. A large, grey cat stood there its back arched, its ears flattened, its slitted eyes hard and yellow. Her body went soft as relief soaked through her.

'Puss,' she cried, holding out her hand. The cat lifted its round head, lowered its back, yet still eyed her suspiciously. Finally, as if deciding she could be trusted, it purred and meowed. She walked forward and he butted the offered hand.

'Sorry, puss,' she said. 'I've no cat food. But I think I've some chicken left over.'

The cat fell on the chicken as if it hadn't eaten for days. When she finally lowered herself onto the settee there was a sense of comfort at the warm body pressing itself against her leg, paws kneading her thigh, a contented rumble in the animal's throat. They had always owned cats when she was a child, and dogs. She had wanted a pet, but Andy was allergic to cats, and, living in a flat with busy working lives, it would have been unfair on a dog.

The window swung open again. The curtains streamed towards her. The cat arched its back and growled. Beth rose quickly, checked the latch, closed the window and checked the latch again. It seemed secure enough. A chill ran the length of her spine. She thought of James. She would go and see him tomorrow, see if he knew any joiners in the area; if she got locks fitted, that would do it, she thought.

As if compelled, she reached for her pad and pencil and started a new poem. 'To an Eagle.'

In dreams,
Gliding, poised,
Muscles straining,
Feathers unruffled against the wind,
Head angled.
Below, where grass shivers,
Scurrying innocence
Is marked for extinction.
Caught in the evil of your eye.

She reread it, drew a single line through it and started again. Once she was as happy with her words as she could be, she felt calm enough to search for sleep.

She woke early after a restless night and padded into the kitchen, checking the windows as she went. All were secure. Taking her coffee cup with her, she walked out into the early morning. The sun was soft, bright and low. The river dashed in ropes of white and pewter through the glen, between trees splendid in their autumnal colours. In the months of spring these hills would become a riot of yellow where the broom spread over the mountain. On a morning like this, it was hard to imagine the lashing storms of winter.

'I'll be away this afternoon,' she told the cat. ‘But I'll be back in time for tea.' She bent down and scratched behind one battle-scarred ear and tried not to think of windows that opened of their own accord in the night.

She found James standing at his front door looking down the glen. He was unshaven, slightly heavy eyes, and wore a cable jumper the colour of sheep’s wool. In the glen, the haar, a soft white blanket of mist that had crept landward during the hours of darkness, had not yet fully cleared. He glanced up as she approached. 'I never tire of the scenery round here,' he said. 'Every season a different picture. Come in, come in.' He led her into a large, littered kitchen with an iron range against the far wall, the furniture stately and old, reminiscent of another era.

James cleared away a pile of books from a chair. 'Sit down. Coffee? I was just going to make my first cup of the day.' Lifting a cafetière from the draining board, he rinsed it under the tap.
'Yes please,' she said.

'So what brings you here? Not that you're not welcome at any time.' He was looking at her over his shoulder as he spoke.

'I need to buy a car. Something reasonable. I wondered if you knew of anything?'

He set the cafetière down and crossed to his laptop on the table. There was a ping of Microsoft Windows loading. 'I'll have a look on Caithness.org. We might pick up something. Here,' he turned the screen to face her. 'Browse that lot while I get the coffee.'

She chose a couple of private sales that sounded promising.

'I'll take you there this afternoon. Milk and sugar?'

'Just milk. No need to take me. I can bus it,' she said.

'I insist.'

'And the catch on the living room window needs fixing. I wondered ...'

'I can look at that for you too.'

'I didn't mean... I wondered if you knew a handyman.' She shrugged.

'Right here.' He pointed to his chest.

'That's good of you. I'll pay of course.'

'Not at all. Just have dinner with me, okay?' He lifted his eyebrows.

'Sure. I'll even make it. I'm a fair cook if I need to be.' Why did she say that? With her cooking skills, he'd be lucky to get beans on toast.

'I'll look forward to it.' James' smile was wide and lit up his face. A smile she could trust. And she realised she was smiling too.

She turned her coffee cup around, serious now. 'James,' she began, 'when we were children, what do you remember about my family?'

'Not a lot. I remember you in school, that's about it.'

'There are things I need to know, things no one told me.'

'What things?'

'I don't remember much before my mother left. But there were photos in the house, photos I'd never seen before. A boy I don't know. I think I may have had a brother, maybe he died when I was young, but I've no memory of him.'

James shrugged. 'I don't remember you having a brother. We could ask my mother about your family. She lives in Lybster. We'll drop in when I take you to see the cars. Mind you, she's a bit forgetful now, tends to ramble on sometimes.'

