Running Scarred First Chapter
Copyright © Jackie Williams 2011
The dead leaves rustled wildly under her stamping feet. This was the third time the determined woman had marched along the same path. Her pace hadn’t lessened a beat from the first time she had pounded past his astonished eyes. He waited silently, hidden by a thick veil of ivy, wondering how long she was going to keep the punishing pace up.
He had been disturbed from his dinner by all the noise she was making. About to enjoy the first mouthful of his homemade beef and mushroom pie and a glass of fine local red wine, he had lifted his head curiously when he had first heard the din.
It was an inexplicable sound. Leaves rustling, twigs snapping, the sounds crashing and rampaging violently through the usual evening tranquility.
Normally the forest that surrounded his cottage was quiet. He liked the peaceful serenity and towering majesty of the tall, dark trees. Within the first two weeks of living there, he had learned to pick out the sounds of animals foraging and owls hunting. Now he could tell the difference between a deer brushing gently through the shrubbery and the wind whistling through the treetops.
He had been there for nearly two years, and he was absolutely certain that he had never heard this sort of noise before. This peace-invading racket had worried him, but he calmly laid his knife and fork down and put his dinner in the oven to keep warm. He tugged his coat across his shoulders, opened his front door and walked quietly out into the gathering dusk to investigate.
Before he had seen her, he had assumed there was, at the very least, a herd of escaped cattle charging through the overgrown estate. He could scarcely believe his eyes when he had seen just one lone woman. As determined as she looked, she was so young and slender, he would have thought it impossible for someone as petite to make this raging cacophony of sound. She would normally be pretty too, he suspected, but she was obviously extremely angry and at this moment, she just looked hot, sweaty and annoyed.
Her legs pumped hard, arms thrashing wildly at her sides. She puffed clouds of breathy condensation into the cool evening air. It wafted about her shoulders, trying to keep up with her frantic pace, and then disappeared, swirling away into the darkening gloom of the forest.
Her hands flapped about her head as the encroaching bushes caught her long hair, and mud spattered up the legs of her jeans as she tramped along the muddy forest path. She was muttering angrily, her brow creased in annoyance, and he wondered how many more times she would go round in a circle before she realized her mistake. He kept to the shadows and watched silently as she stomped into the distance yet again.
He sighed deeply, knowing that he would probably end up having to lend a hand. He couldn’t possibly let her walk round and round all night. Apart from the fact that he didn’t want her there disturbing his haven, she would end up exhausted, disorientated and what with the chill night air descending rapidly, possibly ill.
He waited until the sound of her thrashing faded into the distance and then quietly stepped out from his hiding place. He dragged a huge log across the path behind her before pulling a mountainous drift of ivy from a nearby tree trunk and banked it up over and behind the log. The path effectively blocked in that direction, the next time she went round she would have to take a different route. The right route.
Damn Justin! This was the final insult. He had gone too far!
Ellen’s breath came in great gasps of fury, huge fluffy clouds puffing out of her nose and mouth like an over worked steam train. The forest was full of the sound of her anger, the leaves rustling and twigs crackling under her boots, brambles snatching at her thick dark hair, ripping away from the earth and clinging with sharp thorns, trying to hold her back.
Exactly as if Justin was holding her back. She wasn’t having it. Not anymore. She wrenched her hair away from the clawing stems and tried to walk more slowly, willing herself to calm down. The chilled, damp air was creeping into her overheated body and she still had a way to go. If she didn’t slow down and control herself, she would be sweating and then in a short while she would be freezing.
She stopped for a few seconds, to gather her breath and she listened to the quiet calm that surrounded her. Everything was suddenly so still and silent, far more silent than it had seemed a few moments before. It took almost a whole minute for her to realize that she had been the one making all the noise. She shivered in the stillness, listening to the hushed sounds of the forest. For a moment, she imagined it was breathing with her, its heart beating in the same rhythm as her own. She could almost feel the inner sounds of the trees, their living pulse of life beating through their thick branches. The treetops sighed and yawned as they swayed in the evening breeze and she breathed with them, calming herself completely as she picked a few stray leaves from her now tangled hair.
