I've been getting more amazing 5* reviews for Breathe You In, my sexy romance with a twist!
"This book is so wonderful I can't even begin to express my feelings about it."
"What a brilliant story I loved it, it's as simple as that. Yes it's a romance but it also has a hidden message.... read to see if you can see it too."
"Breathe you In by Lily Harlem is a fantastic love story."
So to celebrate I'm posting the first three chapters right here for you to enjoy. Breathe You In is tamer than some of my other work and if you're looking for kinky sex this probably isn't for you, but what Breathe You In does have is an emotion driven plot and hot sex scenes that are poignant and straight from the heart.
Kisses as soft as kitten’s whiskers tickled down my back, fluttering, floating, spreading into the dip of my spine and onto the rise of my buttocks. I sighed and squirmed, just a little, inviting more of the blissful sensations I was being woken with.
Matt ran his finger down my side, from just below my breast into the hollow of my waist. So light it was barely a caress, so gentle it was hardly there. It tickled but in a good way, and I smiled, my cheek bunching on the pillow.
I could picture him hovering over me, ruggedly handsome with his morning stubble heaviest on the indent of his chin. His broad shoulders and thick biceps would be tensing as he took his weight through his arms.
“Mmm, that’s nice,” I murmured, shifting my legs and wondering where his touch would travel next.
The duvet twisted around my ankles. I was naked, but my skin was warm; the nighttime had done nothing to ease the English heatwave.
More sweet kisses, down my left leg this time and onto the back of my knee. I nibbled my bottom lip and forced my body still. I didn’t know how much longer I’d be able to just lay here. My need for my husband was so big it was an energy that could give birth to stars. He was my everything, my world, my reason for breathing, the man I got out of bed for every morning.
I turned but kept my eyes closed, enjoying the remnants of sleep and the waft of his breath on my stomach, my breasts and my neck. I stretched my arms above my head, arched my back and pointed my toes, waiting to see where he would adore me next.
Was it Sunday? I hoped so, that way we could stay in bed all morning, worshipping each other’s bodies, connecting our souls, feeling whole.
“Kiss me,” I mumbled, tilting my chin and expecting to feel him pressing his lips to mine. “Matt, I want you.” I smiled as I spoke and reached for him.
Birdsong filtered into my consciousness. The treetops outside my bedroom window were home to a family of doves, their coos a near constant melody. I pictured them, fat breasts, pale feathers, their devotion to each other endearing.
“Matt,” I said again, flailing my arms.
As I’d spoken his name, the ‘a’ had caught in my throat. A strangled feeling clawed at my neck, and a rush of agony tumbled into my chest. I let my hands drop heavily onto the mattress.
My favorite part of the day was over. That empty moment between sleep and awake, horizontal and upright, before reality kicked in and dreams held court—when my memory hadn’t remembered.
I shivered as kisses turned into a light breeze weaving through the open window. I kept my eyes tight shut hoping that might stop the usual tears from forming. But one persistent drip grew and seeped out anyway, its journey down my face unhindered by me. What difference did one more salty addition make when there’d been so many?
The usual leaden anvil of grief grew fat and ugly in my belly. All day and all night it would sit there generating nausea, hopelessness and depression. I hated it, that damn grief. Why couldn’t it let up, just for a few minutes? Why did it tail me like a ball and chain?
I tried to shift my thoughts back to a few minutes ago, when Matt had been with me, kissing me, touching me. So many times he had, more than I could count. What I wouldn’t do to be with him again, just once—just one night to say goodbye.
Was that too much to ask?
Of course it was.
A sudden rattle and the rev of an engine made me jump—the neighbors cutting their lawn at some ridiculous hour. I glanced at the clock. Well, it was gone ten, so I couldn’t really complain. For a moment I thought I’d had a good, long sleep, but who was I kidding? The sun had been washing the eastern sky pink before I’d even lain down.
Bracing myself, I sat. This was the first hurdle of the day, getting out of bed. Most people rose, put their feet on the floor and that was it, they were off. But that chunk of lead in my stomach, it made this bit especially hard. For a while it had been impossible, it was just too damn heavy, and I’d stayed in bed for days, weeks, waiting for it to lighten.
It hadn’t, not in the least, but I’d learned how to get up again. It had to be in careful stages. First I let the pain hit—I had to brace for that bit—and then wait for it to settle. Once it had seeped into every pore and my brain had compartmentalized my reality into bite-sized snippets—yes, I’d be eating breakfast alone; no, he wouldn’t be meeting me for lunch; yes, the bed would still be empty tonight—then I sat and placed my hands behind myself with my elbows locked, kind of like a prop for my torso.
When I sat, that was when I saw him. The picture of us on our wedding day still had pride of place on my dressing table. I’d wondered about moving it, putting it on the windowsill or even downstairs, but I couldn’t bring myself to. Perhaps it was torturous to have him smiling at me from a photograph when he never would again in real life. Maybe it was detrimental to the ‘healing process’. But I couldn’t help it; looking at him in the morning was a compulsion. He’d been the start and end of my day for so many years, why should I suddenly change that? How could I just ‘put him away’?
I liked his eyes in that particular picture. We’d been lucky on our wedding day. It had been beautifully sunny, not a cloud in the sky. After our vows we’d had photographs with family members and then, sneakily, before the reception, the photographer had taken us around the back of the church to stand beneath an archway made up of delicate pink roses. It had matched the flowers in my bouquet and hair perfectly. Matt had hugged me close and told me I even smelled of roses.
I’d laughed and asked him if he could cope with thorns. He’d replied, “No marriage is without a few thorns, Katie, but for better or for worse, good times or bad, we’re together now until death do us part.”
He’d kissed me on my right temple, and the close-up shot had been taken. His eyes had been dreamy, soft, their dark depths mellow and his lashes casting shadows on his cheeks.
