The long, summer days gradually began to shorten in length, driving crowds away from the parks, as they turned from verdant greens into vivid oranges, and into the many pubs and cafes that sprawled across the East End. The endless blue skies turned crisp and white and a blanket of brown leaves laid itself across the ground, reminding Scarlett of those first few school days where she would tentatively try on last year's uniform, praying she hadn't had a growth spurt.
Things couldn't be more different now, Scarlett mused as she stretched out in her bed. She felt worlds away from that angry school girl with too-long hair and a too-short skirt. Especially when she turned her head away from the skeleton of a tree waving outside her window and towards the angelic man sleeping beside her. He breathed slowly and deeply, his long, dark eyelashes fluttering as he dreamt. She smiled contentedly.
She would have been in her last year of school now, watching with envy as the people around her planned for university and their upcoming 18th birthdays. Things like that weren't meant for Scarlett. She had been resigned to the fact that she would have to stay home to look after Jack. Or at least she would have if she hadn't failed him horribly. She felt a painful but familiar pang in her chest and blinked quickly, turning her attention back to Jim, trying to count every single perfect line on his beautiful face.
Scarlett couldn't believe it sometimes. Not only had this wonderful, gorgeous being been the person to take her virginity but they were actually sleeping together fairly regularly now, closing the door completely on Scarlett's childhood as she flourished and blossomed into a young, sexual woman. She could almost feel the air change on a night out when he would turn his attention to her. The atmosphere would go from being fun and light-hearted to suddenly feeling thick with tension. She'd feel him squeeze her hip or thigh and she'd look into his eyes, hooded with desire and nod breathlessly, urging him to whisk her away into the night.
It was a mostly physical connection, but it was the strongest connection she'd ever felt with anybody in her life. She could tell from his touch and from the way that he looked at her that he needed her as much as she needed him in those moments. There was something deep and dark in his eyes, a pain that he could only forget when their limbs were tangled up in each other and they were lost in bruising kisses.
He stirred beside her now, taking in a deep breath through his nose and stretching out, his lean muscles flexing beneath his pale skin.
"Its creepy to watch someone sleep," he mumbled, his eyes still closed.
Scarlett blushed and smiled. She still felt nervous around him. Especially in the sober mornings when she'd often cringe at her brazenness from the night before. The first time she'd nearly died of embarrassment when she'd awoken and remembered how intimate he had been with her immediately after a hot, sweaty gig.
His eyes flicked open suddenly and he sat up, yawning and rubbing his eyes. The cover fell from around his torso, revealing even more of his taut, toned body. Scarlett felt her tummy tingle. In a moment of bravery she reached out to him, her slender finger tracing the outline of the muscles in his back. She didn't want him to leave. Didn't want to have to wait for the next party or pub visit to claim him again.
He turned and looked at her, a small smile playing across his lips as he reached down and stroked her neck, "I thought you had work today?"
"Not for another hour," she pouted, sitting up to join him, letting the cover fall to reveal her breasts. She felt daring when he looked at her this way. She didn't feel like Scarlett Delaney, the music nerd, the troubled teen, the violent freak with no friends or family. She felt like a completely different person. Someone who was special and wanted.
He took her face in his hands and scanned her features for a moment before kissing her deeply and pushing her back into the bed, laying over her in between her legs. He kissed her so hard she felt herself disappearing into her pillows as he hooked his arms around her legs and thrust himself into her. She gasped, feeling him inside her without a condom.
"J-Jim," she started.
"Its okay," he murmured gruffly into her neck, "I just wanted to feel you. Just once."
He planted a sloppy kiss on her neck before rolling off her and reaching for his wallet, grabbing a condom from inside. Before she knew it he was back on top of her, his masculine scent invading her senses, his lips peppering her face and chest with kisses as he entered her again.