Beth finished her coffee, rose and walked to the window. A roe deer stood in the garden outside and, without fear, he continued chewing and studied the face behind the glass. 'Bambi,' she said beneath her breath. She had forgotten the deer.

James came up behind her. 'He comes most days. I sometimes get red deer, and rabbits, lots of rabbits and hares. They seem almost tame, as if they know I wouldn't hurt them.'

For a long moment they stood like that, in silence, until, as if alerted by an invisible predator, the deer started and sprung away, leaving the garden empty. Beth's eyes flicked to her father's cottage nestled in the folds of the opposite hill.

'I'd love to meet your mother,' she said, turning back towards the room.

Nettie Anderson lived in a small bungalow, just off the main street in Lybster village. She was a round, warm woman who gave Beth a welcome that made her wish she could stay there forever. Shuffling rather than walking, she led them into a bright chintzy living room and served them tea poured from a china teapot into china cups with saucers. She brought out a matching plate of shortbread and chocolate biscuits. 'If James had told me sooner that you were coming, I'd have done a baking,' she said, eyeing Beth and frowning. 'You're awful pale and thin. Eat up now.'

'Mother, don't get personal,' said James.

Beth's slimness was a source of pride to her when so many women her age found it difficult to shift the extra pounds. 'It's fine,' she said to James, then looked at Nettie. 'This is lovely, thank you.' She couldn't remember when she'd last drunk tea from a china cup and she thought it tasted better somehow.

'James said you wanted to ask me some things. You'll have to speak clear though. Folk nowadays either shout or mumble.' She adjusted her hearing aid and it made a screeching noise. She grimaced and pulled it out. 'Just talk clear, I'm no deaf.'

Beth caught James' eye and he smiled indulgently.

She leaned forward and cleared her throat. 'Do you remember my family?'

'I mind Robbie MacLean. Quiet lad. He was called up when the war started. I mind seeing him in his uniform before he left. I was just a bairn at the time, no more than nine or ten. What a bonnie looking young man he was. His hair was red, like yours. All gone now I expect.'

'And later, after the war, do you remember my mother?'

'He didn't come back here after the war. They settled somewhere else for a while. They came back'... She stared at the far wall, 'about '53 or '54. Ach, My memory's no what it was.' She smiled, her eyes distant, lost in the past. 'I was aye good at figures. Top o' my class at school. But we never had the chances then they have nowadays. Could have gone further, you ken. Gone to university, my teacher said. But I had to leave school, gut the herring for very little pay. There were twelve of us. I was the youngest, the only one alive now. It was a hard life back then, but good, can't say it wasn't good.' She stopped, a smile tugged her lips. 'I married well.' She looked at James. 'He came here as a young man. All the lassies were after the new doctor, I swear, there was more illness all of a sudden than there ever was before! You look so like him, son. Many a time...'

'What about Beth's mother?' said James, bringing her back.

'Oh, aye, well, like I was saying, she was a right bonny lassie, your mam. You've a good look of her, except for your hair. I saw her in the shop sometimes. She kept you lovely, like a wee doll with your golden curls. Never saw you again once she left. Gladys Mitchell, that was your schoolteacher, she tried to take an interest, spoke to your dad, but he told her to mind her own business. They said he went clean to pieces after your ma left, let himself go right downhill. There was many that would have helped him, especially with the bairn, but he didn't want it. But he doted on you, though, I'm sure he did.'

Beth never felt doted on. She wet her lips. 'Do you ever remember a boy living in my house?'

Nettie shook her head. 'When your mam and dad moved here they only had the one bairn. That would be you.'

'So I was born somewhere else?' She stopped for a moment while she digested this. 'Have you any idea where we lived before?'

'I don't know, love. I'm sorry I can't help you more, but I hardly knew your family. Your granddad died and your dad came back to run the croft, I heard. We lived in Dunbeath by then. Your mam was from the city and I heard them say that she'd never really settled in the country.'

'Who would know? Is there anyone who was a friend or neighbour?'

'They were a quiet couple, kept themselves to themselves. No one knew much about them. Didn't want anyone to know.' She lifted her hand. 'Wait, she sang in a band. A Scottish dance band, just for a couple of months before she left. They said she left with the drummer. Oh, I'm sorry...' She put her hand over her mouth.

'No, no, go on. She... she sang? Are any members of the band still around?'

Nettie shook her head and gave a little laugh. 'Och no, for they were all a good bit older than her. The drummer, he was a younger man, came from the south. Never heard her myself, but they say she was very good.'

'What about the teacher, Gladys Mitchell?'

