Rainwater trickled down Tally’s neck as she ran home from the supermarket. Pete’s flat was normally a ten-minute walk, but in this weather, it took her twice as long. As she moved away from the coast, the wind dropped, although the rain still soaked through her jeans. She dug the front-door key out of her pocket and inserted it into the lock. After kicking the door shut behind her, she shrugged off her wet coat and threw it over the banister.
Tally swapped her damp clothes for pyjamas even though it was still early. As she ate dinner at the small table squashed in the corner of a kitchen too cramped for furniture, loneliness engulfed her. Since breaking off her relationship with Cash, she had found it difficult to dredge up any emotion apart from an intense sadness that grew like a cancer until it was as much a part of her as blood and bones and sinew.
God, she missed him.
Cash Gallagher, tennis ace. Love of her life.
Every time she closed her eyes, her mind was ransacked with images of Cash in the living room of her flat in London with those incriminating photographs fluttering from his hands. She pictured his earnest expression as he lied to her face about the woman he’d been kissing. He’d been so cruel to choose that moment to tell her, for the first time, he was in love with her.
Tally made herself a hot chocolate and wandered into the living room. She took a sip and picked up her phone, desperate to hear Em’s voice.
“Hey, babes,” Em said, answering so quickly Tally hadn’t even heard a ringing tone. “How are you doing?”
Tally forced a smile, hoping it would filter into her voice. “Yeah, good, although the weather here is awful today.”
“Tell me about it,” Em said. “It’s like a monsoon. Where the fuck is spring?”
“Hiding. I got drenched coming back from the supermarket today. I can hardly believe it’s April next week.”
“You’re eating, then?”
Tally fidgeted in her seat. “A bit. I must admit the breakup diet does wonders for weight loss.”
Em heaved a sigh. “That’s not funny, Tal. You’d better be taking proper care of yourself because I swear to God, if you look scrawny when I get there this weekend, I’m going to cram sausage rolls down your throat.”
Tally laughed. “I’m eating. Just not as much as I was. Let’s face it, Em. I could afford to lose a few pounds—and now I have. I like the thinner me, although I still can’t shift my fat arse.”
“Hmm,” Em replied, sounding not in the least bit convinced. “I’ll make up my own mind on Friday. I should be down about seven.”
“I can’t wait,” Tally said, and despite all the “no more crying” promises she’d made to herself, her voice broke on the last word.
“Come on, babes,” Em said, her own voice quivering. “You’re going to get through this.”
“I miss him,” she whispered as fat tears clung momentarily to her eyelashes before spilling down her cheeks. “It’s not getting any easier.”
“I know you do. But you have to stay strong, Tal. Otherwise, you’ll end up crawling back to him and regretting it. You’re better than that, and you deserve better than him.”
“Doesn’t help numb the pain, though.”
Em caught her breath. “You’re breaking my heart, Tal.”
Tally dashed away her tears, making the back of her hand wet. She wiped it on her pyjama bottoms. “I’ll be fine, especially when you get here. I’ll spend this weekend planning next weekend.”
“If this weather continues, we can stay in and watch trashy movies and eat takeaway pizza.”
“Are you sleeping any better?”
“A little,” Tally replied, yawning on cue.
“Get an early night. I’ll call you tomorrow. Love you, babes.”
“Love you too.”
Tally hung up the phone as despair swamped her. Thoughts of Cash crept into her mind, but she shoved them away. She couldn’t allow herself to think about him too much. Every time she dwelled on what could have been, even for a fraction of a second, the tears would come, and she’d cried too much already.
She grabbed her mug of hot chocolate and went to bed. She rubbed eyes that stung from lack of sleep. Her body might be exhausted, but her mind had other ideas.
Reluctantly, she took a sleeping pill. All she needed was a decent night’s kip, then she’d be able to think more clearly. As the tablet took effect and her eyelids began to droop, her thoughts drifted to whether Cash was suffering too. The idea comforted her, but she couldn’t carry on like this. Three weeks of wallowing in self-pity was long enough.
As the sleeping tablet dragged her under, she vowed that tonight would be the last time she allowed Cash Gallagher to have a hold over her.
Tomorrow, she would take control.
* * *
Tally awoke the next morning, groggy with sleep. The pill had done its job because she could barely crank open her eyes. She lay there for a few minutes, allowing her body to come around in its own time. Slowly, she swung her legs out of bed and padded over to the window.
The weather had improved from the day before. The sun hovered low in the sky, and wispy clouds bobbed along on a light breeze. She threw on her dressing gown and headed into the kitchen, full of determination to take control of her life. The first decision had been made. She was going to stick with her plans to freelance because it would give her freedom to travel. Her work would involve moving around, and moving around meant Cash would find it harder to track her down.