I recalled his smooth, clean-shaven chin against my face as clear as I remembered my next words, spoken through a smile. “We’ll still be together when were old and gray and one hundred and ten.”
How wrong I’d been.
I swung my feet to the floor and stared at my toenails—the dark pink nail varnish was hideously chipped—and forced myself to stand. There, that was it. I’d made it through the first painful moment of the day—only a million more to go.
I wandered into the bathroom, flicked on the shower and drowned out the sound of the mower. It was Saturday and I had the day off for a change so I didn’t have to worry about getting into work and finding a smile to wear.
To start with it had been okay for me to be sad, quiet, closed in on myself. But since the first anniversary of Matt’s accident had gone by ten months ago, I kind of got the feeling people expected me to be ‘getting on with my life’, ‘pulling myself together’. Really? A year and ten months to get over losing the man I’d spent over half a decade in love with, whose babies I’d wanted to carry, and who I’d seen myself with for all eternity? It seemed it was. But I didn’t have the energy to argue, or try to justify the loss that still followed me everywhere, so I slapped on a smile, put a chirp in my voice and acted like I cared about the goings-on in the shop.
The shower water was only just warm, but that was okay, the forecast had been for another scorcher, so starting off cool was a good plan. That’s what Matt and I had done on our honeymoon in Thailand. We’d had cooling showers several times a day to lower our body temperatures, although sometimes, if he’d sneaked in beside me, it had got pretty damn steamy in the bathroom even with the faucet turned to cold.
I smiled at the delicious memory and stepped out, dried then pulled on knickers and a thin sundress that had a built-in bra. The lemon-colored cotton was soft on my skin, and I recalled wearing it to a candlelit, seafood dinner on the beach in Koh Samui. It’d fit a bit nicer back then, I’d filled it out properly. Now the material at the chest gaped slightly and it drowned the thin flare of my hips. But Matt had liked it, so I still wore it.
After piling my hair high, I wandered into the kitchen. The kettle was just coming to the boil when I heard the letterbox rattle. My heart gave a familiar flip. I’d been waiting nearly eight weeks to hear back from Brian Davis. Would today be the day?
The brown hessian doormat held the usual bills and junk mail, but there was one slim white envelope with my name, Katie Lansdale, printed on the front. Quickly, I ripped it open, pulled out a sheet of paper and saw the words Brian Davis, Private Detective, written in bold print at the top.
I juddered in a breath, willed myself to keep calm, not to tear the paper in my urgency to unfold and read. My knees were weak so I headed into the kitchen, forced myself to lay the letter on the table and then made a cup of tea. The ritual of milk, sugar and stirring settled my movements if not my nerves.
Questions without answers spun in my head like a sticky web, each one leading to the next, but not if you couldn’t navigate the way. Would Brian have found anything out about the man who stomped through my thoughts? Had that man even survived this long? And if so, where was he now? In Britain? Europe? The other side of the world?
Eventually, tea made, kitchen door flung open to the back garden and the doves now pecking on the patio, I sat at our round kitchen table and unfolded the letter. The impulse to just scan the sentences was strong, but I controlled it and started from the beginning, slowly, each word forming in my head.
Dear Mrs. Lansdale,
Further to our meeting on the 2nd of May, I have undertaken an investigation. Your request was unusual and did pose some ethical issues, but it seems fate has been on our side and I’ve found the man you seek.
He’d found him! I took a sip of tea, holding it over the table but away from the letter—my hand was shaking and I didn’t want to spill a drop and risk blurring any precious words.
His name is Ruben Strong, and as you were already aware he is thirty-three years old.
From what I can gather he is doing extremely well health-wise. He is a UK resident and lives in Northampton, England, working as a curator in the town’s park museum.
Since, as we discussed, address details cannot be revealed from health service documents, that is the extent of the information I can share. I trust that will satisfy your curiosity and have enclosed an invoice for the remainder of my fee, which should be settled within three weeks.
Personal Investigative Services.
“Ruben Strong.” The name sounded hard and alien on my lips and so different from melodic Matthew Lincoln Lansdale. Yet he had a part of Matt, he was a part of Matt. I re-read the letter, soaking up the information anew. Northampton. That was only an hour away from Leicester. In fact, I was pretty sure the cosmetic shop I worked for had a branch in the town center there. Here was me thinking he could be anywhere in the world and he was only forty miles away.
And after all this time he was doing well. That was good, wasn’t it? Yes, of course it was. It meant something positive had come out of the senselessness of Matt’s death. He was dead, but someone else was alive. Not just alive but ‘doing extremely well’.
I read the letter twice more then picked up my tea and stood in the doorway, my shoulder huddled against the frame as I sipped and stared out at the garden.
The doves sat side-by-side on the wooden bench, fussing each other’s feathers. The sun beat down on my dry and crinkled lawn—I’d been unkind to it and had forgotten to put the sprinkler on night after night. Matt would have remembered—he was good like that.
But I didn’t linger on the withered grass; instead, I wondered if Ruben Strong was like his name. Strong, big and tough. Not likely, not if he’d needed a new heart and lungs. Maybe he’d had formidable strength once, but perhaps he’d always been sickly. He could have spent thirty-three years hoping someone would die in tragic circumstances so he’d get the chance of a normal life.
What must that feel like, to hope a stranger dies so you can live?
A bitter taste sat in my mouth. The tea wouldn’t wash it away. It was the unfairness of it that was sour. Why did anyone need to die or be ill in the first place? Young men, all in the prime of their lives, taken or about to be taken. I shut my eyes and tipped my face to the sky, wondered: What divine creator would dream up such unfair scenarios?
The sun beat down on me, unrelenting, unconcerned, just blistering. The neighbor thankfully turned off his cranky old mower.
I sighed then took a deep breath. The scent of summer filtered toward me; the pink roses that sat beneath the kitchen window were in full bloom. Matt had planted them on our first anniversary, and they were content in their south-facing position. I decided to cut several stems for the table—that was a normal thing to do, wasn’t it? Have a vase of flowers in the kitchen?
