“This isn’t about my dad.”
“I—what?” Richard pulls back, frowning. He looks like a dog that’s been bonked on the nose with a tennis ball. Something earnest and easily-baffled — maybe a golden retriever.
“Because he’s dead and you’re, you know—” Áine makes a staccato series of gestures at his face, his cardigan, his sensible shoes. “But it’s not about that.”
“Right.” Richard steps away from her and leans against the kitchen island. His hands slide back into his pockets. “Great.”
Áine wants to smack herself in the forehead. “Ah, no,” she says, attempting a laugh. “You know what I mean.”
“A whole ten years.” He seems amused, in a dry, English sort of way. “Old enough to be your — what? Babysitter?”
“I’d’ve fancied you, if you were.”
“That’s highly inappropriate.”
“You started it, you old perve.” She touches the place on her neck that he was kissing; touches her mouth, her jaw. “That was nice, though.”
Étienne is at a sleepover: they dropped him off together and came back for a decaf coffee and fancy Waitrose biscuits, which turned into wine, which turned into — well. Áine pressed up against the cupboard by the kettle, Richard’s stupid posh tap digging in her back. He kisses like… like he knows what he’s doing. It makes her feel fluttery under her tights. What underwear did she choose this morning? Please don’t be the dancing pineapples, please don’t be the dancing pineapples, please don’t be the—
“What — oh, yes.” She tucks her hands behind her hips and leans against them. “Very nice.”
“And not—” he’s frowning again— “weird, or anything?”
“Weird? Jesus, that word sounds wrong in your mouth.”
“You mentioned your father, Áine, so—”
“Yeah, no, I—”
He cocks his head on one side. “And you called me old—”
“I did not!” she says, outraged. “Not in so many words. Not in any words, actually — you’ve got to start listening better, Richard.”
“Oh, I think I heard you perfectly.” His voice has dropped an octave, and she feels it, low down in her stomach.
“Anyway,” she says slowly. “I just didn’t want you to think that I—”
“Do you want to talk about it?” he says, looking up at her with his head tipped down.
For a moment she considers it. He’d make a good therapist; has that way of saying nothing that makes you want to spill your guts out. “Absolutely bloody not,” she says.
He grins at her then, as though she’s said something funny — he must be more susceptible after half a bottle of wine. She can still taste it on her tongue; the faint echo of it on his, the remnants of coffee, his spit.
“Well, this has been lovely!” Áine tips forward onto her toes, casts a glance around for her handbag and her shearling coat. “Thanks for the wine, I can see myself out.”
He grabs her by the waist as she shimmies past and pulls her into another kiss. She smiles against him, gets a two handfuls of his cardigan, and kisses him fiercely back.
“Well done, Richard,” she murmurs as they break apart. “You’re learning how my excellent jokes work at last.”
Áine can’t see Richard’s face, but she can picture his expression perfectly: like a favourite English teacher you’ve disappointed by doing something stupid.
“The pineapples are… a bold choice.”
Fuck, fuck, fuck. His bedroom is fifty shades of greige — so fucking tasteful it makes her teeth hurt. Her knickers must look like a highlighter pen explosion in a branch of The White Company.
“They’re actually all the rage this season,” she says haughtily, hoisting herself up on both elbows. “A chic new designer — you won’t have heard of her.”
He hooks his fingers under the fabric, finds the label, squints at it. “Oh, yes. Topshop. Very exclusive. I’m on the waiting list.”
“I’ll put in a good—Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”
He’s nosing at her through the neon fabric, the wet heat of his breath against her skin. She clutches at his head, his shoulders, but he lifts his face away, pulls at her knickers where they’re tight across her hips. He dips down again, open-mouthed, and she’s gonna rip his hair out if he keeps going like this. His tongue is… well, he knows what he’s doing with this as well, the utter shit.
She can’t believe this is happening — that she’s here, in this bedroom that looks like it belongs in one of those poncey magazines with thick paper and no writing, her miniskirt discarded on the sheepskin rug, her tights around her ankles and her lucky pineapple pants around her knees. That posh, uptight, grumpy Richard is, apparently, trying to suck her soul out through her clit.
