Sheepskin Tearaway

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Chapter 34

Drew pulled his scarf up around his cheeks to fight off the biting cold as he turned the corner, Matilda's café bursting colourfully into sight at the end of the street, the twinkling fairy lights arranged around the fogged up windows beckoning passerbys in for teapots and crumpets.

He pushed the door open, fairly hard as it stuck slightly as he did, perhaps due to the frost tightening up the hinges, and saw Scarlett leaning against the counter, her dark hair pulled into a messy ponytail that spilled down her back. She was gazing wistfully at a nearby table where a mother and her daughter sat, laughing heartily, cream on the end of their noses from the saucer of cupcakes in front of them.

She was engrossed in the display, a flicker of pain causing her dark eyes to blink, her lips pulling into a twitchy pout. As he looked at her, Drew couldn't remember the last time he'd seen her smile. Couldn't remember the last time they had hung out and had fun. She was always hurrying to get away, to be alone. All her smiles were fake and her conversations rushed. It was clear she was sinking into a depression and who could blame her, she'd never had much and what she did have, she lost. She'd pushed on, burying herself in her new life, trying to forget her old friends, her family and her past, but ever since she'd broken down in his arms that night at the White Hart, she hadn't been herself and it was getting steadily worse.

Drew and Tabitha had agreed amongst themselves to give her space, but it clearly wasn't working. So this was a rescue mission.

"Hey, you," Drew smiled softly as he approached the counter and Scarlett finally tore her eyes away from the cosy family moment she had been spying on.

"Oh, hi! What are you doing here?" she said, a fake smile flitting across her face.

"Heard you finish at 4 so I thought I'd walk you home."

She nodded, her smile faltering, "Okay, just give me 10."

A few moments later, Scarlett had swapped her apron for her heavy winter coat and her and Drew began the short walk home, exchanging small talk, their eyes fixed on the icy path in front of them.

"Listen, there's something I have to say," Drew's tone changed as he stopped in his tracks, turning to face Scarlett, done with the niceties, "I just want you to know that I'll always be here for you. You'll never be alone. Whatever you've been through, whatever you're going through, you can always count on me. We're friends for life now, no matter what happens."

Scarlett's eyes grew big and shiny, her mouth opened in a silent sigh. Drew continued.

"If you ever want to talk, or even if you don't want to talk at all, I'm here okay? Please don't shut yourself off. We all love you."

She nodded her understanding, a single tear escaping and rolling down her cheek. Drew brushed it off with a gloved hand, his eyes as warm as his touch as he pulled her into a hug which she gratefully reciprocated.

"You know I think you might be my guardian angel," Scarlett sniffed into his shoulder.

They pulled out of the hug and Drew flung his arm around her shoulder as they continued walking along the path, "Is that right?" he laughed.

"I don't know what my life would be like if I hadn't seen you butchering Bob Dylan on stage that night."

Drew pushed Scarlett away from him, exaggerated offence causing him to gasp. She giggled and grabbed onto his arm, linking it around hers, gazing fondly up at his face. It was certainly true that he had changed her life for the better. And just when she thought he couldn't do anymore, here he was when she needed him the most, asking for nothing and giving his unconditional friendship in return.

His profile was kind and noble as she studied his face. There were crinkles around his eyes where he was always laughing and his long hair fell in careless waves around his smooth, olive jawline. She felt easy with Drew, like she could tell him anything, like he truly accepted her for who she was in a way that no one else in her life ever had. She clung onto his arm all the way home. She knew she couldn't lose this person, no matter what.

* * * * *

"Hey!"

"You're back!"

"Welcome home!"

Scarlett and Drew were greeted by a chorus of welcomes as soon as they entered the kitchen to find their housemates gathered round the kitchen island, poring over various plastic containers full of Chinese food. The smell of chow mein, curry sauce and salt and pepper chips greeted Scarlett's nose and made her stomach growl. She couldn't remember the last time she'd ate a proper meal, it just wasn't on her list of priorities at the moment.

As soon as she saw her friend's hopeful expressions and recognised the plate of vegetable gyozas - Scarlett's personal favourite - sat at her spot around the kitchen island, she recognised this for what it was. An intervention. She felt like she could cry again. She'd been so alone for so long that she had forgotten what it had felt like to have people care about her. For the first time in a long time she didn't want to just run away to her bedroom to self medicate and fall into a laboured sleep. She wanted to be around people and feel the warmth and closeness she'd been so desperate for her whole life that she had stupidly tried to turn her back on in the last few weeks.

"We ordered your favourite?" Tabitha said apprehensively, beckoning Scarlett to sit at the spot next to her, who did so, enthusiastically, much to Tabitha's relief.

As Scarlett tucked into her food, she listened to her friends inane babble with glee. Whenever she'd heard them talking like this in the last few weeks it had made her feel so lonely and left out. She had raced through the hallways and into her bed to try and block it out with headphones and substances. It had felt like she would never feel worthy of being included ever again. Like she would always just be this miserable, lonely person, plagued and tormented by the past.

