No wifi. No cell service. No electronics of any kind.
It was heaven for Sansa Stark.
Sansa’s mother protested her going to Deerpark, Cornwall so close to exams, but Sansa needed a calm, quiet place to study. With such an unusually warm spring, she wanted to take advantage of the weather to read outside, revise by moonlight, and fall asleep to the sound of crickets.
“You won’t last two hours without your mobile,” Sansa’s sister, Arya, had said.
It was true that Sansa was as addicted to her phone as anyone else, but with no internet or signal to distract her, she was confident she could retain more knowledge and nab a first for her second year at uni.
The cabin Sansa was staying in was nestle between two other charming, identical cottages no bigger than a two-stall barn. The cabins overlooked a lake surrounded by tall pines and muddy shores.
As Sansa drove up to cabin two, she noticed there were no other cars around. Either she would be alone for the week, or her neighbors has yet to make an entrance. Regardless, Sansa thought the area was beautiful. There was a hammock swaying between two trees near the dirt road, a stump for chopping wood, a fire pit, and a small shed nestled right up to the side of the cabin.
Sansa unloaded her bags and breathed deeply, the scent of dirt and pine filling her with hope and purpose. The door was jammed a bit, but with a hearty shove of her shoulder, Sansa burst through, nearly toppling over her belongings. She dropped the bags and looked around. The cabin was smaller than the pictures on the website–with just an oatmeal-colored sofa, a wood stove, a small nook for cooking, and a bookshelf as tall as a five-year-old. A door on the left lead to the bedroom, and another adjacent held the lou.
It was cramped, smelled like mothballs, and deadly quiet.
Sansa thought it was perfect.
About an hour into unpacking and settling in, Sansa heard the low rumble on an engine putting up the road. It got louder the closer it got, until finally roaring up to the next cabin over like a beast.
Sansa peeked out the flimsy curtains and saw a man clad in black on a motorcycle. He parked his bike on the grass in front of cabin one. Great, Sansa thought. A bloody Hell’s Angel to ruin the week.
The man got off his bike and took off his helmet. Sansa could only see the back of him. He was a hulking fellow with broad shoulders and dirt-dusted jeans, a cracked leather jacket with a patch of a black horse stitched on the shoulder. He had black hair that was receding a bit, steel-toed boots, and large hands that reached in his coat pocket for a fag.
Sansa groaned as the man lit up a cigarette and blew smoke out. The biker finally turned and, for a half second, Sansa saw his face. The man looked as hard and worn as his leather jacket. His brows were large but his eyes were small, his mouth turned down in a grimace. He had black stubble that looked irritated from so much scratching. If he had smiled and shaved, the man might’ve been quite handsome.
However, the large scar across the right side of his face ruined the biker’s chances of ever modeling.
Sansa squinted, struggling to make out the lines and grooves of the man’s deformity, but was caught off guard when the man locked eyes with her. Sansa gasped and stepped away from the window. Through the crack in the curtain, she saw the man take another puff on his cigarette, staring at the spot in the window where she had previously been.
Finally, the man turned away and gathered his bag from the tail of the Harley. Sansa rubbed her neck, embarrassed, then continued unpacking.
It was after three by the time Sansa was fully settled in. She made herself a cup of tea and perused the brochure left for her on the bookshelf. Deerpark boasted horseback riding, kayaking, and the village of Herodsfoot just a few kilometers down the road. Sansa began making a list in her in her notebook of provisions to get in town, but was interrupted but a dull thwack! from outside.
Sansa threw her pen down and stood from the table. She opened the door and poked her head outside to see what the commotion was.
The biker was chopping wood in his white undershirt, another fag hanging between his lips. He placed another hunk of wood on the block, raised his massive arms, and split the log clean in half with little effort.
Sansa gaped. She had never seen such a strong man. Not even the rugby boys at uni had as much power to them. Sweat rolled down the man’s back, shirt clinging to his skin. Sansa unconsciously licked her lips.
“It’s rude to stare,” the man said. He took a long drag from the cigarette and turned toward Sansa, breathing out smoke as he did. He had a thick Scottish accent, the kind Americans might make fun of on daytime talk shows.
“Sorry,” Sansa said. She nervously fidgeted with the hem of her shorts. “I was just seeing what the noise was.”
“You’ve seen it,” the man gruffly replied, “now jog on.”
Sansa scowled. She watched as the Scotsman turned back to his task and put the cigarette to his mouth again. “Those will kill you,” she said pointedly.
He swiveled to her again and said with a snarl, “Literally never heard that before in m'life. You must be a bloody genius.”
Sansa lowered her eyes. It was a shitty way to start the week. She decided she wanted to be on this man’s good side rather than face the brunt of his bike engine roaring and cigarette smoke wafting in her windows.
A low chuckle vibrated deep within the man. He abandoned his task altogether, chucking the ax to the side and fully facing Sansa with his arms crossed over his chest. “What kinda feckin’ name is that?”
“It’s a family name,” Sansa explained, ignoring the sting of his insult. “What do they call you?”
“They call me a lot of things,” the man said, puffing on his fag. “‘Cunt, bastard, asshole. And my personal favorite–” he pointed to his scar “’–ugly fuck.’”
