The Woman He Loved Beforeby Dorothy Koomson
Libby has a nice life with a great job, a gorgeous husband and a big home by the sea. But she's becoming more unsure of Jack's feelings for her - and if he is over the mysterious death of Eve, his first wife.
When fate intervenes in their relationship, Libby decides to find out all she can about the man she hastily married and the seemingly perfect… See more details below
Libby has a nice life with a great job, a gorgeous husband and a big home by the sea. But she's becoming more unsure of Jack's feelings for her - and if he is over the mysterious death of Eve, his first wife.
When fate intervenes in their relationship, Libby decides to find out all she can about the man she hastily married and the seemingly perfect Eve.
Eventually Libby stumbles across some startling truths about Eve. As she begins to unearth more and more devastating secrets, Libby becomes frightened that she too will end up like the first woman Jack loved. . .
A heart-wrenching novel that deals with a number of important social issues, including the actions of private contractors in war, the treatment of women in the armed services, domestic violence and school bullying."Kirkus on THE WOMAN HE LOVED BEFORE"
It's a great spin on a conventional romance novel - it's so gripping I couldn't put it down!"Nicole Scherzinger on THE WOMAN HE LOVED BEFORE"
An intricate tragedy of seduction and abuse, the loss of self and family, and the agonizing path to redemption and absolution. I couldn't put it down. Neither will you."Antoinette Van Heugten, author of Saving Max on THE ICE CREAM GIRLS"
Goodnight, Beautiful was Cosmo's favourite book of 2008, so we were beyond excited when Dorothy Koomson's latest novel landed on our desk. Another moving and thought-provoking read, this lives up to expectations."Cosmopolitan on THE ICE CREAM GIRLS
- Grand Central Publishing
- Publication date:
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.30(d)
Read an Excerpt
The Woman He Loved Before
By Dorothy Koomson
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2013 Dorothy Koomson
All right reserved.
WHEN I THINK OF JACK, I try to think of walking on wobbly legs after stumbling off the mini roller coaster at the end of Brighton Pier. I try to think of being fed puffs of sticky candyfloss while lying on a threadbare blanket on the pebble beach. I try to think of having handfuls of popcorn stuffed down my shirt in the front row of the cinema. I try to think of laughing and laughing until I’m doubled over and breathless, tears running down my cheeks.
“Libby, Libby, come on, wake up. Don’t fall asleep yet.” The voice is gentle, nudging and slightly pleading.
I open my eyes and he’s blurry. The man with the soft, pleading voice is slightly out of focus, and blinking doesn’t seem to clear the view. My face is wet, and I’m dizzy, and I feel so cold. And it hurts everywhere all at once.
“Good girl,” he says. “Try and keep your eyes open, okay? Try and stay awake. Do you know who I am? Do you remember me?”
“Sam,” I say, even though I don’t think I am making sounds with my words. “You’re a fireman so you’re called Sam.”
He’s a bit more in focus now, the blurriness is ebbing away and I can make out his features so I see his smile split the darkness of his face. “Close enough,” he says.
“Am I going to die?” I ask him. Again, I’m not sure I am making sounds, but Sam The Fireman seems to understand me.
“Not if I can help it,” he says, and he smiles again. If he didn’t look so much like my brother, have the smooth contours of his face, his dark brown skin and bright, almost-black eyes, I could probably develop a crush on him. But that’s what you’re meant to do with heroes, isn’t it? You’re supposed to fall in love with them.
“Is the car going to explode?” I ask, more out of interest than fear.
“No. That only happens in films.”
“That’s what I told Jack. I don’t think he believed me.”
“Tell me about him.”
“Yes. You were telling me before.”
When I think of Jack, I try not to think about the locked cupboard without a key that sits in the basement of the house that’s meant to be our home. I try not to think of him curled up alone in the dark, crying as he watches old movies. I try not to think of sitting opposite him at dinner and asking myself when he started to feel like a stranger. And I try not to wonder when time is going to stretch its healing arms toward him and make him feel whole so he can truly open his heart to me.
“Libby, Libby, come on now. Tell me about your husband.”
“Can you hear me?” I ask Sam The Fireman, because I’m fascinated that he seems to be able to when I can’t hear myself.
“I can lip-read.”
“So you drew the short straw, did you? Got stuck with me.”
“It’s not a chore.”
“Short straw. I said short straw. You can’t really lip-read, can you? You’re just putting it on so you get to stay with the car. Avoid any heavy lifting.”
He smiles again. “Busted. Didn’t realize I was so obvious.”
“Obvious is nice sometimes.”
“Do you fancy him? Is that why you’re going on about him?” I ask. “I can put in a good word for you, if you want?”
Sam The Fireman laughs a deep, throaty laugh. “I’m pretty sure I’m not his type. And I’m one hundred percent sure he’s not my type.”
“Ahhh, go on. You shouldn’t be so closed off. He wasn’t my type when I first met him. But look at us now: him with one dead wife and another on the way.”
“You’re not going to die, Libby,” he says sternly. He is cross with me all of a sudden. And now I’m tired. I hurt all over, but especially on one side of my head, and my nose. Actually, all that side of my body hurts and I can’t move it properly. And I’m cold. I really want to sleep so that this pain and coldness goes away. You can’t hurt in your sleep, can you?
“Libby, Libby, Libby!” he says again. “Stay awake, please. Jack’s waiting for you. He’s refusing to go to the hospital until he knows you’re safe. It’s all going to be okay.”
“You’re a nice man,” I say to him. He’s so nice I don’t want to upset him by telling him how much it hurts. He doesn’t want to listen to me whining on. I just want to sleep. I just want to close my eyes and go to sleep—
“The lads are going to start cutting soon, Libby. After that, you’ll go straight to the hospital where they’ll look after you. Okay? But I need you to stay awake while they’re cutting. Do you hear me, Libby? Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“I understand everything,” I say. “I’m the most understanding person on Earth—just ask Jack.”
“There’s going to be a lot of noise in a few seconds. I need you to stay awake while it’s happening. Okay?”
The world is screeching, the car is screaming at me. It is being sliced apart, torn from around me and it is screaming out in agony. It wants the pain to stop, and I want the noise to stop. I want to sleep. I just want to sleep. I close my eyes and rest my head.