She lost herself in him, her fingers digging into his back as he used all the tricks he had learned in their short time together to quickly bring her to orgasm. She forgot who she was and focused only on him moving inside her, she forgot about her mum and her brother and her old friends, forgot about her school and her stepdad and everything that had ever hurt her, forgot all about her miserable life before Him. As she tightened her legs around him, feeling him hold her so closely as they writhed together in pleasure, she could have told him that she loved him. But of course she didn't, she hadn't completely lost her mind.
He jumped off her after a short, hot, post-coitus embrace and began to pull his clothes on. Scarlett gave him a small smile, suddenly feeling shy again, before stepping out of her room to have a quick shower before work.
Once in the bathroom, she looked at herself naked in the mirror. She looked different. She'd definitely filled out since living at Luke Street, probably because she was eating properly for once. Her breasts and hips looked bigger and her face wasn't so narrow. She thought she even stood a little straighter. She felt the tenderness around her groin and nipples and thighs where she had been repeatedly kissed and groped and sucked. She brought a finger to her swollen lips and smiled. She felt warm and wanted and like she had a special secret. Even though everyone knew what her and Jim had been doing, though she was certain they all thought it was just sex.
After she'd showered and dressed she headed downstairs. Jim, Drew and Tabitha were sat in the kitchen, drinking coffee and listening to Radio 6. Scarlett guessed Mairead had already left for uni. She blushed and cast her eyes downward when Jim winked at her over his coffee cup.
"We should go," Drew said to Jim, after greeting Scarlett with a smile, "We're gonna be late."
Jim nodded and saluted his goodbye to the girls before grabbing his guitar and following Drew out through the patio doors.
"Well?" Tabitha raised her eyebrows as Scarlett reached for the bread, placing two slices in the toaster.
"Well what?" she replied nonchalantly. Her and Jim had agreed to try to act casual. He didn't like people prying in his life and she felt like their connection was too special to gossip about anyway.
"You and Jim are shagging regularly then?"
Scarlett scowled. It wasn't just shagging. She hated that term when it referred to her and Jim. She flicked the kettle on after filling it with water.
Tabitha continued, "I'm not judging. I just didn't have you down for a casual sex gal."
"Sounds like you are judging," Scarlett noted, filling her coffee cup with a spoonful of instant and a sugar.
"Its your life, babe," Tabitha sighed, "And I guess you are on the rebound from a proper relationship so a bit of a fling could be what you need."
Scarlett turned to face Tabitha, her cheeks red, "What makes you so sure its just a 'bit of a fling'?"
Tabitha's face darkened with worry, as if Scarlett had just confirmed her worst fears. Scarlett briefly wondered if she was jealous.
"You tell me," Tabitha said after a short pause, "Is it anything more than sexual? Do you actually even speak to each other about anything?"
Scarlett didn't respond, instead busying herself with buttering her toast. She felt her temperature rising.
"I'm not trying to piss on your parade. I'm just trying to protect you. I love Jim but he's had a rough time this year. He lost someone really close to him and..." Tabitha hesitated, "Look, he can be a destructive arsehole and I'm pretty sure this is just distraction sex for him."
"How can you be pretty sure of that?" Scarlett threw the buttery knife in the sink where it landed with a loud clang, "Cos I'm pretty sure you're not actually involved. At all."
She spun around to look at Tabitha, her nostrils flaring, the aggressive beast within her that had been dormant for so many months threatening to rear its head.
"Calm down, Scarl," Tabitha tutted, folding her arms. Scarlett noticed her short spiky hair was overgrown and sticking out behind her ears stupidly, "I'm not the enemy here. I'm not the one stringing you along and using you. I'm trying to help."
"And why would I want help from you when it comes to relationships?" Scarlett's voice cracked as she raised it, "You're the queen of being strung along and used. You're hung up on a bloke who would rather move 1000 miles away than be your boyfriend! He would literally rather be with a parasitic disease than you!"
Tabitha's mouth fell open and Scarlett knew she had crossed a line, but it was too late. She abandoned the buttered toast and black coffee and stormed past her friend and out of the kitchen. She could eat at work.