“You’re not–” Sansa stopped herself. Her mother always said that her politeness would one day get her into trouble. Sometimes people didn’t need to be reassured that they were smart or kind or handsome. Some people treated flattery as an insult. Sansa cleared her throat and tried again: “What’s your name?”
The man eyed Sansa up and down, the wheels spinning in his head. He flicked his cigarette away and snubbed it under his boot. “Clegane,” he answered. “Just Clegane.”
Sansa couldn't sleep.
Though it was past midnight and her neighbor had stopped chopping wood long ago, she could still hear the thwack, thwack, thwack of his axe. She turned her face to the cool side of the pillow and looked out the window. A low moon hung in the sky, bathing the room in a silver-blue glow.
"Clegane," he had said.
The man was rude and brash and uncouth and normally Sansa would dismiss someone like that, but she couldn't stop thinking about him for some reason. It wasn't the way his broad shoulders flexed as he threw the axe down on the chopping block. It wasn't the cigarette perched between his lips or his cracked leather jacket with the black horse sewn on the shoulder. It was Clegane's large, hideous scar that kept her awake.
It wasn't hard to imagine how a man like him got it. A pub fight, probably. Maybe a brush with the police. But it covered so much of his face that each groove and bump was a map to the truth. Behind the cursing and smoking and anger in his eyes, there was something else there. Sansa could feel it. There was . . .
Sansa clicked on the end table lamp and sat up. She rubbed her eyes and yawned. Peering through the window again, she caught a glimpse of Clegane's cabin. A faint light was shone from his window. Sansa smirked at the thought of a man like him needing a nightlight, imagining him cowering under a Mickey Mouse blankie as the shadows in his room taunted him. Sansa swung her legs out of bed and touched down on the cold floor. She tiptoed to the bathroom, squinted as she turned the light on, and blindly made a path to the toilet. After doing her business, Sansa washed her hands and blinked a few times, her eyes adjusting to the light. In the reflection of the mirror, she caught a glimpse of a black blob in the corner of the room. Sansa thought it might be mold at first, until the mold flapped its wings.
Sansa gasped and turned. A bat hung on the corner frame of the door. Paralyzed with fear, Sansa stared at the creature, her heart pounding, a shudder creeping up her body from her toes. The creature flapped once more. She screamed and ran out of the bathroom. Sansa darted into the sitting room, slamming her bedroom door shut. She balled her fists and hopped awkwardly from one foot to another.
"Ew, eww! UGH!"
Sansa flapped her hands as if shaking water from them and hugged herself tightly. She had no idea if bats in this part of the country were blood-suckers. Regardless, it definitely could give her rabies. She used to think bats were cute--her and Arya would find adorable pictures of them online and call them "sky puppies." But down here, alone, in the middle of nowhere, it might as well have been a banshee.
Sansa didn't know how or why the bat got in her cabin. But she wanted it out. At home, she would ask her father or one of her brothers to get it for her. They were strong and brave and could handle creatures like that with little fanfare. Their home was spacious and hundreds of years old, so a bat or squirrel or even a badger wasn't out of the norm. But now that Sansa was alone and had insisted to everyone that she would be okay, she was determined to fix the problem herself.
I'll open the bedroom window, Sansa thought to herself. He'll just fly out on his own. Nothing more to it.
Sansa had a sudden vision of the creature tangling itself in her hair. She smoothed her long red hair and cringed. She'd need some armor. Sansa went to the kitchenette and grabbed a saucepan. She took a long wooden spoon from a jug of utensils and drew in a breath to gather her courage. You can do this, she told herself. It's no big deal. You can--
A knock sounded at the front door. Sansa yelped and jumped back. She waited, foolishly thinking the bat had somehow gotten outside and was now stalking her cabin with wings large enough to rap on the door. Saner heads prevailed and she slowly made her way across the cabin to answer it. Sansa held the saucepan and spoon in one hand and turned the knob with the other. She opened the door quickly, hoping to scare what was on the other side.
"Fuckin' hell!" A man shouted through the screen door.
Sansa jumped back and saw that it was her neighbor, Clegane. He wore the same jeans and white undershirt as this afternoon, same scowl and hard gaze.
"What're you doing here?" Sansa asked.
"You screamed bloody murder," Clegane said. "Woke me up." He looked at the weapons of war in Sansa's hand and furrowed his brows. "What's all this about?"
Sansa sighed. "There's a bat in my bathroom."
Clegane snorted. "Oh, well if that's all . . ." He started to turn away.
"Wait!" Sansa cried. "Can you . . . will you help me get it out?"
Clegane turned back to her. She could see his eyes dancing across her face through the screen door. He pressed his lips in a line, grumbled, then said, "Lemme in. Let's see what you got."
Sansa opened the screen door and stepped aside to usher him in. Clegane's hulking frame entered the cabin like a gust of wind. He looked around and settled his eyes back on Sansa once more. She suddenly realized how underdressed she was in a pink silk camisole that left little to the imagination and matching silk shorts. She was cold, goosebumps prickling her porcelain flesh, and her braless nipples were prominent. Sansa crossed her arms over her chest as Clegane stared. Stared, but not leered. He somehow managed to drink her in without giving off a creepy vibe.
"Do you have a basket?" Clegane asked.