I swapped my empty mug for a pair of scissors and set about snipping. The velvety petals were a delicate baby pink and smaller than usual roses. Their heads were dainty and didn’t droop with weight. I gathered a dozen or so and stepped back into the shade of the house, already feeling a drip of perspiration in my cleavage.
After reaching for a glass vase then filling it with water, I dropped the stems in.
“Ouch. Bugger!” A thorn had caught on the inside of my index finger. Quickly, I sucked the drip of blood, pulling it into my mouth to take away the sting. As I stared at the haphazardly landed roses, an urge rushed into me. It was like getting hit by a moving object. It railroaded through my chest, swirled up that weight in my stomach, hurricane-style, and sent my heart rate rocketing.
I’d been a fool. A damn fool to think just knowing his name and where he worked would be enough. Didn’t I know anything about myself? Had I learned nothing about grief and its obsessive, dark, manipulative nature?
It was obvious I hadn’t, because one thing was as sure as every rose having thorns, and if the thorn in our marriage had been Matt’s death, then the thorn in me now was that I’d be unable to rest until I’d seen Ruben Strong.
The time it took from the first gush of my desire to see Ruben Strong to arriving at the museum in Northampton was exactly two hours. One and a quarter of those hours had been in the stuffy heat of my car. Fifteen minutes applying a sweep of make-up, earrings and taming my hair—regular things to do, and people always seemed glad that I’d made an effort—and the other thirty had been lurking in the park surrounding the museum, assessing the stern brick-built building. Not actually entering, just observing and beating down a wave of nerves and wondering if I had the courage to go through with my plan.
I knew I could be rash, impulsive, and act without thinking. Matt had always said it was one of the things he adored about me, my sense of adventure, but I wasn’t so sure what he’d think now. Was I being foolish and irresponsible? Setting myself up for more heartache when already I’d had quite enough?
A bench, the farthest edge in the shade of a huge pink rhododendron bush, offered a vantage point to the front of the museum and around the side toward a long drive and ornate metal gates. It didn’t look particularly big, this collection of Northampton artifacts, nothing like the colossal London or Birmingham museums I’d been to. But it was a decent size, perhaps twenty or so sash windows over two levels, a green front door propped open with a big iron cobbler and a shallow roof that I suspected housed a dusty attic.
Summoning bravery and firming my resolution, I walked onto the gravel pathway, the crunch echoing from my soles to my ears. I darted my gaze about looking for a man who’d suit the name Ruben Strong. But the hotness of the day had sent most people scurrying indoors. Two weeks into a heatwave and the novelty of sun worshipping had worn off for most people.
I took a seat at the end of the bench, in the shade, and watched as a couple of mothers with babes in prams approached. A gaggle of young children wandered behind them, licking melting ice creams and with their sunhats skew whiff. They meandered lazily, not a care in the world, and for a moment a pang of jealousy hit me. The desire to be like that again, absorbed and content with an ice cream and a trip to the park was almost overwhelming. How long ago had it been since I’d felt carefree? How wrong I’d been when I’d truly thought pushing a pram with Matt’s child inside it was part of my destiny.
They ambled off, leaving me alone as far as I could make out. The shrill call of what sounded like a peacock made me jump. I glanced over my shoulder, looking for it as I shooed a bug that was attracted to my lemony-colored dress. I hated big birds; the doves were fine, but anything bigger just gave me the creeps.
I should go into the park museum. That’s why I’d come here. To see him. Nothing else, just to catch a glimpse, spot him from a distance, satisfy my curiosity about what he was like. But how would I know who he was? What if there were lots of men in their thirties working here? Maybe there were hundreds? Well, no, not hundreds, but perhaps three or four.
Taking a deep breath, I stood and tightened the strap of my handbag over my shoulder. I had to do it. What would be the point in turning around and driving all that way back up the motorway? It would be a waste of time and petrol, not to mention I’d hate myself when I got home for wimping out. I could just picture how my evening would go. There’d be the usual moping around and tears, forcing myself to eat, because people always asked if I had, but on top of that there would also be moments when I’d just want to kick myself or bang my head against the wall in frustration. Then I’d be planning a trip back to Northampton tomorrow. I’d suffer this all over again.
No, I had no choice. I had to see this through. There wasn’t one part of me that wouldn’t. I had to at least try to get a peek of him, this man who had a piece of what was mine, a very important piece too.
I smoothed my dress, checked the front hadn’t tugged too low, which it was prone to these days, then walked toward the front entrance.
The peacock screeched again, and I spotted it this time, out of the corner of my eye. It was parading on the lawn with its tail feathers spread and the dotty-eyed pattern shimmering in the sunshine. It appeared to be looking straight at me—not only that, it was strutting toward the same door I was. I hurried a little, not wanting it to get too close but also quite fascinated by its haughty beauty and exquisite coloring.
The moment I stepped into the cool hallway a dense silence enveloped me and thoughts of the peacock left my mind. Coolness drifted over my shoulders and arms and clung there. I paused to let my eyes adjust after the dazzling outdoors and allowed the stillness that only museums seemed to emit soak into me.
“Good afternoon.” A female voice.
I swallowed; my mouth was dry. I licked my lips and teeth. “Hello.”
A middle-aged lady sat behind a low desk that held a cash register, several books of various sizes and a stack of leaflets, one of which she was offering my way.
“Would you like a map, dear?”
“Yes, thank you.” I took the fold of glossy paper. I had words on my tongue and questions that sat heavily in my throat. Did she know Ruben Strong? Did he indeed work here? Was he on duty today? How was he?
But I said nothing. Instead, I pressed my lips together and bided my time. What if she said yes and quickly went to get him? What the hell would I say? I didn’t want to speak to him. I just needed to see him from afar. To be sure he was fit and healthy and that what he had of Matt’s was serving him well, and that he was serving it well too. That was important to me.