'Ach, sorry, lass, Gladys passed on last summer.' She set her hand on Beth's. 'I wish I could help you more. But come back and see me, I'll bake next time.'

'Aye, I'll do that,' said Beth, her face relaxing into a smile.

'Thanks, Mother,' said James. 'But we'll have to go. We're going to John O' Groats to look at a couple of cars. Don't get up, we'll see ourselves out.'

'I hope your dad gets better.' Nettie looked up at Beth. 'And do come back.'

Beth thanked the old woman again as they headed for the door, her mind already racing. All her life she ignored the need to find out about her past, never had the time anyway, why should she let it bother her now? Andy's voice came back to her.

'You don't need your family. What have they ever done for you? I'm here now, I love you and I'll never leave you.' 

Maybe he was right. She managed to deny any curiosity she might have had for most of her life, even gave up on therapy when the questions hit a nerve, and threatened to remove the ability to banish all thoughts from her mind. Some places were too painful to visit.

Andy never gave up on her, did he? Even after she fell hopelessly, madly in love with Lewis Hammond, so much so she would have done anything he asked of her and almost did. She believed he felt the same way about her until she caught him in bed with another up and coming starlet. That was the night she tottered on stage the worse of alcohol. Her voice was not only weak and hoarse from the operation, but slurred, the audience weaving before her eyes. She shuddered at the memory. There was no clapping that night, only jeers and boos. She had gone to her dressing room and trashed it.

'You okay?' James brought her back to the present. 'You were miles away.' He opened the passenger door for her.

'Yes, I'm fine. Someone walked over my grave.' She forced a little laugh, and wiped an unexpected tear from her eye.

John O'Groats had changed since she'd last been here. Chalets filled the field behind a shopping precinct, which appeared to have sprung up, flourished and died during her absence. The hotel where her father had once taken her for high tea was under renovation.

'Everything changes,' she said, as she stood on the shore looking over the firth towards the islands to the north, shivering under the onslaught of a northerly breeze. 'Come on,' she said, 'I'll treat you to a coffee, then we'll go buy a car.'

The car she chose, a small Punto, was in good condition and within her price range. She shook the seller's hand and wrote out a cheque, surprised that he let her take the Punto then and there, not waiting for the cheque to clear as would have happened in the city.

'I need to get some shopping on the way home,' she told James. 'I'll see you at seven for dinner.'
He saluted. 'I'll look forward to it.'

She stopped by the supermarket on the outskirts of Wick and picked up place mats, napkins, a set of plain wine glasses and a meal for two, easy to cook. With extra vegetables and another bottle of wine, who would tell the difference, she reasoned.

By the time she reached home, the sun was beginning its downward arc towards the west. Rays hit the windscreens of cars, a chain of sparkling diamonds tumbling down the opposite hillside.

Indoors she shivered. The old stone walls seemed to retain the cold in spite of the mild day. The feeling that the hand of fate was winding her in, bringing her back full circle persisted, and the promise she made to her father cemented the trap. Her main fear was that after life in the city, Berriedale would be unbearably lonely and bleak in the winter. Perhaps they could sell this place, get somewhere nearer town, but given the number of for-sale signs she had seen on the way north, she doubted if that would be possible any time soon. Then there was Andy. She knew what his reaction to her decision would be.

Forget your father. He never cared for you. I'm the one who has always been here.

A finger of guilt stabbed her, yet strangely enough, she felt a sense of relief to have a valid reason not to stay in Edinburgh. What was the matter with her? They'd made a good living over the years, and she was good at her job. The club had been her dream too, hadn't it? Suddenly she wasn't sure. It had been all too easy to let Andy make the decisions, to convince her that he knew what was best for her, to somehow repay him for the wrongs of the past. Yet being here, in this place, the place she once saw as a prison, she felt a sense of freedom that she had not experienced in a long time.

She pulled the Formica-topped table from the kitchen and set it up in the living room. Covered by a tablecloth and the place-mats, with a candle in the middle, it looked pretty good. After following the instructions on the packaging of the meal for two and putting it in the oven, she had time to tie her hair up and change her jeans and loose jumper for a slim-line skirt and pale green blouse. She used the straighteners on her springing hair and with a trembling hand, she applied some foundation and a slight touch of blusher. She never went in for heavy make-up.

James arrived promptly at seven carrying a bottle of wine and a bunch of flowers. He was dressed in a tweed jacket, grey flannels and an open-necked shirt, and her heart gave a slight jump when she saw him. Smiling a welcome, she led him indoors. She went to the kitchen to get a bottle of wine and when she returned he was reading the poem she had inadvertently left on the sideboard. He looked up as she entered. 'This is damn good,' he said.