Suddenly it’s too much, and she has to push at the crown of his head to make him stop, to give her a minute, to let her shove her tights and knickers off and pull him over her like a big heavy duvet. She kisses him and he tastes — different. Strange, but not in a bad way. He’s stroking her upper arm, staring at her in that irritating way he has, all… interested and gentle.
She tugs at the neck of his earth-coloured t-shirt; the cardigan disappeared somewhere outside the bedroom door. “Get this off,” she says. “I need to make sure you’re not corduroy all the way down.”
“Only my lower half,” he says, sitting up and dragging it over his head. “Is that going to be a problem?”
“Out.” She throws a lazy arm towards the door. “I’m exclusively interested in velvet-covered men, sorry.”
Not her best work, but she’s distracted, lounging here like the Queen of bloody Sheba while he stands up and unbuckles his belt. He’s in better shape than the assortment of slightly-too-big jumpers would suggest. A bit of a tummy, but she likes it — makes him look solid, comforting. His shoulders are gorgeous, and his upper arms. Fuck. Probably does bloody… yoga or swimming or squash or something. Just below the notch in his neck there’s what looks like a silver saint’s medal — hanging from the chain she’s noticed from time to time, the one that makes his neck look thick and broad, like your man in that tedious book Shona made her read.
But now Richard is shucking off his trousers and boxers in one go, and Áine can’t think about books or Shona or anything else. She has to cover her face with one arm at the sheer ridiculous elation of seeing the furred tops of his thighs, the red mark at his hips where elastic has been digging in, the curve of his arse as he turns to chuck his clothes onto a chair.
“I can’t help but see that as a bad sign.” The mattress dips, and there’s a hand at her knee.
Áine peeks at him from behind her arm. “No, you’re grand. Just — different without your clothes on.”
“Hm. You know that is generally how it works.” He touches the back of her thigh, making her shiver.
She goes to unbutton her blouse, and he helps, and it’s awkward. When she sits up to wrestle her way out of the sleeves, they bump heads. She gets her bra off and he brushes her skin with the back of his hand, the knuckles, making her taut and tight beneath him. He’s hard and leaking, and when she gets her fingers around his cock he makes this gorgeous little noise — she wants to bottle it, for special occasions.
She strokes him up and down, watching his face, all the lovely lines; how his eyes seem darker, the way he twitches under her hand. Nothing about him is what she expected. Not that she’d been thinking about it, not really.
“Áine,” he breathes.
“Richard,” she says, in her most extremely serious voice.
“Yeah.” She nods. “Yes, please.”
He leans across her to reach the bedside table, and his pendant sways above her face. It is a saint — not Christopher, as she was expecting, but the Virgin Mary. The big lass; the main mama.
“Are you Catholic?”
“No.” He’s gone monosyllabic, tearing open a condom.
“Thatʼs okay — Mammy will be pleased about the wedding either way.” She pokes him in the thigh with her foot. “We are getting married, aren’t we, Richard? That’s the only way I can possibly have sexual relations with you.”
He looks up, eyes made tiny with a smile, wearily shaking his head. “Shut up, Áine.”
“How dare you speak to your betrothéd like that, you awful cad.”
But he’s leaning over her again, kissing her breasts, her collarbones, brushing the hair out of her face. She cradles the weight of him between her legs and his miraculous medal lies flat against her chest, incredibly warm from the heat of his skin. He touches her carefully with his long fingers; there’s a heaviness, a pressure, and then his hips are flush with hers, their foreheads pressed together.
And she’s… crying. Actual tears sliding down into her hair and onto his expensive sheets. Fuck. Why can’t her bastard brain behave itself — at least until she’s come, Jesus.
“Áine?” His hands come up to cup her face, thumbing at the tears.
“I’m okay.” She blinks, shakes her head. “I’m—” not happy or fine but— “don’t stop for Christ’s sake.”
He laughs at this, a huff of breath, and she feels him on her neck, in her cunt, at her belly where it presses close to his. “Are you sure?”
“Don’t argue,” she snaps, scraping her fingernails against his back. Richard groans and shifts against her and it’s… good.
It’s really fucking good.
“Why do you wear this, then?” Áine lifts the medal from the sparse hair at the centre of Richard’s chest.
There’s no reply. He’s facing away from her on the pillow, the muscles in his neck drawn tight.