“Most people start through that way,” the lady behind the counter said, pointing to her left.
I noticed she had on a name badge with a tiny picture of the museum and the name Ethel next to it in bold black print.
“Hot out there, isn’t it?” She picked up another leaflet and fanned it in front of her face.
“It is, yes. Do I, er, have to pay or anything?”
“No, no, dear, it’s all free, go and have a look around and keep out of the midday sun. You know what they say about mad dogs and Englishmen, but I think these last few weeks has converted us all, don’t you?”
“Yes, it’s certainly been warm.”
She smiled, and then a phone on the table trilled to life. “Oh, excuse me, dear. You have a nice little look around now, any questions just ask a member of staff.” She picked up the phone. “Hello, Ethel speaking…oh yes, of course…I’ll man this desk while you sort that out then…the 1940s display, yes, ten minutes, okay.”
The first room I came to held several big dark wooden dressers stuffed with trinkets. I gazed absently at them; jewelry boxes, compact mirrors, pillboxes. They were pretty enough, but not what I’d come to see. On a stack of shelves were shoes and boots of various sizes and in an array of disrepair.
I hung around for a few minutes to make it look like I was there as a genuine museum-goer, should anyone be watching me, then, after reading the small brass plaques beneath a half dozen portraits of stuffy-looking ladies in old-fashioned dresses, I moved through to the next room.
Taxidermy seemed to be the main theme in this high-ceilinged area. Instantly my guts rolled and the hairs on the back of my neck spiked. I hurried past a glass cabinet holding a snarling fox with milky eyes then winced at several stuffed birds perched on twigs that looked like they’d been snagged from the park outside. I quickly exited through a dark doorway that had an enormous snowy-white owl glaring down from the top frame, and not caring that I hadn’t lingered to appreciate whatever it was that dead, stuffed animals were supposed to offer.
I suppressed a shudder. The thought of being packed full from the inside like that was gross. As was doing it to animals that had once been living, breathing things. What kind of person picked taxidermy as a job? Who would want to work in a place that housed those things?
Ruben Strong obviously didn’t mind them, not if this was where he spent his days. Perhaps he was a creep. A real weirdo. The sort who had odd collections of bizarre things—rare birds’ eggs with the insides sucked out or famous people’s toenail clippings. Yuk, I hoped not. I wanted him to be normal, to be appreciative of what he had and be enjoying his second chance at life by doing healthy, respectful things.
Absently I stared at a collection of black-and-white pictures showing the Northamptonshire countryside being farmed by horse and plow and the crops picked by hand. He didn’t have to be a saint, that was expecting too much, but he had to be good and honorable, otherwise what was the point?
I still hadn’t encountered anyone on my journey through the silent rooms. It really wasn’t the busiest of museums. It was a little dusty, too, a bit worn around the edges.
Beside a genuine set of stone grinding wheels was an old oil radiator—as much an antique as the artifacts it was designed to keep warm in the winter. I noticed the paint peeling beside the window frame. An insipid green, its curling flakes revealed a dusty brick-like substance.
I moved through to the next room. It was dark, the walls painted black, and in the corner was what looked like a bunker and some kind of corrugated iron shelter. A sudden wail—an air-raid siren—blasted out of a speaker above me. The lights flashed on and off, and a deafening boom rattled across the ceiling and pounded up through the soles of my feet.
I clutched my handbag. Stepped backwards. What the hell…?
A loud voice hollered out. “Northampton during the blitz. This is what it was like to live in the town in nineteen forty-three.”
“Oh, shit, really.” My heart was galloping, and my bearings had slipped. I couldn’t see the way out, other than the archway I’d just come through. There was no obvious exit that would keep my journey progressive through the museum.
Another loud bang, followed by whizzing and an explosion that clanked several wall-hanging gas masks and jerry cans against one another.
I had to get out of there. It smelled musty, and it was so dark and loud I could hardly think.
Spinning, I came face to chest with another person.
“Sorry,” I said, the need to flee now overwhelming. “I’m just…” I glanced left and right. Staggered slightly.
“Hey, are you okay?” He cupped my elbows, steadied me.
I looked up through the shadows into dark eyes. “Er, yes, I think so. It just made me jump, that’s all. It’s a bit loud.”
“I’m sorry. It’s supposed to be noisy but this is too much.”
“Yes, it’s ear-splitting.”
Bomb sounds were raining down on us with gusto. Screams and shouts were mixed into the soundtrack now, adding to the chaos.
“Which, er, way...?” I asked.
“Through the army camouflage curtain, just there.”
Shadows sliced across his face but were lost momentarily when the lights flared again, simulating explosions. I reckoned he was about my age, maybe a little older. He had a straight, long nose, wide mouth and a flat, brown mole on his right cheek.
“Okay.” I was about to step away but realized I’d placed my hand on his chest, right next to a small badge that had a picture of the museum in the left hand corner. Also on that badge, written in bold black letters, was the name Ruben.
I snapped my hand away. Had I felt the thud of a heart beating beneath my palm? Panic raced through my body, starting in my fingers and shooting up my arm. It went into my lungs and belly, weakening my knees and softening my spine.
It was him. I knew it was. How many Rubens could possibly work here? Not only that, I’d touched him. Hell, he was still touching me. This wasn’t my plan, not at all. No way.
Gasping, I moved back, still staring at his badge, at his chest. Beneath that neat white shirt, his skin and bones, was Matt—Matt’s heart and lungs. Beating. Inflating. The heart that had loved me so much.
My plan had gone terribly wrong. I was only supposed to see Ruben from a distance, not speak to him, definitely not touch him.
“I have to…” I said, bumping into the plastic-molded bunker and the side of the Anderson shelter. “Go.” I straightened, just; my body didn’t feel like mine. I was shaking, hot and cold, my brain infused with fear and fascination.