Five kilometers, the sign had said. She reckoned she had marched all that distance and more, and at a furious pace too. Her calves were aching, tendons screaming, and she had a painful stitch burning beneath her ribs. She pressed her hand to her side and puffed out miserably, gritting her teeth audibly. A couple more minutes rest and then it was time to dig in and find the hotel. She had marched for well over an hour. It couldn’t possibly be much further.
She took a deep breath and strode on, slower now, pulling the overgrowth out of her way as she went rather than charging through it, and following the faint muddy path beneath her feet.
She looked upwards through the forest canopy. The nearly bare branches above her hardly moved, though the air sang through the tops of the trees. She could see heavy clouds racing across the evening sky and she hoped it wouldn’t start to rain. It wasn’t quite dark on the path as most of the trees were still without their spring leaves, but there wasn’t much daylight left. She estimated another half an hour of hard going and she checked her watch to confirm the time. It was getting difficult to see the hands. She didn’t want to be out here at night time. Not that she was far from civilization and not that she was scared of the dark. Things like that didn’t bother Ellen. She loved secret dark places. Always mysterious, always inviting.
But tonight she had a reservation at the hotel restaurant. Warm and cozy, dimly lit, with enticing smells and flavours. A gastronomic delight. She was always fascinated when a seemingly random selection of ingredients apparently thrown together in a pot, resulted in something delicious, tantalizing, something she wanted to linger on her tongue, savour for far longer than chewing time allowed.
Her mother had never been much of a cook and Ellen hadn’t had the time, money or the patience to learn after her parents had gone. Her strapping brother, David, a Captain in the Royal Engineers, had only needed quantity, and she was no shrinking violet when it came to food either. Her culinary efforts had been all about basic but filling dishes. An uncomplaining David had shoveled his way through vast platefuls of sausages and steaming mash, and mountains of easily cooked roast dinners.
Her stomach rolled loudly at the thought of the hotel chef’s next spectacular creation. She didn’t want to be late, even though it would mean sitting across the table from Justin. He may have been fabulously handsome, still was, if she was going to be truthful with herself, but his good looks and trivial conversation no longer interested her. He was too wrapped up in himself, in his own plans of world domination, to listen to anything she might say. She rolled her eyes at the thought and fumed all over again knowing that she was heading for a tasty, but interminably dull evening.
When she thought about it seriously, she didn’t even know why she was with him any longer. Any passion had fizzled out long ago, and since she had come into money, things had become even worse. It was as though he had become a habit, a very bad one that she had only continued because she was lonely with no one else at home. She knew that she should have been strong. Should have told him it was over a year ago, but the changes in her life had been so vast, so overwhelming, that staying with Justin, the last thread of familiarity with her previous existence had seemed the easiest thing to do.
She had only just finished a degree course in business, when news of the vast legacy had come through. She had done her utmost to remain unaltered by her new wealth, still keeping up her interests, seeing all her friends and cooking vast dinners for all of her brother’s army pals, but it was difficult to contain the excitement. She had just bought a fabulous new car, one that Justin adored, and they had been about to open their own designer boutique in her hometown when a single five minute phone call, changed her life forever.
She’d almost passed out when a serious but gentle voice informed her of the attack on her brother’s team. While on duty in Afghanistan, a suicide bomber had targeted their vehicle. David had almost died, only saved by the quick thinking and selfless bravery of his friends, but his injuries were terrible. He had barely escaped with his life.
The money paled into insignificance instantly. She stopped the opening of the boutique and sold the ridiculous car. She left the money in the bank and set about helping her brother cope with his new and more restricted lifestyle.
David hadn’t taken easily to being inactive. He was resentful of Ellen’s care, bitter, unresponsive, sometimes even aggressive, for many months afterwards, but then, as his rehabilitation ended he passed all the fitness tests and knowing his new limitations, the army had offered him a job in intelligence. He had leapt at the chance and had gone merrily back to an office job within his regiment, leaving Ellen unsure of what to do next.
