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Blown Out

It was dark by the time Violet made it to the car. Just another Friday evening. She’d already said goodnight to her father. He hadn’t seemed to suspect a thing. Didn’t he see it? Didn’t he hear the mad, racing beat of her heart? It felt like a newly caged bird, trying to burst its way out of her chest. Thump. Thump. Thump. Did he know? It felt as though the world revolved around her deceit. Just another Friday evening.

“What is it tonight?” he’d asked. He always asked but of course, she read too far into it and felt like he already suspected something.

“Just the orchestra,” Her voice sounded strange and she tried to set it right. “They’re doing Mozart and then Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I love that piece.” She’d looked up the program online, of course, feeling like a criminal the whole time. “It might go on until late,” she added.

“I don’t know how you can stand it,” he’d yawned as she walked with a forced casualness from the room. Her shoes clicked along the hard floors, the sound interspersed by the occasional heavy rug. Ralph was at the door. They didn’t speak until after he’d closed the car door behind her and was in the driver’s seat.

Then he sighed.

“It’d be pointless to tell you how crazy this is, wouldn’t it?” he said.

He was watching her in the rear-view mirror. Violet couldn’t meet his eyes.

“I’m not asking you to do anything,” she said. “I just know you’re too smart to get around. And I’d rather have you know about it than chase me.”

“I don’t really know if I should take that as a compliment,” Ralph mused. He tapped out a beat on the steering wheel and went into his pocket for chewing gum, his eyes still focused on her. “Vi, I can’t afford to lose this job.”

“I know.” She met his gaze then. “I know. And I wouldn’t let that happen. Just do this one thing. Please?”

He didn’t say anything.

“How’s Roma, anyway?” Violet surprised herself by remembering his girlfriend’s name. “Weren’t you going to propose?”

Ralph blew out a sigh.

“I plan to. Just – finding a moment.”

“Must be nice,” Vi said. “Not needing permission to be in love.”

Ralph snorted.

“Must be nice living a life of obscene luxury.”

“Prison is prison,” Violet said. “Doesn’t matter if it looks nice on the outside.”

Ralph groaned.

“Fine! Enough with the theatrics! See this, kid. I won’t stop you but you get caught, it’s all you, okay?” He twisted in his seat to look at her, his blue eyes shaded with concern. “Vi, I don’t want to see you hurt. Bottom line. You understand? You’re playing with fire. You do know that, right?”

She knew it. But fire was pretty to look at and it warmed her in the most addictive way. She hadn’t felt this way since – no. She frowned and tried to expel the thought. Don’t go there.

“Vi!” Ralph was still looking at her. “I’m talking third-degree burns if you get caught. Is he really worth it?”

She bit her lip and looked down at her hands. They shook a little and she sat on them.

“Yes. I’m sorry but yes,” She looked up as Zed approached the car. “He’s – everything.”

***

Life was routines; doing the right things, meeting the right people, perfecting the right smiles and wearing the right dresses. Nothing more. She shouldn’t have even wanted more. Her life was something programmed into her, instilled since childhood and she should have accepted it. Not survived, but thrived.

But she couldn’t. Too many books. As soon as she could read, she’d raced her way through every book she’d been able to find and they’d filled her head with the idea of a life that meant more. Fiction. It gave her ideas about things she should be doing. She didn’t even know how other people lived, what life was like beyond her own. Nobody ever told her. The staff laughed off her questions as though she were being purposefully stupid.

And then there was Zed.

He turned up at the start of summer, a tour guide at the palace to begin with and then a minor member of the security patrol team. They crossed paths often enough to become familiar with one another and he had the kind of smile which invited conversation. It helped that he was young, maybe a couple of years older than her. He seemed amused by her almost obsessive interest in his everyday life but he humoured her all the same and she ran with it until she felt free enough to ask him anything she wanted.

Where did you grow up? Tell me about your school, your siblings, your house. Did you have to share a bedroom? What kind of food did you eat? Did you wash your own plate? How many friends do you have? How long have you known them? How many girlfriends have you had? Where do you buy food? Clothes? What do you do when your money runs out? What time do you wake, eat, sleep? What do your parents do? Do they still work? What do you do for fun?

The wrong question.

He was leaning against a statue in the sprawling flower garden, looking down at her bent over a sketchpad.

“Fun? Uh – I dunno. Go out. Drink. Maybe football. Photography.”

“Oh, you’re a photographer?” She looked up at him.

“Uh-huh,” He looked faintly pleased with himself as though sparking her interest was an achievement. “Amateur, really. Hey, maybe I can practice on you.”

Violet frowned down at her sketch more to avoid the half-proposal than anything. She’d been working on a still-life of the statue for days even though she’d never been artistically inclined. Endless lines of grey pencil spanned the page. Grey lines. Grey days.