'I have more editing to do,' she reached forward and snatched it from his hand.

'You wrote it? Have you any more?'

She swallowed. 'Yes. I love poetry. I used to write songs, but they fell from favour. The first couple of recordings I made were my own. After that they made me sing stuff I didn't even like because it was 'a popular style'. Anyway, I find I can say much more with free verse.' She stopped, afraid of getting carried away by her own enthusiasm.

'Is that why you gave up singing?'

'No!' Her reply was sharp.

A look of concern crossed his face. Then as if he realised he'd hit a nerve, he changed the subject. 'I read a lot of poets, old and contemporary. And, believe me, this is good.' He indicated the page now lying beside her plate. 'Have you ever thought of having them published?'

'They're very personal, but,' she lowered her eyes, debating whether to confide, then, coming to a decision, said, 'I do have them published, but not under my own name. Now come on, the food's near ready.' Andy merely tolerated her passion for poetry, seeing it as a harmless pastime. She never told him about the publishing. He would not have understood. The payments were poor.

'What name? Maybe I've heard of you.'

She hesitated, then thought, what the hell. 'Clara Spears.' She cleared her throat.

'No! Really? God, you've only been hailed as the UK's answer to Sylvia Plath.'

Beth felt the heat climb into her face. ‘I wanted to be published because of my talent, not because I was well-known. That’s why I originally used an pseudonym. Now I like it this way. I don't want people to know who I am.' She grinned. 'You may feel honoured.'

James drew a finger across his lips in a gesture of silence. 'But one thing I've been wondering...'

She looked at him.

'Why don't you sing any more?'

'It's no secret. I had polyps on my vocal chords. I opted for an operation, which the surgeon botched. It was in all the papers at the time.'

'I would have been overseas then. But medicine has moved on, maybe nowadays...'

'No! I've learned to live with it.'

She lifted her fork and began to eat. No, she would not risk further operations, further disappointments. 'Which poets do you read?' She changed the direction of the conversation.
He smiled, leaned towards her and said,

'Tis time the heart should be unmoved,
         Since others it hath ceased to move:
         Yet, though I cannot be beloved,
         Still let me love!

She laughed and replied,

         'My days are in the yellow leaf;
         The flowers and fruits of love are gone;
         The worm, the canker, and the grief
         Are mine alone!'

'You like Byron?' he asked.

'Very much. Contemporary poems are fine, but they can't compare. Actually, my favourite will always be Robert Burns. Mind you, I hardly understand a lot of the words in the old Scots now. It's a pity our language is dying.'

Throughout the meal, they discussed poetry and the poets they liked, finding that their tastes in literature were remarkably similar.

Setting his fork and knife to one side, James complimented her on the meal. She smiled, neither confirming nor denying the fact that she had not cooked it herself. 'It's only a steak pie,' she murmured, lowering her gaze.

A brief memory crossed her mind. A memory of a time when a neighbour brought herself and her father a casserole dish of stewed beef and it had been so good that she'd eaten most of it herself. Knowing that the neighbour would ask Robbie later how he enjoyed the stew, Beth opened a tin of dog food and mixed it in with the remaining gravy. She watched, as he tasted it, watched his face screw up slightly, watched him nod, watched him finish the plateful.
'Maybe not her best effort,' he said, pushing the empty dish aside.

Beth was still grinning at the memory as she returned from taking the plates to the kitchen.
'I'm sorry my mother wasn't much help.' James refilled her glass.

'At least I found out I wasn't born around here.' She sipped her wine slowly. The first glass had made her mellow and she suddenly wished she had the means to play some background music.

'Did your parents never speak about themselves?' James said.

She shook her head. 'I asked my father once how they met.' She paused, remembering the flush of pleasure to have his attention. 'He'd had a good day at the lamb sales and a few drams before he came home, just enough to relax him.' She laughed at the memory. 'He came in, tripped over the dog, and ended up in the corner. He was all hunched up, looking at me, all guilty, as if he was a little boy and I was the mother.' She giggled. 'It was funny and we both ended up laughing. He didn't drink much.' Her voice trailed away and she became solemn. 'Now and again, when he was in the mood, I managed to get some information from him, but talking about my mother always seemed painful, even after all that time.' She fingered the stem of her glass and stared at the wall, as if she could see her life being played out there.

