Time slows down

Derek slept profoundly, his face hidden by an outflung arm. The light trembled and skittered across the counterpane, cradling him, or so it seemed to me, in a kindly embrace. My Derek. Possibly. Seconds ticked by like minutes, and I could not drag myself away.

I bathed and dressed myself as I described in one of my recently purchased outfits. Sat on the edge of the bed, in the silent room, and waited.

At half past six he woke and squinted at me. His eyes were bloodshot. He looked terribly pale with that dark stubble I recognized from our youth. I knew that if I smiled back he might just roll over and go back to sleep. So I kept a sombre face.

The very last rays of an Oxfordshire sunset suffused the space around us with a fairy glow. Rose Lodge seemed trapped in a golden embrace.

He reached for me, but I dodged his outstretched arms.

I was ravenous and if I went near him there would be no food tonight.

Ten minutes later Derek too was ready – shaved and changed, wearing a fresh shirt and a smile that scared me as much as anything he ever did. I tried not to look at his body, at the muscles beneath the shirt, at his perfect hands.

'Where to now? And do I have to pretend to leave without you in case Dragon lady's about?'

'She's not a dragon,' I admonised. 'Just looking out for me…'

'Oh, as strange people do, when you're concerned Spacey, huh? Okay, come on, I'm hungry!'

I decided that since the only decent place I knew to eat was the rather posh establishment that I had dined at the night before, we had better go there. I ordered a taxi from the desk and was pleasantly surprised to see Derek chatting companionably to our landlady.

In the cab, my mind was lurching around in agonised anticipation. How would I tell him my various machinations? How would he react? Should I wait until we'd eaten and then broach the subject of his in-laws and the bond? Surely he must know that I hadn't been sitting in my room since I'd arrived in the country? Would he still spend the night with me after my revelations? Would he want to see me ever again?

But I had no idea what Derek was thinking. He had that strange smile on his face and an arm slung lazily along the backseat. The heat between our shoulders whenever the taxi swayed round a bend was almost too much for me – I was wondering if food might have been a foolish distraction and whether he was feeling the same way.

Derek brushed the back of my neck with his knuckles. I groaned his name... Derek. Only softer than I used to. More intimate. He smirked. It was just like old times...

The pub was as busy as it had been the night before; despite this the bartender recognised me from my meal with Henry Claridge. He flicked a look at us and then winked. I heard him telling the waitress about me and my 'two hunks'. I was embarrassed, but not as much as I would have been at fifteen.

Derek slid in beside me as we chose our entrees; when the waiter left he grabbed my hand, started playing with my fingers. 'Case, would you have had me if I'd asked you out when we worked at Smelly Nellie's? I always thought you quite liked me in that brown T-Shirt.' No smirk this time. My mouth was dry.

'Are you kidding? You had eyes for no-one but Sally in those days! I worked there too, remember? Don't try to construct a past we never had.' Oh yes, the cutting Casey of old.

He was silent. I withdrew my hand. We both felt awkward. Then he grabbed my hand again, brought it to his lips. 'You're a bloody idiot, Casey, always were and always will be.'

'And you say this with total authority in your voice because…?' Oh, how I loved him!

'Because if you'd so much as looked at me then Miss High and Mighty, I'd have taken you into the kitchen, bolted the door and – ' I cut him off. I needed to hear this but I just couldn't. Not with dastardly Salter-Kress and divorce and a quarter of a million dollars hanging over our heads, not with Callum's future beating in my veins.

'Derek…'

'What?'

'I paid off your bond.'

'YOU DID WHAT?'

'Shhhh…' I felt panic riding me as several other diners gave us disapproving looks. I was certain they thought us American. Normally I would have looked back with my own irritation unconcealed.

'And I visited your father-in-law. He's going to make Theodora divorce you….'

'He WHAT?' Derek sounded strangely vague, almost as if my revelations had thrown him into a state of shock.

A grey-haired waiter with a bow tie delivered our first course.

'And there's more… I think I might accidentally have led him to believe that you are cheating on his daughter. I think I might have implied that you are using her wealth for personal gain… and… and… treating her poorly at the same time.'

'You think you might have accidentally…?' Derek's voice was low and grave, despite the sarcasm.

'I… I think I might have deliberately done that.' I was desperate.

Derek had his hand over his eyes, so I couldn't see him properly. We were side by side and I wished now that I'd insisted on sitting opposite him. You are probably thinking that I had just spent my life savings on him, surely he'd be grateful? But I knew Derek. He'd view it as a burden, an awful unpayable debt. At least I thought he would.

Our entrees sat uneaten on the table, prawns and mayonnaise and wilted lettuce, hiding from Derek's wrath.

My stomach twisted and rolled. I knew I needed to give him a more detailed explanation. But before I could say anything more he'd moved his hand and I saw that he was grinning again. How odd. How very uncanny. In fact he was laughing. Laughing at me?

'You total Nut Case! Why on earth did you do that? Oh, but it must have been a filthy shock to that old bastard! I'm so incredibly proud of you! Tell gruesome details…' He reached out and started stuffing food into his mouth. What on earth!

What had I done? Had I pushed him over the edge? Was this some sort of nervous breakdown?

But Derek soon convinced me to follow his lead and eat.

Relief and joy made me giddy. The rest of the meal was spent in gusts of uncontrollable laughter as I recounted my evening at the Salter-Kress mansion. 'She said what? You did what?', 'That's frigging awesome, Casey!' was all I heard from Derek as he spooned dish after dish into his mouth. It was almost as if we were in a cocoon, a perfect bubble where nothing either of us had done could possibly have any consequences. I forgot that I was Dr MacDonald. That he was a teacher of mathematics with an eleven year old son. That I had ever hated him or cried hysterical tears or wanted to disappear from my own life. That we were in a foreign country in the midst of a legal battle that might get very nasty.

You guys are probably thinking this the least romantic first date ever. It was certainly the most complicated. There were no kisses, and barely any touching. He never commented on my outfit, or nuzzled my ear, or whispered sweet nothings to me. The closest I came to being complimented was in the attention he paid to my hilarious description of the Salter-Kress cousin. But to me his laughter was the craziest, most delicious seasoning food could ever have. I was heady with excitement. Drunk on Derek's love.

Chewing open-mouthed, holding my food with shaking fingers, manners forgotten, I stared at him with total adoration.

The kind of forgiveness he gave me that night – even I had not dared to hope for. He did what I had done for him – took the consequences of my actions upon himself as if they belonged to us both. And he didn't for one second say I had done anything wrong.

It was like the day I saw Truman kissing my cousin and Derek simply enveloped me with his teasing affection and swept me away. It was like the day the manager fired me and he quit with panache; and like the day I wrote him a song for my rival and sang it for him in public with no malice at all. It was like so many, many days in our youth when he'd had my back and I'd had his.

After a few glasses of wine we telephoned Callum on Derek's cell and our absurd three-way conversation about pet pigs and ranting mothers rang out across the now noisy pub.

I heard people muttering. But who cared?

I was about to go to the bathroom. I asked Derek to move and shoved him in the side but he stayed put. Then I felt his arm go around me and tighten till I almost couldn't breathe, pulling my face against his neck. He hissed some words that made me sick: 'Guess who's just joined us for dinner. Stay where you are, Case, and don't move your face. Maybe he won't see us.'

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