“Violet?”

Zed was looking at her.

“I don’t think so,” she said apologetically. “Besides, I kind of avoid being photographed unless it’s official. Can you imagine an unflattering shot on the cover of a tabloid?”

“It’d only be between us,” Zed frowned. “What, you don’t trust me?”

She frowned harder at her sketch, still avoiding his gaze.

“Of course I trust you. It’s just – well, my dad wouldn’t like it for a start.”

“So don’t tell him,” Zed said.

She tried not to smile.

“It’s really not that easy. This place is full of people. Walls have ears.”

There was a pause as he digested her words.

“So we’ll keep it on the quiet,” he said finally, “Unless these walls have eyes too?”

“I’m serious,” she laughed, looking up. “Everyone’s always watching.”

“We’ll find a place,” he said, like it was that simple. “Besides, I’m pretty crap at portraits anyway. They say the best way to improve is practice and we both have time so you’d really be doing me a huge favour.”

They looked at each other. She wanted to hate him. To refuse now would seem like she was haughtily denying him something trivial. But to say yes would be to add another layer of inappropriateness to their already over-familiar relationship. She felt dangerously close to him and it had been what – a fortnight since they’d met?

“I’m not even photogenic,” she stalled. “Really. I’m a terrible model. You should ask someone else.”

“I don’t want to ask anybody else,” he replied quietly. His eyes were on hers and in the sunlight, his irises were liquid gold. Violet tucked a strand of dark hair behind her ear. The sun beat down ominously.

“Fine,” she said. “But don’t blame me when you end up disappointed.”

He took a step closer to her.

“I won’t be,”

She frowned up at him and something in his eyes darkened. His hand came out hesitantly as his tongue wet his lips. Violet could only imagine what they’d feel like against hers. She caught his wrist just before his thumb brushed her mouth.

“Not here,” she said and his eyes smiled at the implied meaning.

***

There were at least a hundred people in the palace at any one time but Violet had listlessly wandered the gaping fortress for almost two decades. She knew the hidden rooms and intricate corridors like nobody else. There were always places. Places tucked away and forgotten over the seasons, locked doors and half-refurbished quarters. The top floor was a safe bet, as was the basement. The two extremes.

The attic was dusty and dry and the deeper she went, the hotter it felt. She told herself it’d be worth it while her stomach spun with anticipation. Nobody was around. Most of the rooms on the very top floor were rarely visited and only used for storage. She picked the smallest one, slipped through the heavy door and wondered if it’d be stupid to open the roof window. Of course, it would be.

Boxes of old books and toys were stacked against one wall but the room was otherwise empty. She opened a box and waved away the cloud of dust which sifted up. Books. Her old books. Dreams and fiction. She was half-considering taking them downstairs and reading them again when she heard a sound outside and froze. If it was anybody but him -

“Fucking hell,” Zed ran a hand through his hair as he entered the room. “It’s hot up here.”

He kicked the door shut, turned to slide the bolt across and then took a step closer to her. His eyes flicked to her mouth and then to her eyes.

“There’s nobody around?” he asked.

Violet opened her mouth to reply but his lips caught hers before she could. He kissed her like it was all he’d ever wanted to do. His hands grasped her waist, pulling her closer as his mouth opened against hers. He held the moment for a second, as though waiting for her to make the first move and just as she moved her tongue, he moved his, swooping it into her mouth.

He tasted like mint and the urgent push of his tongue made her feel dizzy. It was so hot; she could feel the sweat on the back of her neck and her dress stuck to her back a little as he pushed her against the wall. He pulled away, his lips still hovering against hers.

“How long have we got?” His mouth brushed hers as he spoke.

She opened her eyes.

“As long as we need,” she whispered.

Zed let out a breath, trapping her lower lip between his.

“You don’t even know how long I’ve wanted this,” he murmured. “This. You. Being alone for real.”

He kissed her again, his tongue more confident as it swept against hers and one of his hands traced upward into her hair, grasping a handful. His mouth moved down her neck, kissing the smooth skin, his tongue tracing the dip between her collarbones.

“You smell like heaven,” he whispered.

His hand was on her face, almost rough as he traced the lines of her cheekbones and jaw. He straightened up, his fingertips pushing against her mouth and she parted her lips instinctively, eyes on his. He let out a harsh sigh as he slid his fingers deep into her mouth.

“You can’t imagine the things I want to do to you,” he said.

Violet looked at him, pulled his fingers from his mouth and said, “Show me,”

He didn’t hesitate. His hands went down, undid his belt and pants, and she reached forward instinctively, touching his hard cock. It felt hot even to her sweaty fingers and she wrapped her hand around it, stroking gently.

His tongue wet his lips. They were looking at each other, both breathing hard and the more her hand moved, the deeper he breathed.

“Get on your knees,” he said finally.