'They met in Bradford. They were both in the forces. He was demobbed, shrapnel in the hip. He walked with a limp after that. He never spoke about the war, but he had times when he would go into a mood for days.' Beth stopped and stared into the remains of the wine in her glass. 'I never wanted children. Was afraid. Afraid I wouldn't be able to cope and leave like my mother, or maybe... become disinterested like my father.'

'And you never married?'

She shook her head. 'Andy wanted to marry me and I even thought I loved him once, well, as much as I could love anyone, I guess. Maybe it was just gratitude. He took charge of the club, so I didn’t have to worry, he said. What about you?'

'Been married twice. Didn't work out either time.'

'Children?'

‘Two by my second wife. Boy and a girl. She took them away. They're grown up now. They keep in touch, but we're not close.'

'I'm sorry.'

'She met a guy from the States when the U.S. naval base was in Forss, up Thurso end, early warning systems in case someone in the Soviet Union got itchy fingers. I was doing my first stint in Africa. When the Russian threat was removed and the Americans went home, she left with him. Took the kids. I couldn't really blame her, me leaving her alone for so long, must have been hard. I went to Colorado to see the children once, but it was awkward. They look on their stepfather as their real dad.’

‘I vaguely remember the base. Do you keep in touch with your kids?’

‘Yes, but only via Facebook. Beth, why have you left it till now to find out about your past?'

'I always meant to try one day, but life was pretty hectic. There just wasn't the time.' She could not admit she was scared she'd be rejected again. She didn't want to face the fact that Andy's words fuelled her fear. 'My father's illness has forced me to realise that if I don't do it soon, I'll die without ever knowing the truth.' She turned to face James. 'Seeing him lying there. I thought... what if the same thing happens to me... and I'm lying trapped inside my mind never knowing. I'm so glad you traced me.' She laughed, embarrassed at her uncharacteristic openness. 'I don't know why I'm telling you all this. I hardly know you.'

'That's the best way, isn't it?'

'No, I should stop. Andy's always said it's best to let sleeping dogs lie.'

'I don't think you should. God willing, we'll have another twenty, thirty years of active life ahead of us. After all, sixty's the new forty.' He was watching her, his eyes kind. 'But you've got to lay the ghosts.'

Beth stared into the ruby depths of her wine. 'There was one time that sticks in my mind.'

'Go on.'

'It was summer, but Dad made me wear wellington boots. I hadn't wanted to put them on at first. I can still hear my father's words. "We're going through deep heather and you might disturb an adder," I remember him standing there, all brown and healthy looking. He was lean, he was always very lean. He was a handsome man. After that I didn't complain. I didn't relish being bitten by a snake.' A little smile played around her mouth. She cleared her throat. 'And then I saw an eagle in the distance. I remember clinging to Dad’s leg. I was afraid even then.

''Damn birds,'' Dad swore. ''Vermin, that's what they are. Killing all the game. How is the estate going to make money if there's no game left for the hunters?''

I started to cry and he picked me up. ''He might think you're a wee lamb and steal you away. I couldn't stand it if I lost you too.'' And he hugged me. I remember it especially because right then, I felt he would keep me safe.'

James reached over and covered her hand with his.

She enjoyed the feel of his skin next to hers. 'Maybe that's why I've always been afraid of eagles,' she said.

'You're afraid of eagles? How afraid?'

'Very. A phobia. All big birds in fact.'

'In that case, I think it would be something much more dramatic.'

James squeezed her hand, his eyes never leaving her face.

For a brief moment she wondered how he would react if she asked him to stay the night. Twenty years ago, he would have asked her already, she reflected, amused at her own thoughts. How long had it been since a man affected her like this? A brief memory of Lewis Hammond and how their affair almost destroyed her, rose unbidden. Just as quickly, she banished it back into the folder in her head filed under "mistakes best forgotten." Suddenly uneasy, she withdrew her hand from his and glanced at the clock. 'I'll need to get to bed soon. I'm going to drive to Inverness tomorrow and I want an early start.'

'You're not sending me away already? I haven't unburdened my soul yet.' He lifted his brows as if in a question.

'Okay, another...,' she checked the last bottle of wine. It was half-full. 'Another drink, then you really have to go.'

His long fingers played with the stem of his glass. 'Didn't you ever want to find your mother?'

'For years I dreamed I'd bump into her in the street and we’d immediately recognise each other. But all my childhood, she could've come back if she'd wanted me.' Her voice took on a raw edge. 'I tried to blot it out, tried to pretend I had no family. That I needed no one.'

‘Maybe she tried to get in touch when she sorted her life. How would she know where you lived after you left? You told me your father didn't even know.'