Sansa thought about it, then shook her head no.
He looked around again and worried his bottom lip. Finally, Clegane spotted Sansa's knapsack on the couch. He unzipped it and emptied its contents on the floor.
"Hey!" Sansa cried.
"You'll get it back," Clegane growled. "Where'd you say it was?"
Sansa pointed to her bedroom door. "Through the room. In the lou."
Clegane nodded. Knapsack in hand, he opened the bedroom door and swiftly walked in. Sansa hid in the kitchen by the table, her saucepan and wooden spoon at the ready. Clegane closed the bedroom door. A moment later, she heard a clatter, a string of obscenities, and glass breaking. After a few agonizing moments of silence, Clegane emerged from the bedroom, no worse for wear.
Except for the blood dripping from his right palm.
"Oh, my God," Sansa breathed.
"Good news is, the fucker's gone," Clegane said. "Bad news is, I broke the bloody window getting it out."
"You what?" Sansa put the saucepan and wooden spoon on the table and approached Clegane. "If the window's broken, you need to pay for it! And now anything can just crawl in--"
"Hey!" Clegane's voice boomed, shaking Sansa's bones. "I just did you a favor, little bird."
"I didn't ask you to come barging into my--"
"Yes you bloody did. You just screamed like a child and . . ." Clegane held his bleeding hand up to inspect the wound. "Fuck."
Sansa softened. She may have been angry as hell, but she didn't like seeing people in pain. Even a mean beast like him. "Come here," she said. She took him by the wrist and led him to the kitchen sink.
Sansa turned the water on and put the man's hand under it. The blood washed away like red smoke. She searched under the cabinet for the first aid kit and procured a bandage and some disinfectant. When she stood, Clegane was staring at her.
"What?" Sansa asked.
Clegane scowled and looked at his hand. "Nothing," he mumbled.
Sansa rolled her eyes and tore open the bandage. She turned the water off, got a paper towel, and pressed it into Clegane's palm. "Squeeze this," she instructed.
"I don't think you'll need stitches," Sansa said. "Open your palm."
Again Clegane obeyed.
Sansa carefully rubbed a dollop of disinfectant on the wound. Clegane hissed in a breath and jerked his hand away. Sansa caught him and pulled him closer. "Stop that," she commanded. She looked up at him, his eyes burrowing deeply into hers. She wasn't sure if he would hit her or kiss her--his expression was impossible to gauge. As Sansa rubbed a little more disinfectant on, she noticed Clegane's face soften.
"Thank you for your help," Sansa said. "I'm sorry I snapped at you."
"Hmmph," he grumbled.
Sansa wrapped the clean white bandage around his hand, careful not to pull too tightly. She fastened it securely and took a step back to give the man space. He looked at his hand, then back at Sansa. A cruel grin played on his lips. "You're a nice girl." He leaned forward and whispered, "People take advantage of nice girls."
"People like you?" she shot back.
Clegane's smile disappeared. Though she gave it to him good, Sansa was afraid. The man was large and intimidating and crass and could easily overpower her. But she saw that glimmer of sadness in his eyes, a speck of humanity he kept buried behind his rough edges.
"No, little bird," Clegane murmured. "Not people like me."
There was sincerity in his gaze. Hope, even. Hope that Sansa believed him, that he could be honest and real and not written off as a mindless monster. Sansa swallowed the lump in her throat. She ached to reach out and touch his scars and heal them as she did his hand.
Clegane turned away and made a path for the front door. "No more screaming," he said. "I'm not saving your arse again." He opened the door, pushed the screen door aside, and left quickly. The screen door made a loud thwack! as it closed behind him.
Sansa woke up at 6am sharp. Her back hurt from sleeping on the sofa in the sitting room, the door to her bedroom closed to keep in any critters who might have crawled through the broken window. Thanks to that Clegane man. Sansa gritted her teeth at the thought of him. She rose from the couch and folded the blanket, cursing him mentally for causing more harm than good.
What kind of man was so brutishly strong that they broke a window simply getting an animal out of a room? And that’s all he was, anyway, Sansa thought as she put the kettle on for tea. Despite whatever pain was behind Clegane’s eyes, he was just some angry brute who didn’t know how to talk like a normal human. Everyone had pain. Everyone had a history. Sansa was raised to be polite and courteous despite whatever rough patch she was going through. There was no excuse for Clegane.
While the kettle warmed on the stove, Sansa carefully opened the bedroom door. A chilly draft whistled through the broken window. She looked around for any signs of more wildlife, peeking under the bed and in the closet and between the sheets. Nothing. A few bugs on the walls but nothing to call Interpol over. The real test came from the bathroom. What if the bat returned to his nesting place? What if Clegane lied about getting the creature out just to save face?
Sansa got her art history notebook from the coffee table and slowly turned the light on in the bathroom. Her eyes darted from corner to corner, anxious to see another black blob hiding in plain sight. Nothing. Opening the shower curtain . . . nothing. Under the sink and behind the lou and even in the small trash bin . . . nothing but that chilly draft.
Sansa sighed and threw her notebook on the bed. She gathered an armful of today’s outfit and passed by the window. Through the shards of glass she could see Clegane sitting on the deck of his cabin in a green parka and Irish walking cap. He was sipping a steaming cup of warmth, gazing out ahead as though solving a riddle.