She didn’t hesitate. His hands sank into her hair as she took his cock in her mouth and he pushed forward. She looked up at him. His eyes were closed.

Fuck,” he sighed.

Her tongue curled against his hard, throbbing erection and he slid further, guiding her head back and forth as he stroked gently in and out of her mouth. He went deeper with every couple of thrusts and soon enough, he was hitting the back of her throat. Violet sucked in air through her nose, her eyes watering as he moved faster, his breath coming out harshly.

“Look at me,” he hissed.

Her eyes flicked up to meet his and he exhaled.

“Jesus fucking Christ,”

He pushed forward urgently, his cock going as deep as it could and he held her there for a few seconds before pulling back. She used her tongue on the underside, hoping to abate him but he pushed again and even though it hurt to take it, she didn’t want him to stop. There was something reckless and lewd about the moment; something intensely satisfying in being used for his pleasure. She looked up at him through her damp eyelashes. His mouth was open, panting almost as he drove in and out of her mouth and when his eyes locked with hers, he let out a groan.

She wondered if he was going to come but before she found out, he was pulling free of her lips. He crouched down to her level, wiped the wetness from her chin with his hand and kissed her breathless mouth. His hands caught the hem of her dress, tugging it upward so he could feel the warm skin beneath and he detached from her mouth long enough to sweep the thin cotton up and over her head.

Nobody disturbed them. The room was furiously hot and the bare floorboards uncomfortable against their bodies but it didn’t even occur to either of them. Zed’s hand pushed between her legs, coaxing her to orgasm before she even had time to protest.

Then he pulled back, easing out of his shirt and pants. Violet took the opportunity to free her legs from the damp underwear tangled around her knees and had only just tossed the scrap of lace aside before he was kissing her again. His body was damp with sweat and warm above hers. Sweaty skin. She tasted the salt on his collarbone as he moved between her legs, fumbling through his discarded clothes for a condom.

“I should’ve brought my camera,” he said, his eyes drinking in her naked body. “You’re like a work of fucking art, princess.”

He kissed her again before she could laugh. Something about the way he touched her made her feel so wonderfully wanted. His hands groped her body like he wanted to remember every angle and curve and each time she gasped, he touched her harder, his fingers clawing and stroking against her until she could only moan.

By the time the head of his cock pushed against her, she didn’t think she’d ever wanted anything more. He eased inside her slowly. Every movement felt significant. He filled her completely, to the border of pain but it could have been ten times worse before she protested. Her fingers clawed at his back and she felt fleetingly grateful for having short nails. She’d wanted him. Wanted this. Dreamed of things she could never admit to but here, in the daylight, skin against skin, everything was beautiful and crystal-clear.

He pulled back and pushed again and she exhaled.

“Yeah?” He pushed her hair back and studied her expression. “You like that?”

“I love it.”

His hand went to her throat and curled around it, holding her in place as his hips lifted. She followed them with her own, half-afraid he’d detach completely but he pushed back hard enough, burying himself deep inside her. He ground against her as long as he could and then he pulled back again, his movements becoming a steady rhythm. With each thrust, Violet felt the hard floor against her ass.

There was nothing to do but take it. Take it and welcome it and revel in it. She didn’t want it to end. Some part of her wanted to be there forever, running the fuck on repeat for eternity. His cock felt so right in her, natural and pure. Sweat. They were fighting for breath in the small, overheated room but they kissed again wantonly, mouths wet and hungry as his pulsing cock plundered into her over and over.

“You – feel – incredible,” he growled, as he withdrew before slamming her hard against the floorboards.

God!” The word spilled from her mouth. “Someone might hear.”

Zed didn’t stop. Each thrust was measured, forceful and her snatch only seemed to get wetter each time her ass hit the floor.

“Hear us?” He raised an eyebrow. “What? Hear me fucking you?”

She moaned as he pushed in deep and ground there, making pleasure flood her body. His hand groped a path down her body and his fingertip found her clit, rubbing it urgently. She sucked in a desperate breath.

“Zed – please.”

“Please what?” His hair was damp with perspiration and he’d never looked more attractive.

“Please fuck you until you can’t walk? Please what, princess?”

“God,” She couldn’t hold his gaze as his finger moved. Her body felt as though it belonged to him; everything he did reverberated through her. She tried to suck in air but he was kissing her again, his tongue roughly exploring her mouth as his finger quickened. She couldn’t hold on. Her body arched under his as she came, clenching hard around his cock.

“Fuck!”

Zed came too, his mouth dragging to her shoulder and biting down as he jerked inside her. The mutuality only intensified the pleasure. They ground against each other as his weight gave and for a long while, all Violet could feel was hot, draining satisfaction.