“Are you okay?”
What the hell was the matter with my vision? I couldn’t peel my attention away from his chest, his name badge, the way his shirt hung down, flat against his long, lean body. It was buttoned at the top, the collar sitting neat against his neck.. There was no scar that I could make out, but there would be one. I knew that much.
“Are you sure?” he asked over the din.
“Yes.” I managed to move toward the exit he’d indicated. “You really should get this volume turned down before you give someone a heart attack.”
He laughed as another flash filled the room. “The kids love it, but yes, you’re right. I was actually just fiddling with it.” He turned and disappeared into the room with the plow and the grinding wheels.
I stared at the space he’d just occupied. At a place in the world a piece of Matt, that wasn’t ash and dust, had just been. Tears filled my eyes. I clenched my hand into a fist, imagining I was trapping those beats of his heart I’d possibly just felt. I needed them. They were mine. They used to beat for me, and only me—so he’d said.
Dashing at a tear that had over-spilled, I rushed from ‘Northampton in the Blitz’ and found myself in a room dedicated to shoes and the local cobbler factories. But it held no interest for me. I just needed to get the hell out of there. Confusion swirled inside me. Guilt poked at me like an accusing finger at the same time as a need to know more about Ruben tugged me. I shouldn’t be here. I had to be here.
Next was a narrow corridor lined with eerie-looking mannequins dressed in dusty, stiff outfits. I rushed past them, and as I did so I heard the distant bombs stop falling. I needed fresh air and to take stock of what had just happened back there.
Thankfully, the next section spat me out at reception. A wide set of steps with brass grippers hugging a thready, bottle-green carpet offered the way up to more display rooms—Northampton’s sporting achievements, the Romans, the canal network.
“Are you going up, dear?” Ethel, the lady on reception, grinned at me. Her hair was shifting; she’d turned an electric fan on and it was catching gray wisps and floating them over her cheek.
“Er, no, I’m done, thanks.”
“Oh, okay.” She looked a little put out. “But will you come back another day? You’ve only seen half of the exhibits.”
“Yes, perhaps. Is there anywhere around here I can get a cup of tea?”
Her face softened. “Yes, of course, go right out of the door, past the aviary and the bandstand and there’s a café. You should be able to find some shade.”
“Okay, that’s great, thanks.”
The sun was still relentless, but I hardly noticed it now. I was in turmoil. When I’d got out of bed this morning I had no idea where Matt’s heart was or who it was serving. And now, only hours later, I’d actually rested my hand over it.
I walked, unsteadily, past the side of the museum, the deep gravel hampering my steps. I could hear the aviary the receptionist had mentioned—the happy chatter of sociable little birds. As I turned the corner, a pathway edged with large domed wire cages led toward a distant bandstand set on a wide lawn.
A cup of tea was just what I needed, preferably with a dash of brandy in it. It was so strange to come face-to-face with Matt’s recipient like that. Almost as if he were waiting for me here and all I’d had to do was come and find him.
Of course, that was rubbish and fanciful thinking. If that stupid exhibition room hadn’t been so loud I would never have even stepped back into him. We would have had nothing to talk about. We’d never have met.
I paused, gripped the railings that lined that path and stared into a cage full of zebra finches that were darting about. Did Ruben know anything about Matt? Did he know the heart that now beat so strongly in his chest came from a fine man who had been loyal and kind, had hated injustice and adored West Ham United? Had the transplant team told him that Matt had always dreamed of being a father, of being a grandfather too? That he’d disliked cheese of any description and could listen to U2 for months at a time in his car without bothering to change the disk?
Movement caught my attention.
Shit. The peacock was right next to me. There wasn’t an arm’s length between us—or a leg if I had to kick it to protect myself. The damn thing had its tail feathers spread into an enormous shimmering fan shape and it was making a strange snorting sound.
Its black beady gaze was fixed firmly on me.
“Shoo,” I said, pressing up against the railings. “Go away.”
I flicked my handbag toward it, but that seemed to enrage the fierce-looking bird further. It shook its arc of colorful feathers and scraped its foot on the floor as if preparing for attack.
Its beak appeared sharp and wicked, hooked at the end, prehistoric almost. I wondered how fast they could run. Were they like emus and could sprint for miles?
Suddenly it tipped its head back and made an awful screeching sound. Its little black tongue waggled as it cried out its battle scream several times over. The murderous sound made my ears ring.
“Get out of here, Chester, stop bullying the visitors.” Sharp snapping came from my right, someone clapping hard and fast.
I flicked my bag at the peacock again and stepped away, not daring to take my eyes off the ferocious creature.
“Go, go…be off with you.”
The peacock shuffled backward and in its place stood Ruben Strong.
Fight or flight warred within me. I should run away but was compelled to stay put. The adrenaline rush gave me a giddy sensation.
“I am sorry about this,” he said with a smile. “You’re really not having the relaxing time we hope our visitors to the museum will enjoy.”
“What’s the matter with that thing?” I asked shakily and now unsure whether or not to stare at Ruben or the peacock that was still eyeing me up like I was his next meal. Part of me was hugely embarrassed that I’d been cornered by a damn bird, the other part hardly believed that the man who I’d come only to catch a glimpse of was standing before me, again.
“Oh, he’s just grumpy. His peahen is sitting on eggs, though whether it will come to anything this late in the season I don’t know, plus they’re terrible parents.” Ruben turned and gave a final flick of his hands, sending the rogue peacock on its way. “I think the heat must be bothering him too.”
It strutted back toward the entrance of the museum, huge tail still spread, haughty neck bobbing.
“Well, thanks, it was about to mug me.” I took a deep breath and set my attention on Ruben as he tipped his head back and laughed. He had dark-brown hair, a fraction over-long, and it fell past his ears and down his neck. He also had sideburns, again a bit too long, as was the fashion at the moment.