Sansa hummed in displeasure and then suddenly remembered the kettle on the stove. She threw her clothes in the bathroom and ran to take it off the heat. After plopping a tea bag and drowning it in a mug of hot water, she returned to her bedroom for a shower. Through the window, Clegane was still there.
* * *
“I knew you’d cave.”
Though Sansa normally hated the way Arya smugly boasted when she thought she was right, hearing her sister’s voice on the phone was like slipping under a warm blanket. Sansa was suddenly very homesick.
“I’m at the shops in town,” Sansa explained as she strolled through the grocer’s. “Only place I have a signal. How’s Mum?”
“Fine,” Arya said. “Bran’s driving her crazy, though, with his drone.”
“He hasn’t crashed that thing yet?” Sansa asked with a laugh.
“No, but I’m ready to chuck it off the roof.” Arya paused. Sansa could practically see her sister pacing the garden out back, drinking bitter coffee as though it would make her older than nineteen. “Anyway, how’s the studying?”
Sansa shrugged as she picked a bottle of wine from the shelf. A cheap rose. “It’s fine. Lovely country. But there’s—” Sansa stopped, wondering if she should tell her sister about the Clegane man. Arya could easily run with it, tell Mum, make it into a bigger thing than it was (“Sansa’s shagging some old git down in Cornwall!”). She cleared her throat and tried again. “There was a bat in my bathroom last night.”
Arya laughed. “Really? Like, a proper little baby Dracula?”
“I nearly pulled all my hair out.”
“I assume he’s still there.”
Sansa stopped as she neared a shelf of crisps. “Why do you say that?”
“Oh, come on,” Arya said. “You didn’t chase it out, did you?”
“I—well, it wasn’t terribly big.”
“The point is, I’m in real country out here and you should tell Mum I’m braving the wilderness like Calamity Jane.”
“Was that a real person?” Arya asked.
“I don’t know. I’ll get back to studying and find out.”
Arya snorted a laugh and said, “Get to it, then.”
“Alright, I’ll call soon.”
Sansa hung up her mobile and dropped it in her purse. With the wine still cradled under her arm, she grabbed a package of crisps and headed for the sweets.
“Need a basket?” An Irish voice asked.
Sansa looked to the cash register. She and the man behind the counter were the only two in the shop. He was young, maybe a year or two older than her, with wavy blond hair, high cheekbones, and green eyes that took up half his face. His smile made butterflies dance in Sansa’s belly.
“Sure,” Sansa said, smiling shyly.
The man procured a basket from under the counter and handed it to her. Sansa put her wine and crisps inside and blushed.
“Having a party?” the man asked.
Sansa reddened even more. “Er—no, I’m just getting some provisions for studying. I rented a cabin in Deerpark.”
“Ah,” the man gave her a charming grin. “I didn’t think you were local. Got the look of a London gal.”
“Am I that transparent?” Sansa asked.
“Nah,” the man said. “All the prettiest girls are from London.”
Sansa rolled her eyes and grinned, despite herself.
“I’m Colin, anyway,” the man said, extending his hand.
“Sansa.” She took his hand and shook it.
“Up here long?” he asked.
“Just a few weeks,” Sansa replied. “Then back to uni for exams.”
“Ah. Pretty and smart.”
Sansa though her cheeks would crack from smiling so much. She turned and wandered across the store for the rest of her list: beans and tomatoes and chocolate and bread. With everything loaded, Sansa returned to the counter where Colin was still smiling at her.
“Found what you were looking for?” he asked.
Sansa looked at him. His eyes sparkled like emeralds. This close, she could smell his cologne and aftershave—a mix of sandalwood, tobacco, and something sweet she couldn’t put her finger on. Whatever it was, it made her swoon.
“Yes,” Sansa said finally. “Thank you.”
As Colin rung her up and out her groceries in a paper bag, he eyed Sansa up and down. “Seen the rest of the town yet?”
She shook her head, “No, I’ve mostly been in my cabin.”
“You should come by the pub this Friday,” Colin said. “Have a laugh and some good craic.”
“Aye,” Colin said. “There’s music and food . . .” He paused, looking over at her slowly. “Maybe I’ll buy you a pint.”
Sansa smiled and lowered her head. Her cheeks burned intensely. “Maybe.”
Colin pushed the paper bag of good across the counter to Sansa. “I hope to see you there,” he said with a wink.
* * *
As Sansa pulled her rental up to her cabin, she could hear the staccato pounding of something echoing through the forest.
She gathered her grocery bag in one arm and closed the car door with the other. Glancing around, she couldn’t quite tell where the sound was coming from. Clegane wasn’t at his chopping block, and the pounding was too light to be an ax anyway. She peered around the wide of the cabin and saw Clegane on a stepstool in front of her bedroom window. He was nailing a plank if wood against it.
“Hello,” Sansa said.
Clegane stopped, nails sticking out between his teeth. He spat them out and stepped down from the ladder, walking cap askew on his head. He clutched a hammer in his unbandaged hand. “You’re back,” he said.
“What’re you doing?” Sansa asked.