When I think of Jack, I try to remember the way we used to sleep together: our bodies like two pieces of a living jigsaw, fitted so perfectly together the gaps looked like tricks of the imagination. I try not to think when I started to wonder, as we climbed into bed at night, if he wished for even a moment I was someone else.
When I think of Jack—
“I think you and this car are going to be very happy together,” Gareth told me. Gareth was one of those men who was your best friend when you were sitting in front of him, being convinced to part with your cash, but if you saw him in a pub or a club he’d not only ignore you, he and his mates—all of them old enough to know better—would take the piss out of you. Would judge your looks, your weight, your sense of dress, because you did not live up to the porn-star ideal he held in his head.
It was safe to say, having been in his company for forty minutes or so, I did not like Gareth.
I curled my lips into my mouth and managed a smile. I wanted this bit to be over. I wanted to pay the deposit, to give him my details, and then to leave here—hopefully never to return, as I could get the car delivered after I’d made the rest of the payment by credit card over the phone.
My eyes strayed to the showroom window and to the Pacific-blue Polo sitting on the forecourt. She seemed to shine, to stand out among all the other gray, black, red, and silver monsters out there. She seemed almost regal but demure with it.
Gareth was talking again so I turned back to him and forced myself to listen. I’d sort of lost interest in most things after slipping into the soft cream leather interior and taking her for a ride. My first car. I’d passed my test two weeks ago, and this was the first car I could see myself driving and that I could afford. I’d had to push for a good bargain because I had no other vehicle to trade in, but she was worth all that haggling.
“Now, Libby, do you want the interior and exterior treatment that will protect the car? It would be helpful with kids. Stops drinks and things spoiling that fantastic leather. And with living in Brighton, with the salty air—”
“Gaz, my man!” someone interrupted. I looked up at the interloper, standing inches from me. He was wearing large, black-lensed Aviator sunglasses inside. That was pretty much all I needed to get the full measure of him. The rest of him—his height, his wavy blond-brown hair, his well-groomed face, the thick gold band on the third finger of his right hand, and his body clothed in a Ralph Lauren shirt, Calvin Klein jeans, and Tag Heuer watch—were all inconsequential to the fact he wore sunglasses indoors.
Gareth jumped to his feet, his face overtaken by a grin, his eyes lighting up. “Jack! Good to see you.” He eagerly held out his hand for “Jack” to shake, excited by the chance to be touched by him. I’d seen some man-on-man crushes in my time, but this was so fervent it was embarrassing. I could imagine Gareth sitting home alone late at night, his phone by his side, waiting and waiting for that phone call where Jack invites him out to drink champagne and grope good-looking women.
“I need your help, buddy,” Jack said, warmly. If you didn’t know better, you’d think “Jack” genuinely liked Gareth when, in reality, Jack probably treated most people with disdain and mild contempt—it sat there plainly on his forehead and in the way he stood.
“One minute,” Gareth barely managed to throw in my direction as Jack slung his arm around Gareth’s shoulders and started to walk him away from his desk.
“Gareth, I’ve messed up, again. I was wondering if you could get one of the lads to take the dents out of the Z4—today, if possible. The regular dealer said next week, but I knew you were the go-to man to get it done today or tomorrow.”
“Yeah, sure,” were the last words I heard from Gareth as the pair of them wandered off across the shiny white and chrome showroom.
I spun in my seat and watched them standing by the large curved reception desk: Jack a full head taller than Gareth, his feet planted wide apart, his sunglasses in place while he made crude gestures in his chest area, obviously making reference to a woman’s breasts. Gareth was lapping it up, his eyes agog, listening. I had taken the day off work to come here and buy this car. And Jack, who probably didn’t even know what work was, had just wandered in and was getting his problem seen to straight away.
I looked out at my car again. My little beauty. I loved her, but not enough to be treated like this. There were plenty of other places much nearer to home where I could sit and be ignored before handing over a large sum of cash. Unfortunately for Gareth, while I’d got my debit card out of my purse and into his possession, he hadn’t got around to swiping it through the machine. That meant I could still walk away without losing anything but a little time. I stood up, plucked my driving license and debit card from among the papers on Gareth’s desk, shoved them into my bag, then hooked the strap decisively over my shoulder. Gareth could keep some other mug waiting; this one had waited long enough and she was off.
Shooting them both a look of pure contempt, I stalked to the door and pushed it open.
“Libby?” Gareth called after me. “Erm, wait, I’ll be with you in a minute.”
As my hand connected with the door I turned to him, and over my shoulder I shot him another contempt-soaked look and carried on.
Outside was hot but the air, laden with the promise of rain, weighed heavily on my shoulders. I inhaled and braved a last, longing look at my car before I walked slowly down the wide drive of the showroom and out onto the busy main road. I turned right, toward the bus stop. I was somewhere between indignant and sad: indignant at the way Jack had waltzed in and interrupted our chat without a second thought, and sad because my impulsiveness had stopped me getting the car I really loved. Agh! I’d have to start my search again—after I’d run the gauntlet of bus, train, and bus to get home. So much for my day off.
“Libby, Libby!” A man’s voice called.
I didn’t have to turn around to know who it was. Seconds later, he appeared in my path, which stopped me from walking. His sunglasses were still in place.
“I’m really sorry about that,” he said. “I just—”
“Didn’t feel the need to wait your turn because an insignificant woman was sitting there and you’re so incredibly important your needs come first?” I asked.
He was shocked enough to strip his face of his sunglasses and stare at me. “Not sure how to respond to that, really,” he admitted.
“Maybe there is no response, Jack,” I replied.
His face did a double-take: obviously people rarely answered him in this manner. “Maybe an apology would be the appropriate response,” he offered.
I shrugged. “Maybe.”
“I’m sorry. What I did was rude. I should not have interrupted your meeting, and I can only apologize for that.”
There was an unpleasant nuance to his apology: he had pitched it so that the words were technically correct, his tone of voice was contrite, but everything was smeared with ridicule. He was taking the piss out of me. He probably took the piss out of everything and got away with it because most people were left unsure of whether he was being sincere or whether they were being hypersensitive.