Not that he’d made any attempt to do that…
Ignoring the crushing weight on her chest, she made a cup of tea and stepped into the tiny courtyard. Outside space was at a premium this close to the coast in Brighton. Pete’s backyard had barely enough space for a bistro-sized table, two chairs, and a few terracotta pots that were home to several neglected evergreen shrubs.
Feeling a distinct chill in the air, she warmed her hands around the mug as she sat on one of the iron chairs. In the last few weeks, she’d struggled to even motivate herself to get dressed, but that day felt like a new start. She’d never get over what Cash had done, but she had to find a way to come to terms with the fact they’d broken up. She had her whole life in front of her. She couldn’t let a brief affair with her childhood idol define her entire future. She wouldn’t allow that.
Unable to face breakfast, she threw on workout gear, tucked her iPod into the back pocket of her running pants, and headed down to the seafront. She’d always hated exercise, but these past few weeks she’d found solace in running. When she ran, she became so focused on controlling her breathing and the heavy ache in her legs that she momentarily forgot about Cash, which gave her a temporary reprieve from her constant companion—heartache.
Brighton seafront always had plenty of joggers running up and down, but because it was Saturday, Tally found herself having to dodge more people than usual. Despite the early-morning chill, it wasn’t long before sweat dampened her T-shirt. She stopped to remove her jacket and tie it around her waist.
She ran towards Hove for about two miles before turning around. She was slowly building up endurance, although she hadn’t quite cracked the five-mile mark yet. When she arrived back in Brighton, she headed for the pier, bought a bottle of water from one of the stand sellers, and mingled with the tourists while she caught her breath.
She finished drinking, tossed the bottle into a nearby recycling bin, and set off for home. The cool air chilled her skin as she walked. She couldn’t wait to get into the warmth, take a hot shower, and drink an even hotter cup of tea.
She turned into her road and removed the front-door key from the back pocket of her running pants. The gate creaked as she opened it, and as it closed behind her, she promised to pop a bit of oil on it later. She inserted the key in the lock as the gate creaked again. She glanced over her shoulder. Her breath hitched, and all the blood drained from her head. She let go of the key and gripped the handle as she sagged against the front door.
The sharp pain in her chest couldn’t have been any worse if someone had cracked open her ribcage, reached inside, and torn out her heart.
“Leave me alone, Cash,” she croaked to the man she’d adored since she was fifteen.
“I can’t do that.”
She tightened her grip on the door handle, certain if she let go she’d crumple to the floor. “Don’t you think I’ve been hurt enough?” she whispered.
Cash bowed his head, and his shoulders drooped. “I don’t want to cause you any more pain.”
“Then go away.” She turned her back on him and opened the door.
“Please, Natalia. Can we go inside and talk?”
She rested her forehead against the doorframe. “No,” she said in a wavering voice. Tears pricked behind her eyes. She dug her fingernails into her palm as she swallowed past an uncomfortable lump in her throat.
“I can explain,” he said, his hand lightly touching her arm.
She spun out of his reach but kept her back to him. “I said no.” Her chin trembled, and she clenched her jaw to stop the involuntary movement. “I’m not interested in anything you have to say.”
“I know I’ve fucked up. Please, let me inside. I’ll tell you everything. About Gracie, about my mother and father. Everything. It’s what I should have done already.”
“Cash, please.” She faced him then, her voice cracking as the tears she’d desperately tried to hold back spilled down her cheeks. “Why are you doing this?”
“Oh, baby,” he said, reaching for her again.
She staggered backwards and stumbled over the step. Her ankle twisted as she tried to save herself. Cash shot out an arm and pulled her against his chest. This time, she didn’t have the energy to resist. She slumped against him as he dug around in his pocket.
He produced a crumpled tissue and wiped away her tears. “You’re freezing. Let’s go inside and get you warmed up.”
Before she could protest, he ushered her through the door and into the tiny hallway. He walked straight ahead into the kitchen like he owned the damned place and then flicked the kettle on.
“Go and get a shower. I’ll have the tea made by the time you get out.”
She wanted to tell him no, that she could make her own bloody tea, but the words wouldn’t come. She trudged into the bathroom and locked the door. She wouldn’t put it past Cash to follow her, and she craved control even as she sensed it slipping out of reach.
She’d thought Brighton would be a refuge, a place to heal, but he’d found her so easily. Once she’d showered and dressed in clean clothes, she would be able to deal with Cash. She would listen to what he had to say and then politely ask him to leave.
And then she was going home to London.