Clegane hesitated, glancing at the window and back to her. He flicked his cap back even further and scratched his head. “Called the landlord and paid for the window. Told him what happened. He agrees that it wasn’t your fault.”
Sansa stared, dumbstruck. She hadn’t dreamed of asking him to do that. Sansa figured if she tried to tell the truth, Clegane might explode in a rage and deny everything, leaving her to pay for the window and get banned from the park. She never expected him to smooth things over so easily.
“I—uh . . . thank you.” She looked at the boards nailed against her window. “Did he ask you to do that?”
Clegane pulled his cap more snugly against his head. “No,” he admitted. He grabbed a few nails from the ground and stepped up on the ladder. “I’ll be out of your hair soon.”
Clegane bashed the hammer against the nail and wood. Sansa continued to stare. It was nice what he was doing. Sweet, almost. She neither asked nor anticipated he would lift a finger to make things right, yet here he was.
Sansa remembered the groceries in her arm and shook her head from her stupor. “Erm, I need to get these inside.” She turned for the front of the cabin, then stopped and said, “Tea?”
“If you’re offering,” Clegane said.
Sansa smiled and continued on.
Sorry these chapters are so short--I'm just hitting my stride so hopefully I can give you more as I go on. Thank you for reading, commenting, and liking! You guys are the best! <3
He was watching her.
At least, Sansa had the distinct feeling that she was being watched as she reached for two mugs in the cabinet. The kettle was steaming on the stove. The window was open, allowing a fresh scent of pine and lake in the cabin. Clegane sat at the small table in the kitchen. Though she had her back to him, the man’s large, intimidating presence radiated throughout the small space. Sansa felt like she was performing a dance, one she would be embarrassed to mess up.
The kettle shrieked and she took it from the flame.
“Earl Grey?” Sansa asked. She glanced over her shoulder.
Clegane nodded. “Fine.”
Sansa plucked two teabags from the box as it lay on the windowsill. She filled the two matching green mugs with water and steeped the tea methodically. “Sugar?” she asked.
“No,” Clegane said.
Sansa drew a breath and brought the mugs to the table. The groceries had been put away, but now she wondered if she should get a crust of bread and some chocolate like a good hostess. Clegane probably hated chocolate, or anything sweet like that. Sansa sat on the chair opposite of him and carefully slid the mug to her guest.
Clegane eyed the drink and blew on it with a delicacy Sansa hadn’t anticipated. It almost made her smile. She wondered if she should let him speak first, as per her charm school training, but Sansa thought they’d be here for hours in silence before he spoke first.
“So what brings you to Deerpark?” Sansa asked.
Clegane bobbed the teabag up and down, his eyes fixed on his cuppa. “That’s my business,” he said.
Sansa pressed her lips in a thin line and nodded. “Um . . . where are you from, originally?”
“Glasgow,” Clegane replied.
“Oh, I’ve never been.”
“It’s a real shithole.”
Sansa’s eyes widened. She blew on her tea, wondering now why she offered to share a drink with this man. She thought of Colin, how interested he seemed to be in her life story, how easily he struck up a conversation. Sansa reminded herself that it’s how normal people spoke. They were, for the most part, kind and polite and didn’t grumble like bears.
“You’re a student,” Clegane observed. “What are you studying?”
Sansa shrugged. “Not sure yet. Definitely not art history, though. That class is killing me.”
“Hmph.” Clegane sipped his tea and said, “I pegged you for a girl who liked to look at pretty things. Too many ugly paintings?”
“Pretty and ugly are subjective in art,” Sansa said.
“Bullshit,” Clegane said. “You’ve obviously never seen ‘Study for Portrait IV.’”
A surprised grin danced across Sansa’s face. “You know Francis Bacon?”
“Ugly fucker,” Clegane said with a sardonic smile. “Even uglier paintings. But it’s the ugly ones you remember. Anyone can paint some flowers or trees. Give people something horrible to look at and it’ll haunt them forever.” He pointed to the scars on his face. “I’m living proof.”
Sansa locked eyes with Clegane. He stared at her intensely, a light in his eyes like a dying fire—still hot, but relatively harmless. She decided he was testing her. Sansa took the bait.
“You think people are haunted by you?”
Clegane grinned widely and gave his head a shake. “Christ, I hope so. It’s better than being forgotten.”
Sansa looked down at her tepid drink. In many ways, he was right. Everyone always told Sansa how pretty she was, but pretty people were a dime a dozen in the world. They dominated every aspect of society. But a man like Clegane—scarred face, hulking frame, sour disposition . . . well, Sansa couldn’t think of a single man like him. She doubted she would ever see another.
Sansa changed the subject by asking, “What do you do for a living?”
“A wee bit of this and that,” Clegane responded.
Sansa rolled her eyes. “If you’re trying to be shady and mysterious, it’s working.”
“I’ll make a note in my diary tonight.”
Sansa laughed. “Was that a joke? Did you actually try making—”
“Settle down, little bird,” Clegane said, a hint of a smile playing on his lips. “We’re only talking.”
“I won’t tell others you’re funny.”
Clegane smiled and turned his face down to his tea. Sansa could swear she saw the creeping of a blush on his cheeks. The air felt lighter. She relaxed her shoulders and asked, “How’s the hand?”