“Was that it? The best you can do? Wow, I hope you never have to apologize in your day job because you are rubbish at it,” I said. “And if that was your idea of subtly taking the piss out of me then I feel even more sorry for you than I did a few seconds ago because you’re even more rubbish at that.” I stepped around him and continued my journey toward the bus stop.
When I’d seen the beautiful little car on the forecourt, I’d been able to picture myself cruising along, the radio on loud, the windows wide open, my voice mingling with the singers on the radio. Even being stuck in traffic wouldn’t have been so bad because I’d be safe in my own little cocooned world. Now, thanks to his arrogance and my pride, I’d have to start looking from scratch.
And there he was again: Jack. Standing in front of me, blocking me from going any farther.
“What do you want now?” I asked.
“Look, I really am sorry,” he said. “As a result of my actions Gareth has lost a sale. It’s not fair to him that my visit has potentially cost him his livelihood.”
“His livelihood?” I said, smearing my tone with his particular type of ridicule. It did not sit right with me, but this man clearly needed to be dealt with on his level. “His whole livelihood rests upon the sale of one little car?”
“No, but it’s not good to lose customers in this current economic climate. And he’ll be doubly screwed if you go around telling people. That was all my fault. I’m sorry. Truly. Please can you give Gareth another chance? He’s a decent man trying to make a living. I’m an idiot for messing around with that.”
“You’ll get no arguments on that from me.”
“Please, will you give him another chance?”
The picture of me cruising along, window open, stereo on, singing out loud, danced across my mind. Gareth would be nice now. He’d stop trying to sell me extras and would want me to sign on the dotted line as soon as possible. And I did so love that little vehicle…
“You’re always cutting off your nose to spite your face,” my best friend Angela often told me. “I’ve never met a woman as stubborn as you. Even when it’s not in your best interests you’ll do something to make a point. Sometimes, sweetheart, you need to go with the flow.”
Car versus Tell this man where to go?
There really was only one option.
SHE’S STILL AWAKE.”
“Her eyes might be closed, but she’s trying to speak.”
“Libby likes to talk.”
“You don’t, do you, Jack? Not about anything that really matters.”
“Keep talking to her, it’ll help.”
“Libby? It’s me, Jack. I’m right here. Everything’s going to be okay. You’re going to be just fine.”
“I don’t feel fine. I don’t feel much of any—”
“What’s the ETA?”
“About three minutes. We should have got a doctor to come to the scene.”
“They said there was no one available. Put your foot down. Oh, BP has just gone through the floor.”
Jack was sitting on the bonnet of a red car, chewing on bites of an apple when I had finally finished with Gareth. His long legs were drawn up toward his chest and splayed out at the knees, while he rested his elbows on his knees. I gave him a passing glance, a nod, then began toward the driveway.
“All sorted then?” he called at me, taking off his sunglasses.
“Yes. All sorted.”
Unexpectedly, the driver’s side door of the car he sat on popped open, and a pair of bronzed, slender legs in a pair of Prada sandals stepped out. The owner of the legs slowly uncurled herself from the car and was, of course, beautiful: perfectly applied makeup, shoulder-length honey-blonde hair, a short, floaty Gucci number and a diamond-encrusted Rolex on her wrist. They could not be a more clichéd couple if they tried.
“Grace, this is Libby. Libby, this is Grace, my best friend’s wife. She’s here to drive me home while my car is being fixed.”
“Hi,” I said to her, wondering why he’d been at pains to clarify that she wasn’t his girlfriend.
She smiled warmly, which wrong-footed me: in my job, I met women like her all the time and they generally behaved how Jack behaved—as if the world revolved around them. “Hello,” she said, the corner of her nude-lipsticked mouth turning up a fraction in slight amusement. If she wasn’t his girlfriend, she probably liked the idea of Jack having to apologize. “Pleased to meet you.”
“You too,” I said.
I nodded good-bye to them and then continued walking toward the bus stop. A minute later, he was in front of me again. He wiped the apple juice that had been glistening on his lips on the back of his hand and tucked his sunglasses in his top pocket.
“Is that it?” he asked.
“Is what it?” I replied.
“You and me, done and dusted?”
“Was there ever a you and me?” I asked.
“I thought there was a little frisson earlier. Something we could work on.”
“Frisson? You mean, you taking the piss out of me and me saying you were rubbish? That was a frisson? I feel really sorry for the women you go out with.”
“So this,” he moved his forefinger in the space between us, “isn’t going anywhere?”
“Where did you think it would go?”
“To dinner or a drink?”
“Jack, I’m sorry to say I don’t particularly like you. Your clearly over-inflated sense of entitlement keeps bringing out the not very nice side of me. See? I would never normally say that to someone—and believe me, I meet a lot of odorous people on a daily basis so I do know how to keep it in—but with you, I can’t help it. So, no, I don’t see this going anywhere.”
He studied me silently, his eyebrows knitted slightly together as his moss-green eyes held mine. “At least tell me your full name.”
“So I can forever remember the one person who didn’t fall for my charm, or lack thereof.”
The promise of rain in the air suddenly fulfilled itself, spilling out onto the world. This rain in early July was incredibly welcome: beautiful and calming. I lifted my face to the sky, smiling as the drops gently exploded on my skin. It was the enemy of my hair, would make me a frizzy mess in less time than it took to boil water, but I still loved the cooling touch of rain.
As I lowered my head, I saw on the horizon behind Jack the large lumbering shape of a bus. It was going in my direction and I had to be on it if I had any hope of salvaging what was left of my day off. “No, you can’t have my full name,” I said to him. “I know you’ll just Google it, because you can’t help yourself, and then you’ll have to call whatever number you find because, again, you won’t be able to help yourself. Believe me, it’s better like this.” As I spoke, I ferreted in my bag for my one-day travel pass. Finally finding it lodged between the book I was reading and my umbrella, I pulled it free. “Good-bye, again.” Without waiting for a response, I stepped around him to start running down the slick pavement for the bus stop.
“Libby!” he called to me.
I stopped, turned around. “Yes?” I asked, pushing locks of my wet black hair off my face.
He smiled, shook his head. “Nothing. I’ll see you around.”
I shrugged. “Anything’s possible.” I turned and sprinted toward the bus stop, arriving just in time to get on.