“Richard.” She pokes the top of his arm, then puts her teeth into the skin there. He tastes like salt. “Wake up, I want to talk to you.”
“I’m awake.” He turns his head to look at her. “Did you just bite me?”
“What?” she scoffs. “No — don’t be daft.”
Richard narrows his eyes, but he puts his hand over hers where it rests on the pendant. Their hands rise and fall as he breathes.
Eventually, he says, “Étienne has one too. This belonged to his mum.” He clears his throat. “I wanted to have something of her with me—with us. Help Étienne feel at home, or something, I don’t know.”
“That’s really nice.”
He squints at her across the pillow. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Áine curls closer against him. kisses his shoulder. “She’s a grand lass, our Mary. Nice to have around.” She finds she wants him to be safe, him and Étienne; wants to say a rosary or something, reach for the prayers she hasn’t used in years. Stupid.
“It’s still early,” he says, lifting his phone off the bedside table. “We could go out for dinner, if you wanted.”
“Out? Side?” She lifts her head to stare at him. “Are you mad? I’ll die in this bed, thanks.”
He rolls onto his side, mouth twitching in a smile. “I’d much rather you didn’t.”
“Ah, bless you.”
Sheʼs chilly though, in this big bed with its unnaturally smooth sheets. Wishes she could borrow Richardʼs t-shirt, but maybe that would be weird — not something real people do, more like a girl in a film.
She wants to be real. It canʼt be that hard.
“Áine?” Heʼs touching her face with the back of his finger. “About before — are you sure youʼre alright?”
“Yeah,” she says. “I just get… overwhelmed, you know. Youʼre quite an overwhelming person, Richard.”
He looks at her for a moment before saying, “You overwhelm me.”
She almost laughs. “Ah, go on. No I donʼt.”
“You do — you did. Like a whirlwind.”
“Youʼre incredible,” he says, all sad spaniel eyes again. Much more spaniel than golden retriever, now she thinks about it. She can see him with the ears.
“I donʼt—” deserve this, she wants to say. Deserve you. “Youʼre too nice to me,” she says at last.
He kisses her again, and itʼs lazy, lovely. Sheʼs just about to slide her hand down his back towards his arse when he rolls away from her and — rude, honestly — gets out of bed, pulling on his boxers and a dressing gown.
“If weʼre not going out, Iʼm going to make something for dinner.”
Áine pushes herself upright against the pillows. “Are you—can you possibly be about to cook something, Richard? On your own? Unsupervised?”
He blinks at her, his hair all ruffled and ridiculous. But thereʼs no snappy comeback — not even a rubbish one. He just scoops his t-shirt off the floor and passes it to her, totally casual, as though theyʼd talked about it. As though she asked.
She holds the fabric against her chest, which is aching in a funny, sugar-sweet kind of way.
“Do you have a fire extinguisher?” she says. Itʼs easier to tease him than to say thank you, or to ask him again why he insists on being so quietly, unceasingly kind. “Just in case,” she adds. “Be a shame if you burned your lovely house down.”
But he doesnʼt rise to it: only shakes his head again in that long-suffering way of his, and disappears onto the landing.
Áine lifts the t-shirt to her face. It smells of Richard, and his deodorant — a nice one with a pretend sort of seaside scent. She puts it on and slides back under the covers, taking her phone with her for company.
Thereʼs a message from Shona. U ok? Been at posh twatʼs for ages. Does he have secret wife in attic.
Áine snorts, types back STOP BLOODY STALKING ME YOU WEIRDO, and hits send. Thirty seconds later she writes: no wife. we shagged. heʼs making dinner.
Shona replies with that cringey gif of Jonah Hill screaming, then a long series of embarrassing questions that Áine would get severe thumb strain trying to answer.
call you later she says instead, and adds a sparkly heart emoji. Then she shoves her phone under the pillow and burrows deeper into the sheets.
Thereʼs a lot of clattering coming up from the kitchen — Áine wonders vaguely if Richard needs help, or possibly rescuing. But sheʼs too comfortable to move, and too warm, now.
She pulls the collar of his t-shirt up over her nose, breathing in his scent. She can still feel his hands cradling her head, can taste his wine-and-coffee kisses, can feel the weight of him here, beside her, like a certainty.
Like something real.