'I suppose you're right.' She stared at his hand, at the fingers on the stem of his glass, the short clean nails, imagined them on her skin, and immediately lifted her eyes. 'But he knew later, when I sent him my address. He didn’t reply, not once!’ She gave a deep sigh. ‘It's too late for regrets. It's doubtful if she's still alive.' But his words had the effect of cracking a shell, allowing some of the raw emotion to leak out. With all the effort she possessed, she closed that shell and sealed the edges. What was the matter with her? She was talking too much. Wanting too much. She drained her glass and looked at the clock.

'I've enjoyed myself tonight,' James said, standing up. 'Look, if the weather stays fine, how about you and I taking a hike up to Eagle Rock some day?'

'No!' the word exploded before she could stop it. 'No, I can't.'

He looked confused. 'I'm sorry, did I say something wrong?'

'No, it's just, well, I told you about me and birds.'

'I doubt if they'll come near us. It's just the name of a place. It's where the Duke of Kent’s plane crashed in WW2.'

'I know.' How could she tell him even the word 'eagle' filled her with an irrational fear? 'But you're right. I'm being silly.' She suddenly couldn't wait to get him out of the door, get it shut and bolted.
'Then we'll go?' He looked concerned.

'Yes, we'll do that.' She spoke without any intentions of going up a mountain and definitely not to a place called Eagle Rock. Tomorrow would be another day. Another excuse.

'And you'll come to my place next time? I make a mean curry.' He bent down and kissed her cheek and the warmth of his lips lingered. 'And I want to read more of your poems.'

'Yes, I'll do that.' She moved away, trying not to meet his eyes. 'Goodnight.'

She closed the door and hugged herself, simultaneously missing his presence and glad to be alone. She had almost opened up to him tonight. Draining what was left of the wine she leaned back in the chair. She would never find sleep now. Once more her thoughts moved to her father.

Looking back from her adult eyes, she realised how difficult it must have been for him. She, as a moody, sulky child, hadn't been easy. Then she hit her teens and was filled with angst and anger. If only he had spoken to her more, they might have been close. How could she have understood his reasons, his rage? How could she have made things different?

Her mind carried her back to the day she discovered both the seed of rebellion which had been germinating in her soul, and her love of singing.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Chapter Four


It had been early spring, 1973 and Andy McRae was trying to earn enough money to stay another year at university. His father died the year before and his mother was finding life hard. True he had the grant, but Edinburgh was expensive, especially so for students from the Western Isles who couldn't pop home easily at the weekends. He had been busking at the entrance to Waverley Station and doing fairly well, but tonight there was a young girl sitting in his spot strumming a cheap acoustic guitar which was slightly out of tune.

His first reaction was anger. This was a good spot and it was his. He was about to ask her to move on when she began to sing. Her voice was soft and slightly husky and unbelievably beautiful. She didn't see him. Her head was lowered. Her straggly reddish hair hung around her face, a woollen hat pulled down covering her ears and eyebrows. She wore jeans, wide round the bottoms and a parka over a loose shirt, a string of coloured beads around her neck. He stood there until the song finished, totally captivated. Later he would tell her he fell in love with her the moment she lifted her head and he became aware of a pair of grey-green eyes which held a wealth of sadness.

He wanted to say, 'Excuse me, you're in my pitch,' instead, the words, 'Your guitar needs tuning,' fell from his mouth.

'I know that. But I don't have a tuning fork with me,' she replied.

He sat beside her, opened his guitar-case and withdrew the fork, holding out his hand for her instrument. Wordlessly she handed it to him. Once he finished, she nodded a thank you and listened as he began to strum out a tune of his own.

Together they played, with him singing the harmony to her songs. After a while a crowd gathered and after each song there was applause. A couple of hours later, Andy set his guitar down. 'I'm going for something to eat,' he said, gathering up the tin with the money, meaning to share it.

She snatched at it. 'That's mine,' she shouted. 'I didn't ask you to join me.'

He immediately let go and held up his hands. 'Okay, okay, actually this is my spot.'

Her face reddened. 'You don't own a piece of pavement,' she snapped. 'And I was here first.'

'Fine, you keep it.'

Her lip wobbled. She trapped it between her teeth and lowered her eyes but not before he saw the tears shimmering there.

He melted. 'You're good. How do you fancy joining my group?' The words tumbled out without thought.

Her head rose, she sniffed and wiped her cheeks. Her smile was like the sun breaking through a cloud. 'You've got a group?'

'A duo actually. We're playing in a bar tonight. You could come with us.' It occurred to him Desmond would object, he should have run it by him first, but something vulnerable about the girl pulled at his heartstrings and he knew right then he wanted to keep her near. Furthermore, Andrew McRae was used to getting his own way. Desmond always gave in in the end. 'Where do you live?' he asked.