Jack stood in the same spot and waved at me as the bus went past.
I gave him a wan smile then looked out of the front window to concentrate on where I was going, which was away from this place.
BP’S STILL DROPPING, she’s extremely tachycardic.”
Why is only part of my life flashing before my eyes? What about everything else? Doesn’t the rest of my life count?
“We need to get more fluids into her.”
Is my whole life really about Jack?
“I’ve lost her pulse!”
“Have you been keeping things from us, Libby Rabvena?” asked Paloma when I returned to the haven of the staff room after performing a particularly gruesome bikini wax.
I was still shuddering, hoping I wouldn’t wake up tonight dreaming about it, when Paloma had stopped me in the doorway with her words. She was my boss: manager of Si Pur, the exclusive beauty salon for those who liked to experience purity from the inside out.
Standing beside her, like a row of white-uniformed, cleansed, toned and moisturized soldiers were Inês, Sandra, Amy, and Vera, the other beauticians who, like me, lived to do nothing more than impart the Si Pur ethos. They were all looking at me with flawless, expectant faces, and I instantly drew back in apprehension. Those looks meant they were up to something, possibly planning a surprise of some sort. And I did not like surprises. I preferred to know what was coming, always.
“Not that I know of,” I said cautiously. I wasn’t exactly living the most exciting life at the moment. The only thing that I hadn’t told them was that I had lost my debit card yesterday, after paying the deposit on my car. Thankfully, I’d managed to cancel it before whoever found it had used it. I hadn’t told them that because, well, why would I? I had told them about my car, which would be arriving sometime next week.
“Well, what do you make of this, then?” Paloma said and, almost as if they had choreographed it, the five of them stepped aside, revealing a bouquet of burgundy and cream roses.
I stared at the roses, all with lickably luscious, velvety petals, and at the expensive glass vase with a large red bow tied around its middle that they had obviously arrived in.
“Are those for me?” I asked.
“Yes,” Paloma said, not bothering to hide the naked jealousy in her voice. “They’ve just arrived.”
“Right,” I said, perplexed. I could not think of a single person who would send me flowers, let alone ones as beautiful as these. I stepped forward, and reached for the square white card with my name and the salon’s address on the front that sat on its own metal holder in the middle of the bouquet.
“And who’s Jack?” Paloma asked before my hand had made contact.
I wasn’t surprised she’d opened the card; she did that sort of thing all the time. She made no secret of the fact that she thought she had first dibs on anything that came into the salon—even if it was sent specifically to one of us. It was a perk of management, she insisted to anyone who dared complain: you try doing her job on top of managing such a large salon for the money she made, she reasoned; it would make you realize that you deserved a little extra. None of us had been brave enough to point out that what she did was actually bordering on theft.
“Some man I met,” I said, slipping the card out of its envelope.
You wouldn’t tell me your name, but I found this, so I took it as Fate. Call me. Jack. His number was at the bottom of the card.
From the envelope I pulled out my errant debit card. Ah. When I’d got my pass out of my bag, I must have dropped it. That was why he’d called me when I ran for the bus—for a moment he was going to return it, then saw it as too good an opportunity to pass up.
It was not Fate; it was me needing to organize my bag so things like this did not happen.
“You can’t just say that! Where did you meet him? When? Who is he? How come he sent you flowers? Are you going to call him?” Paloma asked, straining to keep herself in check. She thrived on mysteries; the thought of one involving a man who sent flowers was probably driving her insane.
Paloma was stunning. She had thick dark hair that she wore in a sensible bun for work, a heart-shaped face, dewy dark-brown skin and long eyelashes that framed her chestnut eyes. She would love Jack. And he would probably love her. She might be less of a challenge than me, but she was on his wavelength: she had an innate sense of entitlement, and she was impressed by money and monied people. They would go together perfectly.
“You should call him,” I said, handing her the little white card. “You’d love him: good looking, rich. Drives one of those sporty Z4 things and wears a Tag Heuer watch.”
She almost snatched the card out of my hand, stared at it wide-eyed. “You really think I should?” she asked casually, while her eyes were desperately committing his details to memory in case I changed my mind.
“I do,” I said. “You’re his type.”
Once she had memorized his number, she raised her gaze to me and pursed her lips. “What’s the catch?” she asked. “What do you want in return?”
Shaking my head, I went to the cleaning cupboard and liberated the jar of instant coffee we hid behind the bleach and washing up liquid. (If we ever had a visit from the “so pure” people who owned the salons, they would probably die—after sacking us—to discover we didn’t sip green tea and eat seeds all day in the purity of our staff room haven.) “Nothing,” I said, going to the kettle and shaking it to see if it had enough for a cup. “Oh, except maybe an invite to the wedding if it all works out.”
At the word “wedding,” Paloma’s eyes suddenly lost focus and she began mentally trying on her—already chosen—Vera Wang wedding dress, placing her real diamond tiara on her head, and wafting the long white veil with Swarovski crystals hand-sewn onto it. It was obvious she would never invite any of us mere mortals to her wedding. She tolerated us because we were all good at our jobs, but she was treading water—the second she landed a handsome, rich husband she was leaving and not looking back. Once she hit her jackpot, she’d probably pass us in the street and pretend she didn’t know who we were.
The more I thought about it, the more perfect she seemed for Jack.
“It’s a deal,” she said with a smile.
Her hands reached out for the vase. “But I get to keep the flowers,” I told her. Her manicured fingers hovered a few seconds longer around the base of the vase, before they were eventually—reluctantly—withdrawn. There’d be plenty more where they came from, she obviously decided.
WHY IS IT so quiet?
And so dark?
A minute ago there was noise and sirens and people talking, and I think Jack was holding my hand, and everything was moving so fast.
At least the pain has stopped.
But I want to know why everything else has stopped, too.
Am I asleep?
Maybe I’m asleep. You can’t hurt in your sleep. And all I wanted was to go to sleep before.
I want to wake up now.
Where is everybody?
Why am I suddenly alone?
“You’re not alone,” the woman’s voice, as smooth and rich as velvet, says. “I’m here. And I know exactly what you’re going through.”
“Who are you?”