* * * * *
"Things seem to be going well?" Drew adjusted the guitar on his shoulder as he walked in line with his friend through Shoreditch towards Albion Studios, the same place they spent every Wednesday and Saturday morning.
"Yeah I suppose," Jim responded, lighting a cigarette, "Would be better if we could get some headliner slots as opposed to support but at least we're getting bigger crowds."
"I don't mean that. I mean with Scarlett."
Jim snorted in amusement, a puff of smoke coming out of his nose, "What do you mean?"
"I just mean I haven't really seen you with anyone else for a bit. Seems like you like her," Drew studied his friend's profile inquisitively.
Jim always had a flavour of the month. Some pretty girl who he would use up and throw away once he had sucked all of the love and innocence out of her. Drew hoped this wasn't the case this time. He hoped that his damaged best friend, the boy he'd grown up with who was more like a brother to him, who had taught him everything he knew about girls, who he had discovered all of his favourite bands with, had finally found someone who he could confide in. Who would soften his ragged edges and help him heal the angry wounds of his past.
Or at least that's what he told himself - and Drew did genuinely want that for Jim. But in reality, every time he would turn around to find Scarlett locked in Jim's eyes or see her trailing behind him down the street, his blood would boil and he'd reassure himself with the fact that Jim would fuck this all up sooner rather than later and show his true colours. It was a shame that Scarlett would probably be hurt in the process. She didn't deserve a hurricane like Jim but unfortunately seemed adamant to throw herself into the storm path.
"Guess so," Jim shrugged, taking another puff of his cigarette, his gaze scanning the horizon as they crossed the road, "Its pretty cool. She's not like other girls, she doesn't want to constantly talk about shit. She's not pestering me to be my girlfriend or tell her about my feelings. Just good sex and good times. No complicated bullshit."
"So you don't like her at all? In a more serious way?" Drew noticed Jim wasn't looking at him. He hoped it was because he felt guilty.
Jim laughed as he flicked his cigarette, still not looking back at his friend, "Not at all. We literally don't even talk. Like she won't tell me anything. Something tells me Mystery Girl wants to keep things simple."
"Are you sure that's not just 'cos you're both closed off weirdos?" Jim tried to laugh but it sounded strangled, "I mean neither of you talk to anyone about anything. Have you tried talking to her?"
Jim raked a hand through his hair, "What's the point? If she won't talk to you, she won't talk to me. Besides what do I want to talk to her about? Its just sex. She's on a rebound from that drippy boyfriend and I can't afford to go out to all those fancy clubs and pick up those expensive women anymore. My inheritance is running out. Its an arrangement that suits us both."
"As long as you're both on the same page," Drew shook his head. He couldn't ever imagine referring to a relationship as an arrangement, "Because Scarlett doesn't need anymore crap."
"You sound just like Tab!" Jim exclaimed, the volume of his voice taking Drew a little bit by surprise, "You constantly underestimate her and treat her like a kid when she's not one. You go on about her like you're her parents!"
"We're just looking out for-"
"She doesn't need you looking out for her," Jim stopped in the street, finally turning to face Drew, "She survived on the streets for fuck sake. I'm pretty sure when we found her she'd been taking heroin with those tramps under that bridge. I'm telling you she's been through more and is probably harder and more resilient than you'll ever be!"
Drew frowned, he didn't expect Jim to get so worked up. "Heroin?" he asked.
"Yeah," Jim replied soberly, "I'm pretty sure I've seen my dad in a similar state."
The boys stood looking at each other. Jim reached into his pocket to light another cigarette. Drew kicked at the floor.
"I didn't mean to-"
"You didn't do anything. I'm just sick of being treated like the bad guy. She knows exactly what she's doing, trust me."
Drew nodded as he studied his friend who was puffing desperately on his cigarette, his eyes darting around the people who were weaving around them outside Bethnal Green station. He wondered if Jim knew exactly what he was doing.