Clegane turned his palm up to inspect the bandage. “I’ve had worse. Just one more scar to add to the collection.”
“Will you tell people how you got it?”
“Sure,” Clegane said. He grinned playfully. “Punching Nazis.”
Sansa laughed. Clegane stared at her with a gleam in his eye, rubbing his beard. They drank their tea in silence for a few moments as birds chirped outside. It was the first time in Clegane’s presence where Sansa felt . . . peaceful. Unguarded. She sensed he felt the same way as he took his cap off and leaned back in his chair.
“So you’ve come to Deerpark to study,” said Clegane. “And your family let you up here all by yourself.”
“My mum went ballistic,” Sansa said, cupping her mug. “Took some convincing.”
“And your father?”
A cold dagger pricked Sansa’s heart. She sipped her drink and mumbled, “Dad died last year.”
Clegane only stared at her, his face unreadable. No pity or sadness for her. Just undivided attention. It was honestly a relief for Sansa not to hear another person console her with shallow words of sympathy.
“And your boyfriend?” Clegane asked. “What does he think of you being here?”
Sansa’s smile returned. “I don’t have one. But if I did, I wouldn’t let him tell me what to do.”
Clegane snorted and raised his cup. “Good girl.”
Sansa clinked her mug against his. She downed the last of her tea and watched as Clegane rose from the table with his mug. He took the empty drink from her hand and, without comment, started washing the dishes in the sink.
Sansa turned in her chair to Clegane’s back and said, “You don’t have to do that.”
Clegane was silent. Sansa’s eyes wandered up his backside to his strong, broad shoulders. Her gaze traveled down his arm to his large hands that delicately handled the tea cups. At first glance, it seemed as though a man like him could break glass just by looking at it, but watching him do a mundane household chore eviscerated his intimidation. She imagined those hands, rough and calloused, cupping the side of her face then carefully tilting her head upwards for a kiss. Sansa blinked out of the daydream. She frowned, confused by her own train of thought.
When Clegane finished washing the cups, he set them on the drying rack and turned to Sansa. “You’ve got studying to do,” he said. “And I’ve wasted enough of your time.”
“It wasn’t a waste,” Sansa said, standing from her chair. “I enjoyed talking to you.”
Clegane’s jaw clenched. He rubbed the back of his neck, face besieged in confusion. It was as though he had never gotten a compliment in his life. Sansa thought it was adorable.
“Mmph,” was his reply. Clegane swiftly walked past Sansa to the front door of the cabin. “Study,” he ordered. Then he was gone, the screen door thumping against the frame in his wake.
Somehow, Sansa managed to finally get some studying in.
Even though the Earl Grey lingered on her tongue, she took Econ notes and highlighted her study guide. Even with the image of Clegane’s strong, massive hands deftly washing teacups, Sansa was able to reread her notes about Jane Eyre and underline key passages. Even as Clegane’s Irish walking cap sat on the table, staring at her, begging to be returned to its owner, she made flashcards for her Intro to Anthropology class.
When the clock struck 5pm, Sansa couldn’t take it anymore.
She packed her study materials back in her knapsack, then made a cheese toastie for an early supper. After a few squares of chocolate and a glass of wine, Sansa took Clegane’s cap from the table and headed outside.
She hadn’t realized it was starting to drizzle. The scent of an oncoming storm was thick in the air, the sky a dark grey. The air seemed abuzz with electricity as Sansa crossed the yard to Clegane’s cabin. As she walked up the porch to his front door, she could smell cigarette smoke from the open window.
Sansa rapped gingerly on the door and stepped back. She waited three heartbeats until the door opened and Clegane’s hulking frame appeared behind the screen door.
“Hello,” he said simply.
“Hi.” Sansa fiddled nervously with the cap in her hand. “You left this on my table.”
Clegane looked at the cap, then at Sansa again. He opened the screen door and retrieved the hat with a nod. “Cheers.”
Sansa smiled politely. She cleared her throat and looked up at the sky. “Looks like rain.”
Clegane leaned his head out the door and looked upwards. “Aye.” He eyed Sansa and asked, “Have you studied yet?”
“Yes, actually.” She chuckled and added, “Anthropology’s going to drive me to drink.”
“What’s your poison?” Clegane asked.
Sansa shrugged. “A cheap bottle of rosé at my place.”
Clegane groaned and rolled his eyes. “Fuck that swill. You want a real drink, I’ve got something for you.”
Sansa brightened. “You do?”
“Call it a reward for studying well.”
Sansa grinned. She felt an immense win, that this brutish man had let his walls down even slightly to offer her a drink from his own stash. It was like solving a complex riddle to open a labyrinth. There may have been a whole maze yet to get through, but at least it was a start.
“I’ll just—wait one moment,” Sansa said, jutting her thumb behind her shoulder. “I’ll be right back.”
“Just walk in when you’re ready,” Clegane said, closing the screen door.
Sansa turned with a large grin and hurried to her cabin. She took an empty grocery tote and filled it with her rosé, her box of gourmet chocolates, and a few slices of bread and cheese. Sansa quickly checked her reflection in the mirror. She didn’t know why she suddenly cared what she looked like. Though handsome in his own way—yes, even she could admit that—he wasn’t exactly giving the models on the Paris runways a run for their money. Still, Sansa wanted to pretty. She brushed her hair and put a cardigan on over her short sleeve shirt.