“Oh, come on, Libby, you know who I am.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do. You’re a smart woman; that’s why Jack’s with you. Come on, you can work it out.”
“No, you can’t be. You can’t be—”
“We’ve got her back, but I don’t know for how long. You really need to put your foot down or she won’t make it.”
“I’ll try, but there is so much traffic. No one is moving because there’s nowhere to move to.”
“I’ll keep pumping in fluids, but I don’t know how long that’s going to work.”
“That was very funny, giving my number to your boss,” Jack said to me as I approached my building.
He was leaning on the wall outside, holding a brown cardboard drinks tray with two white paper coffee cups slotted into the holes and a white bag perched between them.
It was eight o’clock. The world was bright, and London was, of course, already on the move: traffic was rolling past Si Pur’s glass-fronted building at the bottom of Covent Garden; various people were heading toward buildings or the Tube station around the corner. I always came into work early because it meant I was less likely to have to do the late shift since I had the farthest to travel. I’d also been hoping to leave early tomorrow because my car was being delivered.
“Just happened to be in the area?” I asked him.
“No. I came to see if I could tempt you to sit on a bench and eat a croissant and drink a coffee with me. And to thank you for giving my number to your boss, of course.”
“She actually called you? She wouldn’t tell us if she had or not.”
“And it didn’t go well?”
“Not for me it didn’t.”
“I genuinely thought you’d get on.”
“We did get on. It turns out we know quite a few of the same people, and she’s funny, and intelligent, and if it wasn’t for one little problem, I’d probably have asked her out.”
“Oh, right,” I said. “That’s a shame.”
“Don’t you want to know what that problem is?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“I’ll tell you anyway: the problem is I’m interested in going out with you.”
“Okay,” I said.
Jack’s handsome face, which looked disconcertingly awake for the hour, did a double take. “You’ll go out with me. Just like that?”
“Yes. I will go out with you. Right now. I will go and sit on a park bench and eat a croissant and drink a coffee and we’ll call it ‘going out’ and then we can call it quits, okay?”
“What if you actually enjoy yourself? What if you decide that you quite like the attentions of the J-man and would like to see me again? How are you going to square that with—?”
“Don’t push it. And don’t call yourself J-man.”
“Got you. How about Soho Square?”
I liked early morning London, with the people, lives, and stories that made up the city’s blood continuously buzzing under its skin, constantly moving it forward. It was so different to early morning Brighton. Early morning Brighton was best experienced with a walk along the front, nodding to dog walkers and joggers and those who’d been partying all night. Brighton’s blood flow seemed so much calmer than London’s but I loved them both in equal measures.
“I feel like I need to be on my best behavior or you’re not going to finish your breakfast with me,” Jack said as we crossed Charing Cross Road and headed toward Manette Street.
“Why are you putting yourself through this, then?” I replied. “There really is no need for it.”
“I find you intriguing. Not many people intrigue me.”
I’d been out with men like Jack before. Many, many times before because, it seemed, the beautician’s uniform was a magnet for the type of man who wanted a girlfriend but not a woman. They wanted someone who would take care of her appearance, who would appreciate the gifts and the exotic trips, who would smile sweetly at the right moments, but wouldn’t do things like have period pain, or hairy legs, or—horrors of horrors—expect to have their opinions and thoughts listened to. The last man I’d been out with, a diplomat for a small African country, had been horrified that the woman he’d met at a party who told him she was a beauty therapist turned out to have a degree in biochemistry and had once been a research scientist. I’d seen it on his face—he’d been expecting me to twirl my hair around my finger and sit there agog as he told me all about his diplomatic immunity and what things were like in his country. He didn’t expect me to ask about the economic stability that indigenous fuel production could bring to his country (but I only did that because he’d been so presumptuous about me from my job title) and he couldn’t get away fast enough at the end of the date.
Men like Jack did not want to go out with a real woman—they wanted the idea they had of what a woman was. That was probably why I intrigued Jack: I wasn’t cute and cuddly, and every time there’d been an opportunity to become a “lady” I hadn’t taken it—I’d been nothing like the idea he probably had of womanliness in his head. That presented a challenge. And if there was anything men like Jack craved more than a demure woman, it was a challenging woman to tame.
At this time in the morning, most of the benches in Soho Square were occupied by people who had nowhere else to sleep, while the paths were littered with used condoms and spent needles. But I never let that bother me; those were cosmetic, inconsequential flaws—beneath them, Soho Square couldn’t help being divine: a small, perfectly formed green jewel hidden and cosseted in the middle of a busy city. I often spent lunchtimes here, and I liked the idea of having breakfast here, even though it hadn’t had a chance to get its game face on.
Jack balanced the tray on his lap and asked, “Sugar or no sugar?”
“Whichever,” I said.
“I got one of each, so pick.”
He removed the white cup nearest to me and handed it over. “Sweet enough already, huh?”
“Do you actually listen to the things you say?” I asked him as I uncapped the coffee and took a grateful sip of the warm foam.
“Not as much as I should. I admit that was a bit lame.”
“Were you just going to wait out there until I showed up at some unknown time?” I asked him. He picked up the white bag, which was now greased through with butter from the croissants, and held it out to me.
“No, Paloma told me that you often get in just before eight.”
“You asked her that?”
“Yes, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask as many questions as possible about you. She had nothing but good things to say. She thinks you’re fantastic at your job even though being a beautician wasn’t your first choice of career, and she suspects other salons are always trying to tease you away from her. She also told me you had a weakness for coffee and croissants, even though you know how they wreak havoc on the skin.”
“She said all that?” I asked, surprised and more than a little chuffed. “That was so nice of her.”
“There was a lot of pride and affection in her voice when she spoke about you.”
“And she didn’t mind that you weren’t going to ask her out?”
“No. She has no shame—when I told her I liked you, she asked me if I had any single friends. I’ve set her up with Devin—he’s American and rich. He’d love her.”
Vera Wang dress, here she comes, I thought affectionately and enviously. I admired Paloma for knowing what she wanted in life and love. I sometimes wished I was as focused as her. “To be happy” was something I always aspired to. If I didn’t like what I was doing, if it wasn’t making me happy then I tried to do something else, but somehow, at thirty-four, “to be happy” didn’t seem enough of a goal anymore.