And Justin had sulked ever since. He had loved the few weeks of luxury that her inheritance had brought him. He wanted the cars, the clothes, the holidays. He was no longer content to rummage through vintage clothes shops or to listen to rock music on their iPods as they took long walks in the country. He dragged her into outrageously expensive restaurants or planned visits to the Venice Opera House. He sneered at her efforts on his dinner plate and avoided David and his colleagues like the plague.
That was what hurt her the most.
Justin could barely even look at David on his visits home, and he wouldn’t be seen dead with him in public.
Her vast bank deposits took on another meaning for her now. She was not going to let it be frittered away on meaningless baubles that only bolstered one’s own ego, but in something special and lasting, something that would benefit many. She put in hours of research and had come up with a fabulous idea. It had the enormous advantage of not having to make a profit. She didn’t need any more money, she only needed the plan to not make a loss.
Justin had been furious when she had spoken to him of her French dream. She had explained her plan carefully. He knew the reasons behind it, but he had just gawped at her as though she were mad. He told her in hard angry tones, while they were eating a dish of overpriced, tasteless vongole, that she knew nothing about property development and that she would never make a penny.
Not that he knew anything about property either, but at least Ellen had done the research.
Even after all that had happened, even when she finally convinced him of her seriousness, he was dismissive of the idea. He couldn’t comprehend why she wanted to go to so much trouble to do it. He didn’t understand that she wanted something that would be a completely new adventure.
Justin’s idea of an adventure was arriving by private plane somewhere between Marbella and Malaga, and lying flat on his back for a fortnight on some over hot beach while having his drinks handed to him by scantily clad waitresses. And it turned out that his business acumen was even more mundane.
He had interpreted her ideas in his own shallow way and come up with seaside apartments and golfing duplexes in Spain. He had been thrilled when, in a moment weakness as David was sent back out on active duty in Afghanistan, she had stopped trying to make Justin expand his horizons and given in to his brow beating.
She remembered how her heart had thudded dully as she signed the million-pound contract, knowing that the overpriced two bedroom duplexes overlooking an over manicured eighteenth fairway, were nothing like her dream and would be a huge mistake. And she had been right. She hated having to be there to oversee them and Justin certainly wasn’t interested in the work involved or in the people they had to employ to service them. It was becoming a nightmare.
And now he was trying the same thing in France. Justin was convinced he knew exactly what would suit her scheme and tried to persuade her into his way of thinking as he had dragged her around a selection of the most unsuitable apartments.
This time she wasn’t going to give in. When she had been a teenager, her own mother had moaned endlessly about how stubborn she could be. Almost driven, when she had the bit between her teeth. Well, now Justin was going to get some of the same treatment.
For goodness sake, she was twenty-five. It was about time she took control!
She had been sitting on her fortune for over three years. She would spend it exactly as she liked.
If he didn’t like her decision, and really thought the place they had just seen was such a great idea, then it was about time he put his own money where his mouth was.
She huffed out another mushroom-cloud of breath, set her jaw determinedly and walked on briskly.
The path at her feet widened slightly and turned sharply where an old, ivy covered log had fallen. The undergrowth at her feet changed as the pathway cleared. She didn’t have to shove brambles out of her way as often now, but the air was becoming even cooler and the dusk was beginning to settle. She glanced up through the bare branches and seeing the sky darkening noticeably, quickened her pace again, driving onwards even as the pain in her shins stabbed sharply.
The path wound on for a while before closing in again. Walls of shrubbery encroached on the path, entwined in front of her and eventually blocked her path. Refusing to turn back or be beaten, she burst through the dense greenery and realized that she was pushing through a huge hedge of rhododendrons. Their thick, leathery leaves slapped her face as she scrambled through the bush.
Surely, she must have missed her way.
The path had been clearly marked not five minutes ago, and now it was completely overgrown. She felt as though she had been walking for hours.