Thunder rolled overhead as Sansa trekked back to Clegane’s cabin. She walked in as he instructed and closed the door to block the wind.
His cabin was almost identical to hers—a few mismatched pieces of furniture and different art hanging on the walls—but otherwise the same. The scent of cigarettes was thick in the air, followed by the sizzle of meat on a pan in the kitchen. Clegane was standing over the stove, tending to whatever he was cooking. Dirty dishes were piled in the sink and his leather jacket was draped over one of the kitchen chairs.
“Do you eat meat?” Clegane asked.
“Yes,” Sansa replied. She set the tote on the couch and approached the kitchen. “What are you making?”
Clegane took the skillet off the stove, turned the flame off, and stuck a fork in the massive steak he was cooking. He transferred the meat to a cutting board and sawed it in half with a large knife.
“Grab a plate. Third cabinet next to the sink.”
“I already ate,” Sansa said apologetically.
“You’ll want some meat in you for what we’re about to drink.”
Sansa giggled and took two plates from the cabinet. She set them on the table, along with utensils and glasses, and folded a pair of paper towels neatly. When Clegane was done cutting the meat, he turned with the platter and raised a brow at the neatly-set table.
“We’re not having tea with the Queen,” he said.
“I know,” Sansa said, grabbing the rosé from her tote. “But I thought it would look nice, anyway.”
“You and your aesthetics,” Clegane grumbled. “And put that away,” he said, motioning to the wine. “I told you, we’re having a real drink.”
Sansa smiled and shrugged. She sat at the table with her host loaded her plate with steak. It smelled buttery and looked perfectly medium rare. Clegane acquired an amber-colored bottle from one of the cabinets and poured a few fingers in Sansa’s glass. Lagavulin whiskey—at least ten years old as far as Sansa could tell from the bottle.
“I’ve never had Lagavulin,” she admitted.
Clegane sat at the table with his plate loaded and poured himself a glass. He raised his glass and said, “Tha thu a 'coimhead brèagha.”
Sansa smiled and asked, “What’s that mean?”
Clegane drank, keeping his eyes on her. When she didn’t get a response, Sansa tipped her glass towards him and drank. She coughed and sputtered as the fiery liquid slid down her throat.
Clegane laughed, a low rumble from deep within his chest. “Eat something. It’ll get easier.”
Sansa blushed and started in on her steak. Between chews she said, “You didn’t say you could cook.”
“Can’t,” Clegane admitted. He ripped a hunk of meat with his teeth and chewed loudly. “But every man should at least know how to cook a steak.”
Clegane poured her another glass, swallowed, and said, “When you’re ready.”
Sansa raised her drink and said, “Here’s to you, here’s to me, if ever we should disagree, fuck you and here’s to me.”
Clegane grinned. “Naughty word from the little bird.”
Sansa raised a brow and drank. The whiskey went down smoother this time, like warm velvet. She was already feeling a hum radiating from her bones. More thunder rolled outside the cabin, then the pitter-patter of rain on the roof.
Clegane poured himself another draught and sipped it slowly. They ate in silence for a few moments, listening to the rain and thunder. Sansa took another bite and stared at her host as she chewed.
“Why did you invite me here?”
The question made Clegane stop eating. He lowered his fork and knife and said, “Do you regret coming already?”
“No, no,” Sansa laughed. “It’s just . . . you seem like the loner type. When we first met—”
“We’re only havin’ a drink here, little bird. Don’t read so much into it.”
“That’s another thing,” Sansa said, forking the last of her steak in her mouth. “Why do you call me ‘little bird’?”
Clegane blinked a few times at Sansa. His jaw tightened as the wheels turned in his head. He finally grunted, poured himself another whiskey, and downed it completely. Finally, he said, “It’s your hair.”
Sansa furrowed her brows. “What?”
“Your hair reminds me of a cardinal in the winter against the snow. At sunset, it looks like the breast of a robin. And at night . . . like this . . .”
Clegane trailed off, blinking slowly at Sansa as his face softened. Her curious smile vanished, replaced by a startling feeling of vulnerability. It was as though he were peering directly into her soul, seeing her for all her flaws and mistakes and, yes, even beauty. She felt completely naked.
“Anyway,” Clegane rasped, “let’s have another.”
He poured Sansa more whiskey. She looked at the gold-hued drink and grinned as an idea popped into her head. “Shall we play a game?”
“Games are for children,” Clegane mumbled, pushing his empty plate aside.
“Come on.” Sansa rolled her eyes and took the bottle of whiskey from the table. She plopped down on the couch and retrieved the chocolate and bread from her tote. Sansa looked over at the table where Clegane was still sitting and waved him over. “I won’t bite you.”
With a grunt, Clegane got up from the table and joined Sansa on the couch.
“The game,” she said, “is Never Have I Ever.”
Her host rolled his eyes. “Bloody hell.”
“I’ll start.” Sansa held the bottle of whiskey by the neck as she thought of the first confession. “Never have I ever . . . been in a fight.”
