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Soldier Boy by Donna Alam (1)

Chapter 1

 

PENNY

 

 

 

‘I’m getting all the fucking I can take right now.’ Bent over, fingers wrapped around my ankles, dry and without lube, I don’t add even though the statement feels warranted.

‘Vibrators,’ Mel announces, ‘while they have their place, don’t count.’

‘No, you misunderstand.’ Most probably purposely. ‘What I mean to say is no one could fuck me over as well as my life is doing right now.’

‘I know you’re having a tough time,’ my friend answers in a sympathetic tone, ‘and you’re working more hours than seems humanly possible, but a night out could be fun. Remember that dirty four-letter word? And if it culminated in a little delicious revenge sex, well, all the better!’ As usual, Melody misses the point by a mile. ‘Come on, Nell. After a couple of Bloody Marys, your cooch would be singing a different song, I promise!’

‘Vaginas don’t sing,’ I reply, swapping the phone to my left ear. As an obstetrician, I feel qualified to say that categorically. ‘However, if you find yours ever does, please let me know, and I’ll book you a place in a talent show.’

‘Oh my God, could you imagine the look on the judges’ faces?’ Mel snorts inelegantly, and I find myself shaking my head, willing the tiredness or maybe just this ridiculous conversation away.

‘Strangely, I can’t. The same as I can’t imagine myself ever having a one-night stand. It’s just not me,’ I reply with a shrug she can’t see. ‘Besides, I don’t think I’m ready.’ I blow out a breath, long and hard. I mean, I should be ready. I’ve been single two months now. That’s two months following nine years of dating the same man and being engaged to him for one. ‘You know what I’ve realised?’ I ask, not waiting for her response. ‘Since the age of seventeen, I’ve had a boyfriend. I’ve never been without a man or a boy in my life.’

‘Well, you and Liam were childhood sweethearts.’

‘Exactly. And now I’m a woman—a woman who’s never lived by herself. A woman who’s never made decisions just because, just to suit herself.’

‘A woman who’s currently working a hundred hours a week to pay the mortgage her prick of an ex lumbered her with on a house that’s crumbling around her ears.’

‘It’s not that bad.’

‘A woman who needs to cut loose and have some fun,’ she continues, speaking louder as though to drown me out. ‘To show that complete knob that she’s over him. Unless, of course, she’s waiting for him to come back.’

‘Ha, funny,’ I retort without an ounce of humour. ‘You know the night he left, he told me he needed to find himself? Well, I didn’t realise he’d be doing it vaginally because the way I hear it, he’s had his fingers in more pussy than I have lately—and I’ve worked a lot of hours and seen a lot of hoo-ha.’ I feel like I’m a junior doctor again.

‘That’s because he’s a Grade A loser.’

‘You won’t hear me arguing. The fact is, the only thing I’m waiting for is the suitcase of cash he owes me for keeping this place from the clutches of the bank. I would even give him the cat.’

My eyes slide left to the malevolent ball of fur lying at the other end of the sofa. I never wanted a cat. I’m not really a fan of pets, at least not since Mel’s horrible brother flushed my goldfish, Swim Shady, down the toilet when I was twelve. I mourned and vowed never to get attached again. Shame I didn’t adopt that same approach with men.

‘You’re sure that’s all you want from him?’

‘Yes. I’d prefer to do the exchange by courier so I wouldn’t have to offend my eyes by looking at him, but yes, definitely.’ The silence between us seems loaded with her doubt. ‘I don’t love him, Mel. Not anymore. And I don’t need a man.’

‘None of us need them. Want them occasionally? Yes. Sometimes even just for the night . . .’

‘And some of us not even for then. Come on, can you really see me leaving a bar with a stranger?’

‘I’d bloody well like to,’ she retorts.

‘I’ve never had a one-night stand!’

‘And I’ve never shagged David Gandy, but I would.’

‘Mel, please.’ Give up already.

‘Look, what I’m saying is there’s a first time for everything.’

‘But I’ve only ever had sex with Liam before,’ I answer quietly.

‘Penelope, darling,’ she begins, suddenly serious. ‘This is, I believe, what you Americans call a come to Jesus moment. Liam left you, so unless you’re planning on living in a cave for the rest of your life—’

‘That’s a hermit, not celibate.’

‘Have you ever seen a hermit you’d like to shag? No? There you go, then. As I was saying, unless you’re planning on celibacy, you will be, at the very least, doubling your numbers of sexual partners at some point. Regardless, come on, babe! I haven’t seen you in ages.’

‘We went for coffee last week.’

‘Twenty minutes. You were there twenty minutes, and you almost fell asleep in your latte. All you’ve done lately is work. Work, work, bloody work!’

‘Yes, well, that’s because the bank has this annoying rule that the mortgage has to be paid on time. Every month!’

‘I might be able to help you there,’ she answers quickly, ‘but first, tell me you’ll come out with me this weekend.’

‘Fine,’ I say, in the manner of someone worn down and not very happy about it.

‘Yes!’

‘But nowhere ridiculously expensive.’ I can barely afford to feed myself, never mind find money for Soho prices.

‘As if we’ll be paying for our own drinks,’ she scoffs.

‘No, Mel. I mean it, no men.’

‘Of course,’ she says. ‘No men for me, at least. I’m sure Tim wouldn’t like it.’

I sit straighter, earning myself another malevolent glare from the cat. So I flip him off.

‘How is Tim?’ I ask . . . because that’s what friends do. ‘Are you still enjoying playing happy families?’ Mel was recently having a new bathroom fitted at her place when the workmen discovered a leak from the ground floor. Hundred-year-old mains had been pumping water into the foundations of her bijou palace, which was a perfect excuse to move into her boyfriend’s apartment.

‘I prefer to think of it as allowing him to realise how much he loves having me around.’ As I begin to chuckle, the cat stretches disdainfully before thumping his bulk down from the couch, unamused at the disturbance. ‘And speaking of families . . .’

Something about her tone puts me immediately on edge. Mel is rarely tentative. We’re opposites in lots of ways. I watch, she demands. I’m dark, she’s like a bright flame. I’m short, and she is statuesque. She’s bossy, and she has been since she’d turned up on my doorstep within a few days of my family moving to the UK. I was ten and moody and not very receptive as she’d announced, I’m Melody, your new best friend. As it turns out, she was right. She’s been organising me since then.

Or trying to.

‘I have a little bit of a dilemma. But it’s one that you might be able to make use of.’

‘Okay . . .’ Suddenly, my Melody-senses are tingling. She’s up to something.

‘You remember how I suggested you rent out one of your spare rooms?’

‘Nope,’ I reply firmly. We’ve already had this discussion on more than one occasion. ‘I don’t want a housemate—a stranger living in my place.’ Medical school was bad enough. ‘I’d rather work seven days a week and live on ramen again.’

‘This is not a housemate. Well, not a housemate, per se. More like you doing me a huge favour while getting a little extra towards your mortgage. Also, not a stranger,’ she adds in that strange air again. But she had me at mortgage, and she probably knows it.

‘Go on,’ I reply warily.

‘I need you to let Ben stay with you.’

‘Ben? Your brother Ben? The same Ben who flushed my beloved goldfish down the pan?’

‘No, Ben, the man from Mars. Of course, I mean my brother Ben.’

Honestly? I’d much rather open my home to an alien than Ben Monroe.

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