“Are you ambitious, Jack?” I asked.
I watched his face, symmetrical and smooth, with well-cared-for skin and a healthy bronzed glow. He had incredible bone structure, and amazing eyes, while his lips… There was no doubting how desirable he was and, sitting here, sipping coffee and eating pieces of croissant, he wasn’t the person I had met in the showroom. He was normal. Considered, deliberate, contemplative. No question was answered without it being thought through. If I had met this Jack I might not have had such an aversion to him. “Yes, in some ways. If I want something I go for it, if that’s what you mean.”
“No, it’s not what I mean. I’m asking if you know what you want in life.”
“Career-wise, family-wise, money-wise?”
“Yes. And no. I mean, are you working toward some big goal in life? In the big picture do you know what you want?”
He shook his head as he frowned. “I thought I did. I thought I had it. But it didn’t last. At that time, I thought what I wanted, what my big ambition in life was—wait for it—was to be happy.”
“And it wasn’t?”
“No, it soon became apparent that happiness shouldn’t be a destination in your life. It should be part of the journey of your life. Profound, I know, for someone as shallow as me, but take it from a man who knows: putting everything on hold to achieve the one thing you think will make you happy will actually mean that you’re miserable along the way to getting there, and when you get there, you might find that the thing you wanted doesn’t make you as happy as you thought it would. Or worse, you’ve completely forgotten how to be happy.”
“That really is profound,” I said.
“I do have gems of profoundness hidden in my shallows.” He ran his hand through his hair and I caught sight of his wrist as he moved: 8:35.
“Sorry, Jack, I’ve got to get to work.” I stood, scrunched up the paper bag. He stood too, a grand figure that slotted in perfectly with the quiet glamour of the park.
“I’ll walk you back,” he said, his eyes scanning the park for a bin for our trash.
“That’s kind of you, but no. I’ve had a nice time, despite my initial reservations, and you’ve given me something to think about, but I… I don’t really want this to go any further. And if you walk me back, it’ll feel like a date and it’ll be awkward with whether you try to ask me out again. Let’s leave this as a nice little interlude, okay?”
He said nothing for a moment. I could see he was trying to think of the right thing to say in reply because, to him, this was clearly not okay. “You make me tongue-tied, you know. I’m sure it’s not your intention, but I always have to think before I speak because I know you’ll pick up on anything that’s fake or double-edged in meaning.” He sighed. “No. It’s not okay that you want to leave things at this. But I’ll call you and ask you again. Hopefully you won’t put the phone down. You’ll remember that little moment of profoundness I visited upon your life and you’ll give me a chance.”
“Are you always this honest?” I asked him.
“Almost never,” he replied. “But I will call you, ask you out again, because in my heart of hearts I’m hoping you’re going to say yes.”
“Like I said last time, anything’s possible. Bye.”
“Bye,” he replied and moved his intense gaze to my lips. It wasn’t a particularly long look, but it was noticeable.
And it had me thinking about him, and happiness on the journey of life, all the way back to work.
“THIS IS LIBBY BRITCHAM, thirty-six, involved in RTA. Had to be cut from the vehicle. Suffered multiple contusions and lacerations to body, head and face, also possible concussion although was lucid and responsive at the scene. Could not make sounds while speaking, possible aphonia from shock.
“Hypotensive throughout. She had PEA en route but responded to resuscitation and a further fluid challenge and we got her back after five minutes of resuscitation. She had two lots of IV epinephrine. She’s had 900mls of gelofusine so far and two liters of normal saline, has a tender abdomen—looks like an intra abdominal bleed, probably spleen. Husband, Jack Britcham, also involved in the RTA being treated in exam room two.”
“Okay. Libby, can you hear me?”
Yes, I can hear you, I think at her, there’s no need to shout.
“My name’s Doctor Goolson. You’re at the hospital. We’re going to take very good care of you.”
There’s that bright light being shone in my eyes again. Why do people keep doing that? Are they trying to blind me?
“Pupils responsive on both sides, set up the scan and get plastics as well as neurosurgery on standby. Get four units of O negative until we can cross-match. Also need a morphine IV here.”
I am so unfit! I thought as I forced myself to move forward and chase after Benji, my nephew. He was five years old and pretty adept with a ball. It always seemed that whenever he came to stay with me for the weekend he was somehow gifted with even more energy than before while I was somehow less able to keep up with him.
He kicked his ball across the grass at Hove Park. I much preferred this park to the one near where I lived, but it only made sense to come here now because I could drive us here. Benji preferred it, too: it seemed more spacious and the greens were flatter, making playing football much easier.
I was in goal, standing between our two jumpers, but he’d kicked the ball and chased it in the opposite direction to where I was standing, heading closer and closer to the agreed boundaries for this game. If he went beyond the boundaries, I’d find it difficult to catch him up—he was that fast. I’d abandoned the goal to dart across the grass after him, calling to him to stop. Fear made me faster and I got to him in half my usual time. Just as I was about to reach out and grab him back, he shot me a wicked grin and turned around and started kicking his ball toward the now unprotected goal.
“Why, you!” I called, aghast that I’d been so tricked by one so young. I shouldn’t be surprised, though. His father, my brother, was master of the double-bluff as well as being reckless and devious. He was a lone parent because his girlfriend—Benji’s mother—had finally seen the light and had walked out, telling him he should try living her life while she lived his by going out to have some fun. I loved my brother, but he was not good boyfriend material. I’d been surprised that someone as seemingly intelligent as his ex had thought he was.
Running as fast as I could, I tried to get back to the goal, just as Benji kicked the ball straight down the middle of the two jumpers.
“GOAL!” he screamed, then ran around with his hands in the air, as he’d no doubt seen his father do on many an occasion.
“You!” I said to him, scooping him up and spinning him around. “You tricked me!”
“All’s fair in love and football!” He laughed, his mahogany-brown face alight with pleasure. “That’s what Dad says.”
“I’ll bet he does.”
A jogger who’d just run past on the path that snaked around the park reappeared suddenly and crossed the grass toward us. Jack. He was unmistakable, especially against this backdrop. He was sweaty, slightly red; his hair was damp and his gray T-shirt had a dark, V-shaped patch of sweat on his chest where flesh and cloth made contact, but he still had that “togetherness” he always had about him.