Clegane gave her a look and grabbed the bottle. He took a swig to indicate that he had, indeed, been in a fight or two in his life. “You won’t like the things you learn about me,” Clegane said, failing to suppress a smile.
“Go on, then,” Sansa laughed.
Clegane sighed heavily and said, “Never have I ever . . . voted Labour.”
Sansa took the bottle and drank.
“Quell surprise,” Clegane said, grinning.
“Never have I ever voted Tory.”
Clegane held up his hand and shook his head. “Never have I ever voted.”
Sansa laughed. She took a sip and smacked her lips. The whiskey was going straight to her head now. She felt light and airy, like she could dance until the sun came up. “Never have I ever . . . um . . . hunted deer.”
Clegane grabbed the bottle and drank. “Hunted a lot more than that in m’life.”
“Hush, it’s your turn.”
“You’re pushy when you drink,” Clegane said.
Sansa stuck her tongue out between her teeth and giggled. Clegane’s face reddened and he smiled. “Never ‘ave I ever . . . been to Australia.”
Sansa seized the bottle and sipped. “Gap year last year,” she said. “Never have I ever gotten a tattoo.”
“Hmmph,” Clegane snorted. He took the bottle and drank.
Sansa’s mouth flew open. “Really? Where?”
Clegane licked his lips, set the bottle down, and started to unbutton his shirt. Sansa’s heart seized. He pulled his shirt down from his left shoulder to reveal a curious yellow sigil with three black dogs. Sansa’s eyes lingered on Clegane’s bicep, the dark hair on his arm that looked oddly smooth to the touch. He wore a white undershirt but Sansa could still see the outline of his pecs and the large patch of black fur on his chest. She unconsciously gulped.
“What—er, what’s it mean?” Sansa asked.
Clegane put his shirt back on and smirked. “It would take too long to explain.”
Sansa offered him a weak grin. Her fuzzy, clumsy mind was still on his arms and biceps and chest and—
“Never have I ever watched a reality TV program,” Clegane said.
Sansa blinked from her stupor and laughed. She reached for the bottle and mumbled, “Prick.” Sansa took a swig and wiped her mouth. The room was spinning now. The rain pelted the roof steadily, and the clap of thunder every so often was like a gunshot that made Sansa jump.
“Your turn, love,” Clegane said.
Sansa looked at him. He was getting sloppy, as well—sprawled on the couch with one arm propped on the back and one foot on the coffee table. His face was flush and he had a mischievous grin glued to his face. Sansa liked it.
“Never have I ever shagged in a car.”
Clegane snorted a laugh. “Why am I not surprised?”
“Shut up,” Sansa giggled.
“Gimme that.” Clegane took the bottle from Sansa and drank heartily. He sighed and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Do I get to hear the details?” Sansa prodded. She jabbed him in the side with her foot. “Some lost love from long ago?”
Clegane’s smile vanished. He looked down the neck of the bottle and mumbled, “Never have I ever been in love.”
Sansa frowned. “You’ve never been in love?”
Clegane shook his head.
Sansa stared at him, imagining him as a younger man. She thought of all the girls he might have been with, how many hearts he may have broken by not exchanging those three words. She envisioned him going to bed alone at night, walking through the park without someone. Sansa wondered what he would be doing if she weren’t here. Drinking alone, eating alone, being angry alone. Tears welled in her eyes.
“What’re you doing?” Clegane asked. “Are you—?”
“I’m not crying,” Sansa said, wiping her eyes.
“Oh, drink already,” Clegane growled. He handed her the bottle.
“How can you never have been in love?” Sansa asked, taking the whiskey.
Clegane rolled his eyes and said, “Let it go, little bird.”
“But everyone deserves to be in love.”
Sansa knew she was at the stage of being drunk where she was weepy and sentimental. Arya like to make fun of her for it. While her sister got more belligerent and bold with every drink, Sansa would wilt like a tulip and lament the world’s problems. The end result was always the same: too much hugging and a wicked hangover in the morning.
“Drink your truth, little bird,” Clegane said.
Sansa looked at the bottle. It was nearly empty already. She wondered how much she had drank. Was Clegane as sloshed as she was? Or did he have a higher tolerance as most men did? Regardless, he probably thought she was being ridiculous. Most people did. Poor, naïve Sansa—so pretty and stupid and trusting and—
“I think you deserve to be in love,” Sansa whispered.
Clegane’s face hardened. “You don’t know me well enough,” he said.
“But I do,” Sansa argued. The room spun and she put her hand on the coffee table to settle it. “You’re kind—”
“And you’re mean, but I think you’re pretending to be mean. I think you want to be around others.”
“Enough,” Clegane mumbled.
“I’m not wrong,” Sansa insisted, scooting closer to the large man. “You’re a good person. I can see it.”
“You know shit all, girl.” Clegane snatched the bottle from Sansa and put it on the floor by his end of the sofa. “Stop talking before you say something you’ll regret.”
“I don’t care how angry you are,” Sansa said defiantly. “I like you.”
“Enough!” Clegane’s voice boomed in time to a loud clap of thunder.
Sansa jumped. For a brief moment she felt sober as she stared at Clegane’s fearsome eyes. Before she could utter an apology, Sansa felt her mouth watering. She then turned and, completely without grace, vomited on the coffee tab.