“Unless you’ve got a stash of sunflower seeds in your bag, he wouldn’t have mugged you.”
“Mmm, I’m not convinced.”
I managed a small smile; Ruben’s was infectious, wide and genuine; it created tiny crinkles at the corners of his eyes and showed a neat set of teeth, though his right canine protruded a fraction. I felt a hesitant calmness wash through me—the claustrophobia of the museum and the shock of accidentally bumping into Ruben was fading a fraction. We could talk a little. Right?
“They’re actually considered symbols of immortality,” Ruben said, glancing at the departing bird.
He turned back to me and slipped on a pair of shades. “Apparently the ancients believed peacock flesh didn’t decay after death.” He shrugged. “Which of course, it does, but it’s a nice thought.”
Again I looked at his chest. His name badge was squint. Not all flesh decayed after death. Some lived on. Some could allow others to live on.
“Er…is the café this way?” I asked, my voice croaky.
“Yes, are you meeting someone there?” He glanced at my left hand. I was clutching the strap of my handbag over my breast. “Your husband?”
Instinctively I looked at my wedding band. I’d been unable to remove it. In my mind I was still married. Matt was still my husband. We hadn’t divorced. He’d gone, but not because he’d wanted to.
“My husband is dead.”
Ruben shifted his head back, as though the bluntness of my words had been a quick slap to his face.
It was the first time I’d said it like that. Usually I skirted around the question—not that it had been asked many times, I wasn’t in the habit of meeting new people—usually I preferred to say Matt had had an accident, or he’d passed away, or that I was a widow.
But with Ruben, something had just made me say it how it was. Matt was dead. There was no way to fluff it up. Death didn’t come in a soft pink box with flowers and perfume. It was black and hard and seeped into every cell of your body. But Ruben knew that, right? He’d faced death. He must have. Although he was the lucky one. He’d stared it in the face and then lived to tell the tale.
“I’m really sorry,” he said, removing the shades he’d only just put on and folding in their thin arms. He shifted his feet and stared down at the gravel. “That’s tragic.”
I bit my bottom lip. Did he really think it was? If Matt hadn’t died he wouldn’t be alive. My tragedy was Ruben Strong’s salvation. “Yes, it is.”
I twisted and turned to the ornate white bandstand. Several stout men with brass instruments appeared to be getting ready to perform
“Can I buy you a drink?” Ruben asked suddenly. “Tea, coffee, or maybe even a Coke or something, if it’s too hot for tea, that is?”
I looked at him again. This was so far off what I’d intended.
“To apologize,” he said, “for your mishaps with the bombs and the killer peacock. Not the best impression of our old establishment.” He held out his hand. “I’m Ruben by the way, Ruben Strong.”
I hesitated for a moment then reached out. Warm flesh surrounded my fingers, hard and firm but with a gentleness about it. Alive flesh, flesh that was nourished with oxygen and vitamins and everything else it needed by Matt’s strong organs.
“Katie Lansdale,” I said. Did he know Matt’s surname? No, of course not, anonymity was a buzzword the transplant coordinator had slung around constantly, but even so, I looked for a reaction.
There was nothing, not even a flicker.
“Pleased to meet you, Katie.”
“Yes, please,” I said, “I mean, yes please to the cup of tea. It would be very much appreciated.”
He smiled, released my hand and gestured toward the bandstand. “The café is just beyond there. We should be able to sit in the shade. They’ve moved the outside seats beneath the cover of trees. They don’t normally, but it’s just been too hot.”
“I agree.” I stepped forward, and he kept pace with me.
“Is this your first visit to the park and the museum?” he asked.
“What’s brought you here?”
“I’m thinking of moving to Northampton.” Jesus, why had I said that?
“Where from? I mean, where are you living now?”
“Not too far then.”
“No, not really.” I paused. “Do you like living here?”
He stooped, picked up a crushed can that was littering the pathway then tossed it into a nearby bin, perfect shot. “Yes, very much. The town is reasonable for shopping, the property cheap enough, and I like to catch the train to London every now and then and visit the museums or go and see a show.”
“Museums are your thing then?”
He laughed, slipped his shades back on. “They are these days. I used to be based at nearby Silverstone, the racetrack, helping out with McLaren’s Formula One team. But I had to cut back my hours about five years ago.” He paused. “Something came up and I needed to slow down, take a bit of time out.”
I wondered whether or not to question him further. Clearly what had happened was his heart problem. No good having a dodgy ticker and working in a high-energy, fast-paced racing environment. That would finish him off pretty quickly. I decided against any probing. It didn’t seem polite, and I wasn’t sure if I were ready for details. “And you like working in the museum here?”
He looked at me and pushed his hand through his hair, feathering it between his fingers. Was he surprised that I hadn’t questioned him about his drastic career change?
“Yeah, it’s okay. Could do with some cash spent on it, but the people are nice. The ones that work here and who visit.” He grinned. “Take you for example.”
I glanced down at my dress, made sure it wasn’t gaping and showing too much of my skin. It was okay.
“So, um, what line of work are you in?” he asked as we walked past the end of the row of birds and onto the lawn.
“I’m a sales assistant in a cosmetic store. Not the most taxing of jobs or one with enormous room to climb the corporate ladder, but I like it.”
“Sounds interesting.” He shoved his hands in his trouser pockets and continued to stride over the lawn.
“It’s okay. The people are nice, and like you just said, that makes all the difference. Plus I’m passionate about organic beauty and reducing carbon footprint, which is what Skin Deep is all about.”
“Oh, I’ve heard of them.” He lightened his voice. “In fact, I got my mother one of their gift sets for her birthday this year. She’s all for saving the planet and steering away from chemicals. I bought it from the branch in town.”
“That’s where I’m going to be working.” Since when had I become a liar? I’d never told such whoppers before. It was completely out of character for me.
“The one on Abington Street?”
“Yes, that’s it.” Was it? Bloody hell, I had no idea.