She stumbled over hidden roots tangled over the rough ground and at last staggered out into some sort of a clearing. She stood with her heart hammering beneath her ribs as she surveyed the wide-open area, wondering where her next marker would be, and if she would ever be able to find it in the thickening gloom. Glancing back at the rhododendrons, she gave a small shiver. The leaves stilled and the forest became silent, a thick, seemingly impenetrable wall of shiny green shutting out all sound. She turned to survey the clearing, hoping to spot one of the coloured markers that would point out her route.
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust and take in the fantastic sight before her.
Weathered stone seemed to spring up everywhere in front of her. It towered over her and around her, great high walls barring her way, never-ending as they stretched into the distance. She ran towards the soaring mound of grey and pressed her hands against the flat surface, trying to ascertain if it were real or imaginary. It felt as solid and as cool as stone could possibly be and she placed her cheek against the cold smoothness, catching her breath as she tried to peer along its length into the increasing darkness.
A greying veil of algae covered the mighty château walls. She stretched her arms along the arcing curve of a huge corner tower and she had to cling on hard to the cold stone to stop the sensation of upside down vertigo as she stared up at the overwhelming sight.
She took a massive, calming breath and stepped backwards again, nearly falling into the rhododendrons she had just escaped as she gave herself some room to take in the spectacle. Squinting into the dusk, she surveyed the length of the wall before her, trying to gauge its overall size. Stone leapt from the ground in every direction and she let out a low sigh.
Before her stood a fairytale castle of vast proportions, the thick walls giving an air of permanency as pointed princess towers scrapped the sky at each corner. She smiled and was lost in its mysterious, ethereal beauty as she stood gasping in delight.
And then the dark grey clouds parted and the soft haze of moonlight skimmed the walls and turrets.
The beautiful building was a sorry sight. Certainly no fairytale. More like gothic horror. The roof had obviously collapsed in places and slipped tiles littered the ground. The massive walls gave way to drooping, shuttered windows along its length, the frames soft with rot and spilling shattered glass that crunched under her feet as she walked along the surrounding path.
“Wow!” Undeterred by the decay she breathed aloud, her awestruck whisper echoing off the stone. “What a fantastic find. It’s nowhere on the maps.” She spoke to herself as she dragged her fingers along the wall towards a wide set of stone steps that led her up to the high front door.
There was a small sign tacked to the wooden doors that filled the impressive stone archway.
“Accès Interdit. Danger!”
She pressed her forehead against the glass panel still hanging in the rotten wood at the side of the huge door, and tried to see through the filth. It was impossible. The light had faded so fast that it was becoming hard to see her hand in front of her face, let alone anything else. She stepped back and her foot slid on what she at first thought was a moss-covered flagstone, but her foot kept sliding and she realized she was standing on a smooth sheet of damp cardboard. Staggering slightly and nearly slipping down the steps, she lifted her foot, but the cardboard had stuck to the mud on the sole of her boot and she ended up picking it off, throwing it back towards the ground while shaking sticky earth from her fingers. The cardboard caught on the hem of her jeans and tumbled end over end down the steps, coming to land on the grass below.
She watched it fall and was about to turn away when she noticed the big white lettering, still clearly visible in the gloom, on the cardboard
My God! She thought wildly, as her imagination kicked in. This place is for sale!
She jumped back down the steps and grabbed the piece of sodden card. Her own muddy footprints obscured the name of the agent, making it too difficult to read in the ever-decreasing light. She wiped the card on the scrubby grass at her feet. “Agence Le Cam” There was a number beneath the name, small and ingrained with dirt. She folded the card across the middle and shoved it inside the neck of her jacket. She would decipher it later and then come back when she could see properly. She stood back to gaze up at the ruined château once again before turning back towards the forest, ready to face the rest of her walk.
The thick shrubbery gazed back at her impenetrably. There was no sign of a marker, not even a trace of where she had burst through the undergrowth, and it was now so dark she could barely see at all.
She stood contemplating the leafy shrubs for a few moments and decided to investigate more closely. There was a good moon when the clouds drifted apart. She could still make out a route, if she could find the marker. She walked along the edge of the line of rhododendrons, trying to spot the footpath. There was nothing on this side of the château and she squinted into the darkness as she came to the arcing corner tower of the vast building again. She turned and looked back towards the front door, momentarily confused.
Had she come from this side at all? Confused, she skirted the tower and stared along the next wall. More windows, more drooping shutters. There was even another set of steps and a door. It was all so symmetrical she really had no idea of which way to turn. She walked back around the tower, retraced her steps to the first door and stood very still, trying to get her bearings.
The dusk was fast becoming full dark and the near silence of the woods surrounded her, whispering tired sounds as the day came to an end. The only other sound came from her own jagged breathing and the loud thumping of her heart. She knew it was irrational. Even if she did have to stay here until the morning, it wouldn’t be so bad. It really only meant a chilly, damp night camping and she had had plenty of those in her youth, when she had been a girl guide.
She would miss her fabulous dinner and Justin might be worried, but as she had stormed off, leaving him standing open mouthed beside the stunned estate agent, she could hardly expect him to have mounted a search party. He was probably sitting, relaxed at the hotel bar, starting on the first of his vodka and tonics as he perused the mouthwatering menu. It was the thought of the food that convinced her that sitting outside on a cold, damp night was taking her umbrage a step too far. Sighing deeply, she put her hand in her pocket to find her phone, but then stopped as she clearly remembered leaving her mobile in the car because there was no signal
“Damn, what a fool!” She muttered crossly to herself, even while knowing she would have only called the hotel reception for guidance. Her resentment was still high enough that she wouldn’t have telephoned Justin for help. She wouldn’t want to give him the satisfaction.
She rubbed the patch of filthy glass again and pressed her face close, wondering if she wouldn’t be better off inside the château, but she could only make out a tiny patch of a damp, dirty floor before it gave way to impenetrable inky black. She could see shards of shattered windows winking in the moonlight on what appeared to be a rotten wooden floor, and then nothing. She suddenly felt that she would rather stay outside than attempt to find a way inside. At least she wouldn’t be in danger of falling through weakened floorboards or cutting herself, out here.
She trod about making sure there was no glass before she squatted and then eased herself down onto the top step, staring away from the doors, into the darkness. The hard flagstones were cold under her backside and it wasn’t long before she was shivering almost uncontrollably. She thought again about trying to find her way through the trees, but she had no idea of where to start, and short of stumbling through the forest all night long, without any guarantee of finding civilization, she was better off staying put, cold or otherwise.
She tried to make herself more comfortable, cursing her thin jacket as she pressed her shoulders into the corner of the stone doorway where it met the outside wall. Rubbing the tops of her arms briskly, she attempted to regain some of the heat of her march. She wrapped her arms around herself, tucked her chin into her chest and closed her eyes as she wished the hours away, not thinking of the luxuriously soft mattress and warm, fluffy quilt waiting at her hotel.
But the thought of the cozy, comfortable covers was too much and, in a sort of exhausted, waking dream, she pulled the fluffy down duvet over her now freezing shoulders and huddled into the château entrance.
It was only as she heard the heavy breathing, breathing very unlike Justin’s, that she realized that somebody was right beside her and that a thick, incredibly warm coat had been thrown across her body.
She sat bolt upright, pressing herself into the doorway and tried to catch her breath as she saw the shape of a well-built man looming over her. He staggered backwards, obviously surprised at her sudden movement, and the darkness disguised his features for a moment. Then the moon appeared from behind a cloud and she caught a glimpse of an almost familiar, handsome but ragged face, pale in the moonlight, shadowed or perhaps wrinkled strangely on one side, with glinting sapphire eyes peering at her from under long dark hair. Another cloud raced across the moon again and everything was plunged into darkness once more.
She scrabbled back into the corner as far as she was able, but he leaned in towards her, tall and heavy across the shoulders. She felt his breath, warm and garlicky, maybe a hint of red wine, waft over her. He reached out his hand as she opened her mouth to ask who he was, and put a warm palm gently across her trembling lips. He muttered in a hoarse whisper.
“Shhh. I’m not going to hurt you. Come with me. I’ll take you to the road.”
He waited for just a moment, checking that she had understood him, before he took his hand away from her mouth again and grappled at the top of her arm. She swallowed dryly as he pulled her gently upright. She caught another hint of garlic and something that smelled like fresh herbs. Rosemary maybe? It wasn’t unpleasant. It was delicious. She was so caught up in his scent that she didn’t realize for a moment that he had spoken to her in English.
He towered over her, the dark shadows of the château masking his true outline, his forceful presence electrifying the air all around her. And then she noticed he was favouring one side as he tugged her, with a slightly uneven lope, down the stone steps. She twisted away from his grasp as they reached the rough grass and she stared towards him, willing the clouds out of the way.
She wanted to see him clearly, wanted to know who this quiet but authoritative Englishman was. She wanted to discover what he was doing prowling the woods in the middle of the night. But the clouds moved across the sky in a thick blanket of darkest grey, defying her demands.
Ellen was about to turn across the front of the château, but he caught hold of her again, his huge hand encircling her upper arm firmly, fiery heat penetrating through her flimsy jacket. He began guiding her towards the even darker leaves of the forest. It was several seconds before found her voice.
“Stop! I’m fine, you don’t need to hold me. I don’t need your help.” She dug in her heels as she heard the slight tremor in her own voice, though she wasn’t afraid.
The man gave a gravelled grunt, and then what may possibly have been a laugh. He let go of her arm suddenly and caught the edge of the coat still draped around her shoulders then, in another hoarse whisper, he growled.
“If you want to stay out in the cold all night then fine, I’ll take my coat back and leave you here, but I’m guessing you’d rather go back to your hotel.” His voice was deep, rasping in the back of his throat, his words punctuated with breathy swallows, but she noticed the accent. Very much like her own, often mistaken by the French for London, but really Essex.
She was so taken aback that she stopped struggling and let him pull her through the undergrowth. It took her a few more minutes of being dragged along through the now pitch black forest, before she had the breath to speak again
“I need to get to Plestin. I know it’s not far, but I have to admit that I’m slightly disorientated. Do you know the way?” She kept her eyes on the space above her. Although she could see virtually nothing, she looked at where she could hear the sound of his breathing, steady and firm as he walked beside her.
There was a low throaty laugh at her ear and the man let go of her entirely. For a second she was lost in the inky dark, she whimpered as she stretched out her hands, blindly batting air until he caught her arm again. He laughed once again. His tone was more normal now. Not nearly so gruff. It was as though he was getting used to using his own voice.
“I know the way better than you, and you obviously do need my help. I said I’d take you as far as the road. We’re nearly there. Can you see the lights yet? You’ve got about another half mile after you reach them, but if I point you the right way you should be able to manage that on your own, even with your terrible sense of direction.”
As insulted as she was, she kept quiet. Something in his strong tones made her body thrill and shiver and want to hear him again. His voice was warm, as deep and comfortable as coat he had left over her shoulders, but he was silent now as he guided her onwards.
He pushed some undergrowth out of their way and she caught the hint of a perfume, rich and spicy, intensely powerful. She breathed it in deeply and closed her eyes as it wrapped its way around her, into her. And then a sudden feeling of potent desire nearly overcame her. A feeling that she never experienced before and with an intensity she had never imagined possible. She clamped her lips together as an unknown craving shot through every pore of her body. She balled her hands into tight fists, almost afraid that she would say something or even do something regrettable.
His muscled arm brushed past her cheek as he pointed in front of her, and she shoved down her errant emotions as he spoke again, his voice melting over her, deliciously heavy and velvety.
“There, see them now? The lights along the road.”
She couldn’t answer and she didn’t look at his hand, she didn’t want to see the lights, didn’t want civilization to ruin this moment. She could feel her heart pounding against her ribs and she knew that she wanted to stay with him here in the dark forest.
A pulse throbbed violently in her throat, forcing her to be reasonable.
What the hell was the matter with her? He was a complete stranger. A hobo, obviously living rough in these woods, maybe a tramp who sheltered in the château. Not some Prince Charming about to sweep her off her feet. And why would she want a Prince Charming anyway? She had Justin. Her heart plummeted and she shook herself back to reality, pushing this strange man’s husky, secret tones into the back of her mind as she stared ahead, straining her eyes into the endless darkness and seeing nothing at all. He guided her further along the path, his body so close to hers that she could feel the heat pulsing from him.
Another twenty paces she could see pinpoints of light in the distance. Relief surged through her. She wasn’t sure if it was relief to see the lights or relief that she could now move away from the man’s intoxicating presence. She breathed out a huge lungful of air.
“Yes, I can see them now. I knew I was near the town. I was just disorientated. Thank you so much.” She turned towards the man at her elbow, but his warmth was no longer at her side and she realized that he was already gone. She stood still for a few seconds, feeling horribly empty and cold, listening to the small, whispering sounds of the forest moving gently as someone pushed their way through the undergrowth, and then there was complete silence again. “Thanks Essex boy!” She yelled playfully out into the dark.
From further away than she would have imagined possible in the few short moments he had left her, she heard a faint.
“No problem, Essex girl. Night.” There was a slight laugh in his deep tones.
She peered after the beautiful voice for a long moment, strangely glad that he had known her accent too, and then she turned back toward the lights of the town and walked briskly along the main road.
She skipped up to the wide entrance of her hotel, about to push through the heavy glass doors when she realized she was still holding the overcoat the man had thrown over her. She clasped it tightly around her shoulders. It was made of a heavy khaki material with a furred lining, thick and warm and she breathed in the fabulous, woodsy smell of it. She stood for a second on the threshold of the hotel and turned back towards the forest wondering where he lived.
Would he be missing it? She didn’t know whether to run back and call out to him again. But then she heard raised voices coming from inside the hotel foyer, and recognizing one of them, she turned to the glass doors to see a glowering Justin, red in the face, shouting furiously at the hapless receptionist.
The man watched the hotel entrance, knowing that he was invisible amongst the thick shrubbery. He stood quietly, his eyes fixed upon her from the opposite side of the road. He saw her march up to the wide glass doors, shoulders tight, back straight and then she stopped and looked back to the road for a second. She seemed to shrink in on herself for a moment, but then she shook her shoulders, pushed the heavy door open with a determined shove and disappeared inside the hotel.
He drew his eyebrows together, a little confused. She hadn’t sounded at all unhappy as he had marched her through the forest, but she had been frowning as she had approached the hotel and, if he wasn’t mistaken, she didn’t look as though she really wanted to be there.
He had turned away from her as she had seen the lights along the road and had melted back into the bushes to go home. He had only doubled back and kept watch over her to make sure she wasn’t stupid enough to turn the wrong way when she reached the junction. And then, quite suddenly, as her perfume stole about him again, warm and succulent in the night chill, he had not wanted to let her out of his sight. He forgot about his dinner congealing in his oven and walked parallel to her, keeping in step, as he remained hidden by the thick screen of bushes. He caught another hint of her scent as he watched her slender figure striding out purposefully.
He had been impressed when she sat down by the door of the château. He had hoped she would be able to find her way to the hotel after he had altered the route of the path. It was quite direct if you knew where to start.
It was obvious that she didn’t have a clue.
She had missed it completely, not noticing the marker as she ploughed through the undergrowth around the château.
He had thought that she was going to dissolve into a sudden deluge of tears, but to his complete surprise, she had just sighed, in a resigned sort of way, brushed a few leaves away from around where she was going to sit and had squatted down. She was asleep almost immediately.
He had nearly laughed out loud at her gentle snoring, her hair falling all about her shoulders and lifting slightly as she breathed rhythmically. She had looked almost comfortable, tucked against the cold stone. Certainly not scared. He had been about to leave her there, when she had given an involuntary shiver as she nodded gently. It rolled right through her body and he knew he couldn’t leave her, cold and unattended for the entire night.
If she hadn’t woken as he’d placed his coat over her, he would have just kept an eye on her, but he thought that she had been about to scream at him and he didn’t want her to do that. He hated screaming. He had heard enough screaming to last him more than a lifetime and he didn’t think her being a woman, would make it any easier for him to bear. He placed his hand as gently as he could over her mouth.
Her breath had whispered through his fingers, warm and moist and her eyes had opened wide. He took hold of her arm, steadying her as she wobbled down the stone steps.
Her arm had felt thin, not skinny, but strong and tightly muscled under his hand. She had wrenched herself away from him with unexpected strength. He’d stared at her curiously in the darkness, seeing her tumbling hair, dark against the smooth, pale skin of her face. She glimmered softly in the moonlight. Her huge dark eyes sparkled under heavy black lashes as she stared up at him. In the fading light he couldn’t decide if they were brown or green. Whichever was the case, it didn’t matter. He knew he had made a huge mistake.
He had stood stunned, heart hammering, blood burning through his body.
She was utterly beautiful.
He breathed deeply as he thought of her wide eyes, and a strange constricting sensation gripped his chest.
She hadn’t recoiled from him and he had assumed that she hadn’t or couldn’t see his terrible face. Maybe she needed glasses, or maybe she just couldn’t see well in the dark, she hadn’t seen the streetlights for minutes after they were visible to him. He felt relieved, his vile, distorted features were not something that anybody would want to see unexpectedly.
He rubbed his hand over the side of his face and recoiled from himself. The disgusting waxy feeling, cold and hard and unnatural was still there, a constant reminder of how inexcusably careless he had been. He flexed his square jaw for a brief moment, then dropped his hand to his side and sighed miserably. It was nothing he could fix and at least she hadn’t appeared to notice. He was glad that she hadn’t seen him clearly. He hated the way people reacted to the way he looked. Either a grim determination not to look away from him, smile fixed on their horrified lips, or an embarrassed glance down, then a flick back to his eyes before they looked anywhere else but his face. For the last two years he had stayed hidden away in the forest, avoiding contact with others as much as possible.
He watched her carefully through the hotel doors for a few moments longer, feeling slightly uneasy as he saw her talking to a good-looking, blond haired man. He smiled grimly when she didn’t look very pleased to see the man. She turned away from the looker sharply, tossed her thick hair over her shoulder, and stalked up the wide staircase beside the foyer.
He sighed as she disappeared from his view. The man at the desk was obviously her lover, however displeased she appeared to be by seeing him. He had noted her lack of wedding band almost immediately. Not that her wearing of a ring or not would ever be of concern to him. He shoved all thoughts of the stunning woman to the back of his mind, and turned, sighing deeply as he trudged back towards his house in the woods, pushing the undergrowth out of his way as he stomped unevenly along the familiar, but nearly invisible path.
It was only when a thick stemmed bramble tore painfully at his shoulder, scragging his skin through his shirt, that he realized that the woman still had his coat. He stopped and turned back for a second, wondering if he dared go and ask for it, but then he shrugged. It wasn’t that cold. He’d seen her pick up the “For Sale” sign at the château and had heard her breathe out “Fantastic.” She would obviously be back and, with a bit of luck, she would bring his coat. He wasn’t entirely adverse to the idea, she was certainly lovely to look at, and he wanted to look at her again.
He wouldn’t mind hearing her soft, feminine voice again either. Funny how they had both recognized the Essex accent. The few people in France that he’d had the courage to talk to seemed to think he came from the East End of London. She had a graceful, educated tone and he wondered where she came from exactly. Not Dagenham, that was for sure, her accent wasn’t estuary. He took a deep breath and shook the thought. It wasn’t as if he was going to ask her. If she did bother to bring back his coat, he would have to be careful and stay out of sight. He hadn’t scared her tonight, but it wouldn’t be so easy to remain invisible during the daytime.
He gave an unexpected shudder as he imagined the look on her face if she ever saw his, and he hoped fervently that it would never happen.
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