She shrugged. 'I just got here yesterday. I've no had time to sort something out.'

'Where did you sleep last night?'

'In the station.'

He bent down and picked up her rucksack. 'Come back with me. You'll sleep in my flat for now.'

Snatching at her rucksack, she faced him with narrowed eyes. 'I'll be fine,' she said. 'I don't need no boy to do me favours!'

'No strings attached.' He released the bag. 'You'd be helping me out by singing with us, really. We're musicians, my buddy and me, but we need a strong vocalist.'

She still looked wary. 'I'll no be able to pay rent.'

He laughed. 'With a voice like you've got, you will be, I promise.'

Desmond did object. Loudly. 'For God's sake, man. There's no enough room here for the two of us. And the group's just us, you and me.'

'I didn't want to come anyway.' Beth wiped her nose on the back of her fingerless glove, slung her rucksack over her shoulder and headed for the door. Andy got there before her, slamming his hand against it, holding it shut.

'You're staying, no argument.' He turned to face his friend. 'She can stay in my room, share my food.' His voice rose. 'But for fuck’s sake listen to her sing, man, just listen to her sing.'

Desmond turned away. 'I don't care how good she is. She'll be trouble. How old is she? She looks like jailbait. She's probably a runaway. I don't need any grief. My old man would stop my allowance, ' he clapped his hands together, 'Just like that.'

'Please, mate,' said Andy, ‘She's every damn bit as good as Marianne Faithfull, if not better.'

Desmond lifted and lowered his hands in a gesture of defeat. 'I'll listen. But then she goes.'

Beth swung her guitar from her back and strummed a tune they had not heard before. She began to sing.

You've come a long way from the mountains
Where the cold wind blows
And the sun don't shine
But somewhere in the future you'll find her
In a cold dark place,
Will she still chase
The dream she left behind her

By the time she finished, tears were streaming down her face. Andy would never have admitted it, but he swallowed a lump in his own throat.

Desmond opened his eyes wide. 'Wow,' he said. 'Where did you hear that song?

'I wrote it,' said Beth dabbing at the dampness on her cheeks. 'Did...did you like it?'

'Like it, I love it. Wow, girl, you are good.'

'Then she can stay?' asked Andy.

'Hold on there, I didn't say that. We're hardly making enough to keep ourselves, less if we've got to split it three ways.'

'I don't need paying,' said Beth. 'A place to stay and I'll busk for food. And... and I'll cook for you.' 
She didn't say then her speciality was toast. Toast with baked beans, toast with sardines, toast with sloppy scrambled eggs. She turned and glared at Andy. 'And I won't be sharing your bed!' she added.

Andy held out his hands, palms facing her. 'Bloody hell, I said my room, not my bed. No strings, remember?'

Desmond still looked undecided.

‘I’ll do the washing too.’

'Come on, man. Give it a try, what can we lose?' said Andy.

Desmond sighed. ‘The cooking bit sounds good.’

How were they to know then the limits of her cooking skills?

He turned to Beth. 'Welcome to the Andy and Des Duo. At least for tonight, it'll be Des, Andy and friend. We'll see how it goes.'

'Bloody terrible name,' said Andy. 'How about Andy, Beth and Desmond?'

'How about Beth and friends?' Beth immediately chipped in.

'I told you a girl would be trouble,' said Desmond, but he was smiling. 'Look, I'm agreeing to nothing. If we're booed tonight, she's out.'

That night they totally won over the audience at the World's End bar. A week later the bookings were flooding in. A month later, the boys gave up their studies to go into music full time. It was the days of rock n' roll, yet Beth refused to sing anything other than folk songs. 'My voice is wrong for rock and roll,' she said, and although they never hit the big time, they became well-known in their own field.

Andy poured himself a whisky, walked to the office window and looked down into the busy street below. Beth. He could still see her now as she had been then. She was never classically beautiful, but she had a spark which dulled any other woman in her company. Yet for all her bravado, he grew to see, beneath the façade, the vulnerable, frightened little girl who sang with tears pouring down her cheeks.

Over the years, her confidence in her own musical ability grew, but he would never forget that first night in the World's End bar.

'I can't go on,' she said.

'What?' Andy couldn't believe his ears.

She wiped her brow. 'All those people, I can't face them.' Her freckles stood out against her pale skin. Her lip trembled. 'I'm sorry. I can't.'

'What the hell now?' Desmond rolled his eyes and shrugged.