“Thought it was you from a distance,” he said, unhooking his white iPod headphones from his ears. “Knew it was you from up close.”
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi.” His gaze moved to Benji, who stared back at him undaunted and unafraid. “Hi.”
“My name’s Benji. What’s yours?”
“Are you my auntie Libby’s boyfriend?”
“No,” Jack said. “I’m sort-of a friend.”
“How can you be sort-of a friend? I only have friends or not friends, not sort-of friends.”
“Because even though I’ve met her a couple of times, she won’t come to dinner with me, so we only sort-of know each other.”
“But why should she come to dinner with you if you’re only sort-of friends and only sort-of know each other? I don’t have my dinner with everyone I meet.”
Jack looked at Benji, then looked at me. “I can tell you’re related.”
“Because we look alike?” Benji asked, eagerly.
“No, because I have to think before I say anything to you.”
“Do you want to play football?” Benji asked. “I keep scoring against Auntie Libby. She thinks I’m a sneaky little so-and-so ’cause I keep winning.”
Jack looked at his black runner’s watch, and visibly tried to calculate something. Then he returned his attentions to Benji. “I might stick around and score a few goals. But don’t think I’m going to let you off because you’re shorter than me—I know you’re really a top player. Your auntie Libby can go in goal.”
“Oh, can I now?”
“Yes!” they both said at the same time.
“Right, well I guess I’ve been told.”
Benji and Jack ran rings around each other: tackling, double-bluffing, stealing the ball. For the most part, they didn’t actually need me because they spent so much time playing with each other, but when they did come toward me with a goal in mind, I did the obligatory throwing myself on the ground to try to save the ball.
After half an hour or so, Jack looked at his watch again. “I really should be getting back,” he said to me. “I’m having dinner with my parents.” He placed his hand on Benji’s short, neat Afro. “Thanks, mate, you’ve given me a good game. Shall we call it a draw?”
“Nooo!” Benji said. “I scored six goals and you scored four.”
“Gah! I was banking on you not being able to count. Oh well, you’re the winner. It was nice to meet you.”
“You too,” Benji said politely and shook his hand. “I hope Auntie Libby goes out to dinner with you one day.”
“Me too, mate, me too. Maybe you can work on her for me.”
“Maybe,” Benji said.
Jack grinned at Benji then turned to me. “Nice to see you, Libby.”
His eyes held mine for a moment, asking if I’d changed my mind, if I would go out to dinner with him. Despite what he’d said when we had coffee and croissants, he hadn’t called me in the last two weeks, but he was asking again for a chance. When I didn’t respond, his upset spun a web of disappointment over his face, and he dropped his gaze to the grass, then turned away slowly. He headed back to the path, pressed an earphone into his ear.
He wasn’t so bad. Twice now he’d shown me that. The man I’d first met was so far removed from the man who’d brought me croissants and who’d played football with Benji. Maybe he wasn’t like the other men I’d met; maybe he was worth a chance.
“Jack,” I called as he moved the other earpiece to his left ear.
Earpiece aloft, he turned to me questioningly.
“Okay,” I said.
I nodded. “Next Saturday, if you’re free.”
He smiled, his expression a mixture of delight and shock, and nodded.
“Call me at work.”
He nodded again, waved to Benji, and then began jogging back the way he’d come.
Benji and I watched him jog toward the park gates, but he wasn’t completely out of sight when he jumped up and punched the air.
“Why did he do that?” Benji asked, turning his head up to me.
I looked down at him. “Don’t know,” I said. “Just a strange man, I guess.”
“Suppose you’re right,” Benji said. “Can I get an ice cream?”
LOOKS LIKE A ruptured spleen, causing the abdomen to fill with blood. We’re going to have to take her up to theater straight away.”
I wish everyone would stop shouting. I can’t hear myself think. Or remember.
“Page plastics and neurosurgery again; they’re going to have to meet us up there.”
Please, stop shouting. It’s not going to get anything done quicker, you know.
“Someone needs to tell her husband what’s going on.”
We bounced off each other—putting aside the way we’d met—we chatted and teased and bounced off each other like we were old friends. He showed me glimpses of who he was or who he could be if you scraped away the shiny, gaudy veneer of a man who’d had life too easy. He was self-deprecating, and constantly asked me questions or tried to make me laugh. And my laughter was easy; it fluttered from my lips, having blossomed in my chest and my heart. He laughed in the same way.
He was impressed rather than disparaging that I worked as a beauty therapist, and he told me that he was a junior partner in a firm of solicitors in Brighton. I told him I’d moved to Brighton from London to go to university and had stayed because I couldn’t imagine living in a place as big as London again; he told me he’d grown up in the Sussex countryside and to him Brighton and Hove were big cities. We shared our stories and our trivia and, as the night wore on, the atmosphere around us fizzed. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had such fun on a date.
We stood outside the restaurant in Hove after dinner, still talking, and he cautiously slipped his hand around mine and suggested I come back to his place, which was around the corner, to call a taxi home.
There was no expectation—no nudge-nudge, wink-wink double-talk—simply a genuine desire not to end the evening right then.
“Before you say or think anything,” he said as we turned into the road where he lived, one of the roads that led down onto the seafront, “I bought this place years ago, and when it was merely a shell. I have had to spend a lot of man hours and money getting it habitable. I am proud of it, but please don’t think I bought it ready-done for the current million or so it could go for. I paid nowhere near that. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said as we stopped outside a huge double-fronted Victorian villa with cream-colored render, stone steps that led up to the black front door, and a lower floor that was probably accessed from the inside. Every floor was studded with huge sash windows.
My head creaked around to look at him.
“I told you!” he insisted.
“I’m saying nothing,” I said.
The front door gave way to a wide internal porch with coat hooks and a sunken floor mat, and another internal door made of glass, then a long, wide corridor with stripped wood floors, and a sweeping, breathtaking staircase. To the left of the front door there was a white console table with bowed legs beneath a huge gilt mirror. There was a door beside the mirror and farther down the corridor I could see two more doors.