“And why are you moving?”
A trombone blasted out a low note, and I waited until the sound had dissipated before speaking. “I feel ready for a change.” As the words had come out of my mouth I realized that I did. I wasn’t really lying, I was just speaking from my soul. I needed a change, a new start. I was fed up of being the young widow who people still felt sorry for but were starting to ask if I was ready to date again. I needed to move away from the bricks and mortar that had played home to my nights of crying and sobbing, of staring into space wondering ‘why me’. Yes, I needed something else—something other than grief and loss.
This ‘something else’ caught my breath, and I paused and turned to the band. Unable to keep moving in the direction I was going. A new tilt had been put on my world. Was my path about to change? Had I come to a crossroads?
Yes. I had a choice to make.
That new knowledge was like getting socked in the stomach. It made my head spin and my fists clench.
“They play every afternoon,” Ruben said, also stopping and gesturing to the congregation of suited, elderly gentlemen settling with their instruments in the bandstand.
I was glad of the moment to collect myself. Let that new, positive feeling find a place to settle. It was too delicate to examine right now. I’d have to sift through it later, untangle the threads and scrutinize the options. Carefully, I put a lid on it, not completely, just as if I were letting a pot simmer on the stove.
“That’s nice,” I said. “That they like to play.” Now we were closer I could see that a coat of paint wouldn’t do the bandstand any harm; the color was peeling and there was some rust showing on the ornate swirls around the pillars.
He laughed. “You haven’t heard them yet.”
I looked up at him, watched the way he touched that fuzz of hair that ran in front of his ears.
“So do you really want tea or would you prefer something cold?” he asked.
“Tea is perfect.”
“Coming right up.” He pointed to a scattering of chairs and tables beneath several ancient oak trees. About half were occupied. “You go and grab us a seat, and I’ll join you in a minute.”
I did as Ruben had told me, pleased to have a moment alone with my new imposturous thoughts. It was only just cooler in the shade; there was no breeze, the leaves in the trees above me were perfectly still.
I watched Ruben as he went to the window of the café rather than going inside—kind of like a walk-through for park-goers. He was the only customer, and within a minute he was walking over carrying a tray. No time at all for me to examine that bubbling pan of ideas.
Forcing myself not to stare at his tall frame and the way his long legs made short work of the distance between us, I turned my attention to a chip of wood on the bench, poked at it with my thumbnail until it spiked upward in a little splinter.
“I wasn’t sure if you’d join me in a cream bun, but I bought a couple anyway.” He placed the tray down, sat opposite me and propped his shades on the top of his head.
The tray held a can of Coke and a white teapot with a stringy label hanging out from beneath the lid—PG Tips. A matching cup, saucer and little jug of milk sat at its side. On a larger plate were two decadent cakes; thick choux pastry bursting with cream, smothered in snow-white icing and topped with glossy red cherries.
“They look calorie-laden,” I said.
“I skipped lunch.” He shrugged. “I don’t normally skip meals or indulge in this much cholesterol, but they say a little of what you fancy does you good.”
“Mmm, you’re right.” The cakes were calling to me. I couldn’t remember when I’d last had a cream bun or even had the desire for one. Having an appetite was off my radar these days.
“Do you take sugar?” He pushed several sachets my way.
“No thanks, but yes, I think I will join you in a cake.”
“Good,” he said, passing me a saucer with Park Café written on it. “I would have felt piggy eating alone.”
I took a plate and a bun and, unable to resist, sank my teeth into it. “Oh wow,” I said, covering my mouth with my hand as the combination of cool cream and light pastry blended with soft icing melted on my tongue.
“Good eh?” His eyes widened, and he bit into his own.
“Seriously amazing.” I bit off another chunk. What a delicious treat.
He chewed then swallowed, looked at me and grinned. “I like a girl who can appreciate food.”
“Well, I don’t normally…” My words tailed off. He’d think I was mad if I said I didn’t normally enjoy food just forced myself to eat to keep people off my back about my weight loss. “I mean, I don’t normally indulge in cream, but like you said, a little of what you fancy.” I forced myself to put the cake down and poured my tea, added a splash of milk.
He popped the ring pull on his can of Coke and took several deep swallows. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he glugged, and he shut his eyes, as though appreciating the cold drink.
I sipped my tea then continued to eat.
“So when are you moving here?” he asked.
“In a week.” My mouth wasn’t my own. It was running away with me. In a bloody week, what was I on about? Moving house so fast was impossible, wasn’t it?
“Yes, I’m going to look at a flat later.”
The band started, and we both glanced over. Some deep base tune that I vaguely recognized had started up. They were all lies, the flat thing and the job thing. But perhaps I could turn it into reality. Actually make Northampton my new start. My something else. Who was to say I couldn’t go and look at a flat before I headed back up the motorway? I could, if I wanted to.
Damn, I couldn’t keep a rein on these thoughts. They were like a horse desperate to get out of the stable. I should feel terrible but I didn’t. It felt good, this boost, this propeller starting up beneath me. And besides, what did it matter, these untruths? It wasn’t as if I was going to see Ruben again, not after today, and if they helped me take a brave new step, then that was okay.
“Whereabouts is the flat?” Ruben asked.
“Er, I’m not sure, the estate agent is taking me there.”
“I live just a walk from here,” Ruben said, gesturing back toward the museum. “I have great views over the park.”
“Oh, one of the big terraces?” I’d seen them lining the main road. Tall, majestic town houses with pillared front porches and wide stone steps.
“Yes, most of them, like mine, are flats. The residents use the park as their garden. Perfect, no maintenance.”
“And what a garden.” I finished my food and licked the cream and icing off my fingers. A sugar rush would hit in a minute.
“You’ve got a bit…” He pointed at my face and then stroked the corner of his mouth.
“Oh, have I?” I poked out my tongue, felt a stray bit of cream and licked it off.
Ruben watched me and then slid his tongue over the seam of his lips, as though also checking for cream and crumbs.
“That was delicious,” I said. “I probably shouldn’t have, though.” I rubbed my flat stomach.
“I don’t think you need to worry about calories, Katie. You look great.” He glanced away, toward the band again.
I wasn’t sure, but I thought a little color rose on his cheeks as he took another drink.
I concentrated on my tea, grateful for its familiar, soothing effect. It was as if I were dreaming. Here I was with Ruben Strong, who Matt had donated something so vital to, and we were having tea in the park and listening to a brass band as though we were a couple of olden-day colonials.
My life had certainly taken a strange turn. And with all these new thoughts swirling in my head about moving here, moving to the town Ruben lived in. Bizarre didn’t seem a powerful enough word.
“So what did you think of the museum?” Ruben asked.
“It was nice.”
“Nice, that’s not very descriptive.” He smiled.
“Okay.” I poked at the splinter again. “I thought the shoes were quaint, the stuffed animals creepy, and the blitz room scared the crap out of me.”
“That’s more like it, proper feedback.”
“You should get rid of the animals,” I said.
“I wish that was my decision. I hate them too. Not so bad in the summer, but in the winter, when it’s dark early and the lights are on low, their eyes seem to glow and follow you around the room.”
I suppressed a shudder. “Yuk, see what I mean, creepy.”
“It would be much cooler to have some dinosaurs,” he said. “I was mad on dinosaurs as a kid. To me that was the only thing I thought museums should house. Of course, there are lots of arguments against that.”
“Yes, I suppose.” I paused. “So what did I miss? I didn’t go upstairs.”
“Loads of stuff about the Saints. That’s the town’s rugby team. A pile of old Roman coins and bits of china that have been found over the years. The really interesting stuff is in the attic, including some things that have recently been donated from the Althorpe estate.”
“Where Princess Diana grew up?” Now that impressed me.
“Yes, it’s just down the road from here and they’ve given us some pictures that were painted by her father. They just need cleaning up and reframing. That’s been one of my jobs this last month or so, that and making the information plaques to go next to them. They’ll go to auction in a year, to raise money for charity, but until then we get them.”
“Sounds an interesting project for you.”
He shrugged. “My life was more interesting when I had to supervise changing four tires on a Formula One car in less than fifteen seconds, but I’m not complaining.”
Of course he wasn’t, because at least he had a life. Unlike Matt. I felt a familiar prickle in my eye, a rogue tear forming. Damn, just when I’d been walking along my emotional tightrope so steadily. I reached into my bag for a tissue and dabbed my eye. It was the unfairness of Matt’s death that hit me like a bolt of lightning sometimes. Kind of like having someone twang that tightrope I was stepping so carefully on and making it shake and wobble and disrupt my balance.
But then again, today was turning out to be more than I’d expected. In fact, sitting here with Ruben Strong had thrown up a cascade of emotions I was trying to keep in. But I was about to lose the battle. Soon I would be overwhelmed.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Must be a bit of hay fever,” I said and glanced at my watch. “I should get going, you know, to meet this estate agent.”
“Yes, of course.”
I stood, needing to get away from him, but also wanting to stay. But I couldn’t, not if I wanted to maintain any kind of composure. Just ten more seconds of keeping that lid on, that was all I needed. I could do that. Yes. I could. “But thanks for the cake, and for, you know, saving me from the blitz and the peacock.”
“Not every day I get the chance to be a knight in shining armor.” He smoothed his hand over his shirt. “Well, not armor, but white cotton anyway.”
Tucking my handbag against my side and pushing my hair behind my ears, I stepped away.
Ruben was standing now, hands in his pockets, shoulders a little slumped. He prodded a clump of dry grass with his shoe. “Would you er…would you like to go out for a drink sometime, you know, when you move here? And I’d be happy to show you the sights, in the area, help you get your bearings. Not that there’s many sights now you’ve seen the museum and the park…”
He looked awkward and handsome, bashful and confident all at the same time. A strange feeling of longing tugged in my chest. Longing for what?
“There’s lively places in town,” he went on, “or quiet country pubs just outside, whatever you prefer.”
I said nothing. I probably appeared frozen, like a rabbit stuck in a flashlight beam, but inside I was in turmoil. Ruben Strong was asking me on a date. Shit, how the hell had that happened? What on earth would my friends think? What the hell would Matt have thought?
“Just a drink?” Ruben said, “no pressure, not a date or anything. I’m just guessing you won’t know many people, what with you just moving here and everything.”
Not a date. Not a date I repeated to myself. Okay then, I could handle that. I wasn’t ready to actually go out with a bloke again. Was I?
Oh, the questions I was being faced with this afternoon. And here was another one. Did I want to spend more time with Ruben?
That was an easier one. Because who was I kidding? A part of Matt was inside this man who stood before me. How could I not want to spend time with him? It could be just what I needed, a feeling of connection.
“That would be lovely,” I managed. Damn, I’d never be able to tell anyone about this. They’d think I was off my rocker.
Ruben grinned. “Great, look, here’s my museum card, it’s got my personal mobile on it. Call me when you get settled in and we’ll head out.”
I took the small blue card that held the same picture as his badge and a mobile number beneath his name. I swallowed tightly. “Okay, I’ll do that.”
Would I? Would I really? When sanity managed to break through grief and slap me around the face for my madness, would I actually call him? No, surely not. My heart and soul had taken all the beatings they could cope with, enough to last an eternity. There was no way I’d subject myself to the agony of going for a drink with Ruben Strong. It was just the heat of the moment making me do this. The confused state I was in.
“I’ll call you next weekend then,” I said, slipping the card into the front pocket of my bag.
It was official. I’d gone mad.
I hope you enjoyed the start of Ruben and Katie's story, and if you are intrigued to find out what happens on their 'date' you can grab yourself a copy from Amazon US or Amazon UK.