'You sang all afternoon, in the street for fuck’s sake! I persuaded Desmond...'

'That was different. Now there's... there's an... audience, and no one will listen. I need a drink.'

It was true, the audience had chatted all the way through the last act.

'Just leave her, man. Put her back where you found her,' said Desmond.

'I'll get you something. What do you want?' Andy felt his anger grow, bubbling under the surface. She couldn't humiliate him now.

'Vodka. And coke. A double.'

She took the drink with a trembling hand and swallowed it in three gulps.

'We're on,' he said. 'Now get out there or I’ll boot your arse.'

She looked at him with fear in her eyes and for a moment he thought she was going to refuse. She wobbled slightly as he shepherded her before him onto the stage. Another awkward moment as he started to strum. Beth stared at the floor, the microphone held unsteadily in her hand. Her voice started weakly, and as he glowered at her he saw a transformation take place. She lifted her head, her voice grew strong. Suddenly it was as if no one else existed. She sang for herself, wrapped in her own island, eyes and cheeks glistening. The crowd fell silent, and when the song ended, the applause could have lifted the roof.

As time went on, they grew restless. They found the confines of local gigs no longer satisfied them. They dreamed of cutting a record which would shoot them to fame. And then Lewis Hammond came into their lives. The man who was to rip their world apart.

Andy stomped to his desk and refilled his glass. He could well remember that time, the first time she left him. And he would not suffer a repeat performance now.

He had let her go then. He even forgave her, took her back afterwards. He gave a wry laugh. Lewis Hammond. He promised to make her into a star, but demolished her in the process. She promised to take Andy with her on the ladder to success, promised him he could be her manager, like Cilla Black and Bobby. How mistaken he’d been to trust her.

Lewis Hammond. Even now, the name made Andy's body tighten. And the pain of her betrayal still stung.

He had steadfastly followed her career. Her records reached the top ten, she sang on Top of the Pops. She was on her way up. Then came the botched operation that stole her voice. Lewis Hammond was reported as saying she was a liability and he’d washed his hands of her, and as quickly as she rose to fame, she faded like yesterday's news. Andy swallowed his pride and forgave her, at least with words. How was he to know her voice had gone for good?

When she returned to him, she was a shadow of the feisty girl she had been. Alcohol and drugs had dulled the pain of her loss and diminished her bank account. He brought her home and nursed her back to health. He asked her to marry him once, but she'd turned him down, swearing she'd never marry anyone. Nevertheless, he held her when she cried about things best forgotten, and finally convinced her that she needed looking after, looking after by him. Even then he believed her voice would return, that this was just a temporary setback, and this time he would manage her career. But he’d been wrong. She refused to even try to sing again in public. Accepting defeat, his ambitions changed direction. The royalties from her songs still arrived and she owed him.

That had been years ago. Since then they bought the club and became lovers, but he hated it that when he held her he sensed her distance, as if he possessed her body but never her heart. He often caught her with a faraway look on her face, a tear in her eye and he suspected she stayed with him only because he supplied the stability she craved.

They enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. Beth still had contacts. She booked many big-name bands which drew in the crowds. Andy McRae's club made him a name in the city.
His hand closed into a slow fist as his mind whirled, consumed with a new fear of losing her, hating that she had never really been his.

Glenda, an employee, a bit of an all-rounder, who helped him in the bar, Beth with the administration, and who ran the kitchen, moved past him, brushing him with her thigh as she did so, startling him from his daydreaming. She turned, met his eye and smiled.

'Penny for them,' she said, her voice low, seductive.

Andy rose from the office chair. He walked to the window and looked out onto the grey street. 'Have we got a group lined up for tonight?'

'I've tried a few, but they're all booked up. Look, I meant to ask you, my sister's boy is good on the guitar. It would be great if you would give him and his friends a chance.'

Andy sighed. 'We need a known name to pull in the crowds.'

'Darren's really good. It's the best I could do at such short notice.' She trailed a suggestive finger across his shoulder. Andy swallowed, felt his Adam's apple bob. He groaned and grabbed her hand. ‘Don’t do this. Business and pleasure, remember?’

She pulled her hand away from his, walked slowly to the door swinging her hips, and turned the key. 
‘The door’s locked,' she whispered. ‘Beth doesn’t deserve you. I could make you happy.’

He groaned. ‘No, Glenda.’

Bristling, she drew back. ‘What’s wrong with me? It’s not as if you’ve not cheated on Beth before.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with you, but I don’t shit on my own doorstep.’ His voice was gruff. He closed his eyes against the temptation. She was lovely, sexy, seductive, but he knew the dangers of playing with fire.