I take another swig of beer. “Listen, sweetheart, if you cut my family tree it would bleed the sap of this fucking county and all the years we worked the land here. I’ll show you, if you like? Agriculture runs all the way back through my bloodline on the very same soil my house rests on now. I belong in a city no more than you do, I’m just better at blending in.”
“So why are you so fucking useless with the gifts you have, then?” she asks, and it takes me aback.
“Why didn’t I fix a fucking fence, you mean? I have hundreds of fences. Miles of hedgerows and brooks and ditches. You think I’m going to keep an eye on every part of it all the time?”
“You should,” she snaps, and I laugh.
“If you’re so bothered about my fences, why don’t you head out there and fix them up for me?”
I’m surprised when her confidence shrivels. She spins her bottle in her fingers and looks at the table, not at me.
I feel a tiny shiver of enlightenment, as though I’ve lifted up a pebble in a rock pool and found a desperate little crab underneath.
“Well?” I prompt. “You could head out there and fix them up for me. I’d say that was a fair exchange for a roof over your head, no?”
Her eyes meet mine but they’re guarded. “You mean like a job? An actual job?”
“I mean like contributing to your keep. Doing what you can to keep the place together. If you’re staying here too, you should be invested in keeping the place looked after, don’t you think?”
“But I’m only here for a few days…” she says. “I’ll hardly have time…”
I’m surprised to find I’m not even trying to fool myself into thinking she’ll be gone in a few days.
“Then you’d better work quickly, hadn’t you?”
She nods. “I can fix a fence, you’ll see. I’ll make it good as fucking new. Better than fucking new.”
“I hope so,” I say. “Carrie, I’m a fair guy. I like things to run smoothly. I believe in order and taking control of life and making your own luck. I’m happy to give you a shot here, but there will have to be ground rules. I’m not talking Michael-type ground rules, either – I’m no fucking social worker out to fix the world and everyone in it.”
“Ground rules like what?”
“Ground rules like don’t fucking take the piss out of me, treat the place with respect, and do what’s expected of you.”
“And what’ll be expected of me?”
I smile and finish up my drink.
“I’ll let you know when I’ve worked that out,” I tell her. “Goodnight, Carrie, I have work in the morning.”
I’ve reached the stairs before I hear her call goodnight after me.
My hand is down my pants before I’ve even reached the top stair, because I’ve no delusions of fucking morality when it comes to women I want to fuck.
Unlike poor fucking Michael.
I fire a text message off to him before I take a shower, man to man.
And then I shoot my load over my bathroom tiles while thinking about Carrie’s pretty little blue knickers.MichaelI should be long asleep when the text message sounds.
It’s Jack, of course, not Carrie.
My heart thumps at the possibility that she’s already decimated his patience. Maybe she’s already descended into hissing monster Carrie and he’s thought better of his offer. Maybe it wouldn’t entirely be such a bad thing, having to bring her back here.
Maybe I could hide her from Pam long enough to figure something out. Maybe having her around could work, even if I won’t allow myself to cross the line with her. Maybe I’d even be able to help her through her shit without having to check all the right boxes at work.
I open the message, expecting the worst – but it’s nothing like that.
Man to fucking man, Michael, are you gonna fuck the girl or what?
My reply is instant, even though my gut aches with it.
Of course I’m fucking not.
It takes a while for him to reply. I’m just about drifting off to sleep when the phone bleeps at me.
But you want her? I’m talking for real here.
I don’t let myself go there because I daren’t. I daren’t allow myself to admit how I really feel about Carrie Wells, because once I do that there’ll be no going back. I can’t allow myself to contemplate the serious potential of crossing the line with a girl less than half my age, a girl who depends on me to help her through this shitty time in her life. A girl who’s had nobody constant who’ll stand strong in the face of all her whims and tricks and silly games.
A girl who needs to know she can rely on me to be her friend above all other things, even if I’m in love with her.