If he wasn’t being economical with the truth, and he had bought this as a shell, then he had lavished a lot of care and attention upon it to get it back to its current glory, and to remain faithful to the period—from the cornicing and the ceiling rose to the dado rail and the cast-iron radiators.
I stood in front of the mirror, waiting for Jack to let me know I could go ahead into the house. Instead of moving forward, he turned, a mischievous grin taking over his face before stepping closer to me.
“May I smell you?” he asked, his green eyes dancing as he slowly maneuvered me backward until I was against the wall and he stood in front of me but wasn’t touching me.
“Smell me?” I asked, taken aback.
“Yes. Smell you. Just your neck, if that’s all right?”
I didn’t see what harm it could do—I had thought he was going to kiss me, but if he wanted to smell me first then… “If you must,” I said.
“I’ve just…” He buried his face in the nape of my neck, and suddenly, unexpectedly, I was overcome by the scent of him; his skin, slightly damp and salty, yet arid, with hints of something I couldn’t place, swirled notes of a sensation up through my nose and directly into my bloodstream. All at once, I was on fire. My body was aching and longing, bubbling and effervescing with the smell of… of him.
“This scent has been driving me crazy all night,” he said, oblivious to what he had ignited in me. “I’ve been having a mix of these incredible feelings because of that smell and I was wondering if it was you. And it is.” He pressed his nose closer into my neck, his body now touching mine. “It definitely is.” The last three words moved his lips over my skin and I gasped as if in pain, pushing against the wall to steady myself. In response he came closer, his lips still on my neck. I gasped again.
He stood upright and stared down at me for a moment. “You’re so beautiful,” he whispered. He lowered his head, his lips aiming for mine and I closed my eyes, waiting for contact. When his lips did not touch mine, I opened my eyes again. “So beautiful,” he repeated, then kissed the other side of my neck. Each kiss—soft and measured—injected more of him into me. I did not know this feeling, it was so… raw. His hands moved down to my shoulders, under the lapels of my coat, pushing it backward off onto the ground along with my bag. I was still intoxicated by his smell, the closeness of him, and didn’t resist in any way. His hands skimmed down my body, over my ankle-length blue dress.
“Is this okay?” he whispered against my ear, his breath hot and labored.
“Yes,” I managed to push out between my own labored breaths.
“Do you want me to stop?” he asked.
Yes, I said in my head. Yes, yes, yes, stop. Please stop. I hardly knew the man. But he seemed to know me intimately: he knew where to touch, where to kiss, how to fill up my senses. I knew I shouldn’t be doing this but… “No. Don’t stop,” I whispered. “Don’t stop.”
“I have to taste you,” he said, pulling away. His dark emerald eyes searched mine for a few seconds, looking for protest. “I have to taste you,” he repeated, then he was on his knees, lifting my dress, tugging down my black knickers until they were around my ankles. Automatically, I stepped out of them and he immediately pushed my legs farther apart. First it was his fingers—finding, feeling, filling; then his tongue—touching, tasting, teasing.
Within seconds I was whimpering; my knees trembling, about to give way; my body quivering, arching toward him as I craved more and more and more until liquid dynamite was exploding in my veins and I was clutching onto the wall, head thrown back, as moan after moan after moan of pleasure gushed out of me.
My mind still reeling, as he came to full height again, he took my hand, led me across the short gap to the mirror opposite then stepped behind me. “See how beautiful you are?” he whispered in my ear. “See?”
I glanced in the mirror, not paying attention to me, instead concentrating on him, how he had been transformed from the relaxed man I’d had dinner with to the man with this intensity and determination in his eyes.
“I want to fuck you,” he said into my hair. “Can I fuck you?”
“Yes,” I whispered. “Yes.”
I lowered my gaze from the mirror to the box of tissues on the table in front of me, listening to the jingle of his belt, the undoing of his top button, the opening of his zip, the lowering of his trousers, the crackling of a condom packet. Then his hand was gently urging me forward until I was leaning on the table, and he was hitching my dress up, opening my legs, moving close… and suddenly he was a part of me. His body followed where his scent had been. He curled his body against mine, his groans muted against my neck.
My eyes went up to the mirror again, to see his face, to see if it was for him what it was for me, but my gaze snagged on my reflection.
I was another person.
My hair was out of place and unruly, my body was bending forward to allow a man to plow into me, my face was contorted with pleasure, my eyes were filled with an animalistic look. I was wild, wanton, uncontrolled. This person in the mirror was not Libby Rabvena. She was little more than an untamed beast. Sex had not done this to me. He had done this to me. And I had let him. I had wanted him to.
I immediately closed my eyes, scared to keep on staring in case that was the only reflection I would see of myself every time I looked in any mirror.
His movements became harder and he pulled away, standing up to grab tightly onto my hips as his urgency increased, his moans mixing with mine, both of us growing louder and louder until he cried out, a second or two before my cry, and we both became frozen as our pleasure rippled through ourselves and into each other.
Jack didn’t withdraw straight away; he stayed with me for a few seconds, taking time to control his breathing, then leaning forward to tenderly kiss the nape of my neck.
“That was incredible,” he said as he broke apart from me. I heard him grab several tissues from the box on the table and waited with my eyes closed and head bowed until I heard him stop moving. I stood upright, lowered my dress and turned away from the mirror before opening my eyes.
“That was incredible,” he repeated, then leaned in and kissed my forehead. Before, the merest touch was a trip to an unsettling, almost feral pleasure, now it was a small, stinging blow of shame and guilt.
I managed a smile, then a slight nod. I did not know how to speak to him after what we had done. Words seemed inadequate.
“If you don’t mind waiting here for a few minutes, I’ll just get rid of this,” he indicated to the ball of tissue in his hand, “and then get some clean towels and a dressing gown so you can have a shower. Okay?”
I nodded again. Inside, I was horrified—he expected me to stay? To talk to him? To act as if it was perfectly natural to have done that with a virtual stranger?
He looked at my mouth as if he was going to kiss me, or as if he needed me to remind him that I could speak, then smiled and kissed my forehead again. “Really incredible,” he said. He stooped to pick up the condom wrapper. “Two minutes,” he said, then disappeared up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
Excerpted from The Woman He Loved Before by Dorothy Koomson Copyright © 2013 by Dorothy Koomson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >