Bill rode harder and harder. Sucking air into his painful lungs, the surge of lactic acid burned his thighs, but he had to keep going. These were the moments he lived for, adrenaline pumping, body screaming for release, and it was normally as he hit the summit of the hill and freewheeled the other side that the come down hit him, and he felt immense freedom. But the last week that had all changed. It was only as he fought gravity and the boundaries of his body, that he could clear his mind. He wished he lived in the Alps or the Pyrenees where the mountain roads seemed unending and he could punish himself even more. Because each time he coasted down, the fog of energy, pain cleared and real life hit him...hard!
But London was mainly flat, and he had to go home at some point, he had to work...every time he eased back, the reality of life came rolling back. He’d rode the same roads every night, three hours or more, after a heavy day in work. Travelling from the office to the small gym that he used, and that had become a base for his cycling club, as with every other night that week, he ate, showered and then either headed home very late...or went to his cousin’s house. Oliver didn’t ask questions, and Bill didn’t offer. But when the morning light hit him, where ever he was, he was still Bill Swift, and he was still a mess.
Tonight he was shattered; the accumulation of trying to avoid dealing with life was killing him slowly. He longed for his bed, his own bed, not a sofa in a house worthy of students with housemates arriving at all times of the day or night. So he showered quickly, and headed straight home.
Opening the door, the smell of something spicy wafted to his nostrils. It was days since he’d had a decent meal, and no one cooked Mexican food like Sophie...well no one cooked like Sophie in his eyes. His mother had relied on cooks, employed to help even for breakfast, she was ‘too delicate’ to provide anything, and his father too chauvinistic to venture into the kitchen! The same was said for the children, a nanny was employed to care for him and his brother as his parents were too frightfully busy for that too. He had no real pleasant memories of childhood, they’d been commodities to his parents, he and his brother, but unlike the perfect Henry, Bill’s paternity was doubted, in a world where birthright was everything. It was no wonder he now rejected all that life meant.
Hunger ripped his body to shreds and suddenly he was almost faint with the desire for decent home cooking.
It had been an amazing day, in the midst of the most awkward week of her life, she’d completed the illustrations she’d fought to be inspired for, and the previous day had submitted them to the publishing house. She didn’t expect to hear anything for days, but before lunchtime the phone had rung, and with a rather unattractive expression, mouth open, tongue hanging out like a shattered dog in the sun, she’d heard the words.
“Miss Carter has selected your designs without contest.”
There were plans to call into the office, discuss contracts, meet the much revered Sarah Carter whose books were tipped to rival those of JK Rowling. Sophie hears the words but none of them registered. Half an hour later an email confirmed everything and she screamed. Whooping she skipped downstairs, but there was no one there to celebrate with. So pulling on a coat, she skipped all the way to Camden, and into ‘ARTistic’ Margo’s shop. The always immaculate woman emerged from behind the counter in her usual cloud of Versace clothing and Chanel no.5.
“I did it Margo!” She flapped the printed email in front of her, wafting it like a fan. “I got the job!”
Margo instantly knew what she meant, and reached across the counter to hug Sophie, “brilliant, just brilliant!”
Suddenly she pulled a bottle of Moet from beneath the counter, “I have a refrigerator here...for those special occasions!”
Much to Sophie’s surprise, crystal champagne flutes emerged next, no paper cups or chipped mugs for Margo Paternoster!
It was after four when a decidedly tipsy and infinitely starving Sophie headed home. She’d not eaten since breakfast, and she was in danger of missing out on her own party! So she bought a pasty from a bakery and wolfed it down as she trotted him, euphoria still carrying her.
Once home, she started to cook...a feast!
As Bill looked into the room he realised he’d missed something, Sophie was sat with a huge glass of champagne, Vincenza next to her, both beaming intently. Music played from the small stereo, and the hob was covered with half filled pans of Mexican food.
“Where have you been? We’ve not seen you all week and you’re missing the gossip! Sophie’s ideas were only chosen!”
He glanced from Vin to the more confused face of Sophie, “Oh my God! Wow!”
For a moment he forgot the past week all the awkwardness between them and pulled her to her feet, catapulting her into his hard body. He hugged her instinctively, kissing the top of her head in pleasure. No one deserved success like Sophie did; she was such a hard worker and had had so few breaks in life.
But suddenly the smell that he’d always associate with her wafted into his nostrils, her compact body firm against his, and it was more than he could handle. His response to that realisation was immediate, and he knew he couldn’t lie any more. He loved his best friend. It had to be more than lust as he knew her so well, and to be honest it was her wit, her loyal friendship he’d missed this week. That and her amazing cooking.
Holding her at arm’s length he gave an awkward smile, “I’ve cycled four hundred and fifty miles this week, and I don’t know when I last had a good meal.”
Vin grinned, “And we missed you big guy! Tacos, chilli, refried beans - take your pick.”
Grinning too he loaded his plate and watched the two giggle about all that Sophie was going to do with her new found wealth. Settling at the end of the table he accepted a beer from Vin and tucked into the food that was beyond good.
Sophie avoided looking at the man devouring her food with an unparalleled hunger. She had to keep the focus on now, on Vincenza. She’d spent the last five days worried beyond belief. Neither she nor Vincenza had seen him all week, he’d rarely been home, and he definitely hadn’t slept at home. That thought sent another lancing pain into her chest. This man was driving her insane.
When he’d held her, hugged, her, she suddenly knew, there was no doubt in her feelings over Bill. She wanted him in a way that breached the friendship line. She was amazed to think she’d ever doubted it. As her two friends, gossiping and catching up on things, her mind was reeling. Since the weekend Bill seemed to have dropped back into his Tom cat ways, without flinching, if there was a doubt about whether he even felt the same way, then his actions contradicted it.
All she wanted was to reach for him, pin him in his chair and for him to tell her how he felt about her, because there was no way she could carry on living here with this uncertainty. But if he didn’t feel the same way, then how could she go on living in the same house? She’d ruin her friendship with him on a whim, following a lustful urge might throw eight years of memories away in one easy swoop. Her friends were her family, and she couldn’t lose them. She knew that. She had to keep quiet and hope that she could deal with her feelings, keep them under lock and key, as thoughts of losing her friends, her home, were far too scary to imagine.
An hour later Bill was replete, the food and three beers had counteracted the empty feeling from his hard cycle ride, and now he was shattered. The two girls were on the internet looking at city breaks in Europe. He’d not gleaned anything from studying Sophie, there was no hint that she was in purgatory with him, so he had to plan how to deal with his feelings, and get over her. He’d go out tomorrow night, throw himself into having fun. That was a good way to start getting over her. He wanted to close his eyes and not see Sophie in the arms of that smarmy bastard Miles, her eyes on his intently. No scratch that. He wanted to not care at that image, to not feel pain in his heart at the thought of it.
Sophie felt him rise from his seat before she noticed it in her peripheral vision; she seemed to have developed a keen awareness for all things Bill Swift.
At the door he turned back to the girls, “I’m turning in guys. See you later.”
Vin waved and Sophie nodded, then when the door closed, Vincenza turned to Sophie, “ok Beck, spill!”
Sophie looked at her feigning innocence, but Vin was having none of it. “Don’t come all innocent with me. You and Bill have hardly been in the same room since the weekend. He’s out all the time...”
“He’s ALWAYS out Vin, he’s the male whore of North London, we all know that!” It was a defensive snap, and Sophie flinched at her own words.
Vincenza stepped back, shocked, “Sophie Beck I would never have seen you as so judgemental! No wonder he’s avoiding you!”
Sophie felt as though she’d been slapped, Vincenza had never raised her voice in anger at her before, and she felt a little vindicated in her anger at her timing. Bill had been out every night, and he was renowned for that, she was right, it was typical behaviour for him. All the while avoiding and ignoring her.
With that Vincenza left the room, obviously hoping to get more information from Bill. Leaving Sophie with the remnants of the second bottle of champagne, the dirty dishes, and the rough end of the deal.
“I CAN do this!” Sophie announced to the mirror, “I can pretend I don’t care.”
She’d dressed and stood in her bedroom aware of the noises outside the door that told her that her housemates were awake. She was still reeling from Vincenza’s verbal attack the previous evening. Vin never saw bad in anything, so the fact that her words had been so harshly responded to meant that she’d been out of line. But she was fraught, emotionally on the edge and people snapped when they felt like that, didn’t they?
Taking a deep breath, she opened her door and headed downstairs.
Vin was giggling in the lounge to Bill retelling some story with all his charm and charisma but both froze for a moment as the door opened. It was rare that Sophie was up after the others, and to avoid the awkwardness, she gave a beaming smile.
“Thank God I can smell coffee. Got such a long day ahead!” Breezing past them, she grabbed a mug, then filled it, taking another moment to calm down. She did have a lot to do. Tomorrow was her nephew’s birthday, she’d been invited around to her brother’s house for Sunday lunch, so she needed a gift. What did you buy a three year old boy? She hoped that an assistant in one of the toy shops would help her out.
She was finishing her second mug, about to leave, when she heard someone come into the kitchen from the lounge. Glancing up from swilling out her mug, Sophie gave Bill her best casual smile.
“What do three year old boys like?” She could see he was flummoxed by the question, it was the last thing he’d expected, but she quite liked that. She wanted the upper hand again, “Ethan’s birthday...you know me, very unpractical! Don’t think his parents will appreciate paints!”
“Don’t worry about what they think, get what you want. A heartfelt gift is far more personal than a random toy.”
She thought for a moment, then nodded, “You’re right, paints are what I think he’d like. It’ll crucify my brother, but then they’re not for him...Great! Thanks! See you later guys!”
Then with a smile, she walked out of the room as though she didn’t have a care in the world, and out of the house, leaving both her friends stunned.