She didn't know what had changed. Whether it had been sharing Jim's bed that night, or Drew's kind, honest words that day, but something was changing inside her. She didn't expect it to happen overnight but she was just glad something was happening.

After they had finished eating, they moved into the front room to collapse on the soft furnishings, nursing their full bellies, drinking beer and exchanging plans for the week ahead. Drew lit a joint which Scarlett gratefully received. She let the conversation roll over her, not getting involved too much, but appreciating the occasional smile or squeeze of the leg from Drew or Tabitha.

She had noticed Jim looking at her. Whenever she'd caught his eye he would smile and look away. She wondered if he'd told anyone about what had happened between them a few nights ago but she guessed not. She wondered what he thought about it. Did he do it because he pitied her? Why didn't he kiss her when the atmosphere between them was so electric?

She couldn't deny it had been a wake up call. She couldn't believe she had been so weak as to take the very drug that killed Jim's father in the same house where he was living. She was surprised and grateful that he didn't hate her. She wanted to speak to him about it, to reassure him that she wouldn't do it again but conversation never came easy with Jim. He was so aloof with such a careless attitude that it was hard to broach serious topics with him. Even now, his only contribution to the group discussion was wisecracks or quips rather than anything meaningful.

She realised that perhaps it was her who couldn't take her eyes off him, the way he gripped the beer bottle with his hand and lifted it to his puckered lips, his biceps bulging even through his grey jumper. She'd imagined him asleep in the bed next to her whenever she had closed her eyes since it happened and remembered her silent promise to be as close to him as he would allow even at the expense of her own heart. He was messed up, and he couldn't save her or make her happy, but she was too far gone to try to protect herself anymore.

Several beers and joints later Mairead and Tabitha shuffled off to bed, leaving Scarlett alone with the boys, Jim sprawled out on the green sofa, Drew inhabiting the love seat and Scarlett hugging her knees on the armchair. Scarlett had found herself steadily drawn into the conversation with each empty beer bottle she placed on the coffee table.

"So you guys didn't go to school together?" she asked when the topic came up, keen to learn more about the men in her life.

"We did but I was the year above young Andrew over here," Jim pointed his beer bottle at Drew, "And thank God I was too, you never would have survived secondary school without me. Far too sensitive."

"Shut up, you only survived because Tab and M were the year above you," Drew grinned, raising his eyebrows as he took a swig.

"So you're the baby then?" Scarlett smiled at Drew.

He winked back at her, "Not now you're here."

Scarlett could imagine it. Tabitha and Mairead the cool, older girls, Drew the lovable scamp getting himself into well intentioned scrapes. She couldn't imagine Jim as a kid. He was just so masculine and experienced.

"So go on then. Tell me what the legendary Jim Moriarty was like at school?"

Jim and Drew looked to each other, Drew's eyes glinting with mischief, Jim's eyebrows raised in a casual warning. Jim eventually shrugged.

"Tell her what you like. People who peaked in secondary school are losers anyway."

Drew smiled, running a hand through his hair, "He was a loner. Pretty hostile actually. Didn't have many friends, most of the kids hated him to be honest. So he really hasn't changed that much."

Jim threw a bottle cap at Drew who dodged it expertly.

"You didn't mind my hostility when I was saving you from getting battered," Jim frowned, flinging another bottle cap.

"Yes, that's true," Drew conceded as it bounced off his shoulder.

"So you got into a lot of fights?" Scarlett asked, she realised her heart was racing. It sounded like Drew has described what her school friends thought of her.

"I didn't like getting in fights," Jim shrugged again, "But Drew insisted on having long hair and singing like a girl. He was a huge target at our shitty comprehensive."

"One time this guy got it into his head that I stole his girlfriend so he got all his older brothers to come down to the school," Drew started, leaning forward onto his knees, "I was absolutely terrified. The school never gave a shit about fights, especially if they were after home time so I knew I was going to get absolutely battered. Everyone else scarpered, none of my other mates wanted to know me. Anyway, I don't know how he did it but Jim just went full blown psycho at the school gates and scared every single one of them off. I was almost a bit scared of him myself actually."

Drew grinned and looked with affection over to Jim who scoffed but smiled in spite of himself, "You never gave me a choice, had to look after my mate didn't I," he said softly, taking a sip of his drink.

"That you did, my friend," Drew said, standing up suddenly and stretching, exposing the tanned, taut skin between his boxers and his t-shirt, "Anyway, I'm knackered. Catch you guys in the morning."

After Drew had manoeuvred his way through the rubble of ashtrays and empty beer bottles, Scarlett found herself alone with Jim, the air in the room suddenly filled with electricity.

She finished another beer and leaned forward to deposit it on the coffee table. When she looked up she found her eyes locked in a deep, blue stare.

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