***

The days passed in a blur; endless boredom replaced by rampant fascination. Violet was so used to everyone knowing everything about her that when Zed returned her questions, she wasn’t quite sure what words to give him. But it wasn’t an interview. It was just them. Two people leaning into adulthood and getting high off the thrill of deceit.

Nobody knew. She couldn’t begin to imagine what her father would think if he found out. It didn’t bear thinking about. He had plans. Vague ideas coming out of an ever-present blurry mist about suitable matches his advisors been considering since her childhood. Violet knew the shortlist and it bored her to no end. The right men. The kind of men who spoke right and looked right and wore their clothes right and were so righteous it sickened her.

They couldn’t compare to someone like Zed. There was too much going on. Too many falsities and good impressions and perfect accents. All the polishing had removed any character they’d ever had. Next to Zed, they were like washed-out watercolours beside a Leonid Afremov masterpiece.

She couldn’t stop. Excuses piled on top of one another into a solid, impenetrable dam. Nobody suspected. Nobody would. After all, there was no reason why Zed shouldn’t be around and they picked their places well, zigzagging between empty cellar and attic rooms and always timing their exits and entrances to perfection.

He took photos of her. He owned a camera which had cost more than his car and she teased him over how possessive he was of it.

“It’s the most expensive thing I ever bought,” he frowned. “It’s an investment, y’know? And it does so much, I fucking love it. Before I met you, I’d look at it and jerk off.”

“Oh my god,” Violet was in hysterics. “You must be joking.”

“I’m dead serious,” he smirked. “I don’t even let anyone touch it.”

Photographs. It made her uncomfortable at first but there was nothing indecent about the portraits Zed took. He wanted a face to practice on and after all he’d given her, how could she refuse?

Besides, it was as close as she could get to seeing herself through his eyes though something about it scared her. In his photos, she looked far more poised and attractive than she’d ever felt.

“This doesn’t even look like me,”

“Who else does it look like?” he frowned. “Though the way we think we look is different to the way other people see us. Like in a mirror? That’s a reversed image. And yeah, photos are still two-dimensional but they’re more accurate, y’know?”

“You don’t understand,” Violet said. “I’ve had pictures taken of me since I was born. But yours are just – different.”

He lowered the camera and frowned at her.

“Are you saying I’m not a good photographer?”

“No! I think you’re great, honestly. I just – you’re different.”

He smiled the way he always did when he tried not to.

“I’m kidding,” he said. “I don’t even do portraits. More street stuff, really. I had some pieces in a coffee shop but nobody really gave a crap. Anyway, my old art teacher fixed me up with this gallery in Shoreditch. It’s crazy popular. The show opens next Friday,” He glanced at her, suddenly struck by an idea. “Hey, why don’t you come?”

Violet frowned. “You know that’s impossible.”

Zed set down the camera and smiled.

“Nothing’s impossible, princess.”

***

Somehow in the darkness of night, it was easier for him to be honest. Vulnerability didn’t seem to matter in the dark.

“Do you think of me?” Zed’s voice was a creak, so quiet and yet so loaded. “Like, a lot? All I ever seem to do is think of you. Do you get like that?”

“Sometimes,” she lied. The word came out soft and pointless. Did she think of him? All she ever did was think of him. It hurt. It ached. The nights alone made her cry. Long, late nights. Sleepless. Damp sheets and tears leaking into an already damp pillow. She found herself grateful that tears didn’t stain. Too many questions.

“Are you well, Violet?”

They never used to ask. They never cared until Darren left. She still thought of him too, of the sudden end. How had they done it? Money? Or something worse? She fervently hoped they’d paid him off, given him enough cash to leave. The alternative didn’t bear thinking about. Money. He’d always wanted to buy a motorbike. She liked to think of him in a foreign country somewhere, Italy perhaps, racing down clay streets on something noisy and obscenely pollutive.

Maybe he’d met someone else. An Italian woman with long, dark hair and perfect tanned skin and a name like – like – Maria perhaps, and maybe this beautiful Maria sat on the back of the bike with her slender arms around Darren’s waist as they went to a fruit market in Tuscany to buy tomatoes to make homemade spaghetti Bolognese.

“Actually, spaghetti Bolognese is a British thing,” Zed said knowingly. “Italians would be repulsed by it.”

They were lying in her bed, his fingers tracing the lines of her collarbone.

“Excuse me for the culinary mistakes in my fantasy,” Vi said.

Zed blew out a breath.

“Why’d you do this anyway? He’ll never have met anyone who could compare to you.”

“I just – I just have to,” she said and she didn’t elaborate because he wouldn’t understand

It had to be real. It had to be. Darren had to be somewhere in the sun, alive and planning out his whole future with Maria in a cluttered apartment which smelt like smoke and perfume and incense. Because maybe it wasn’t true but there was a tiny chance that it was and that was what Violet’s life had become; clinging onto the edges of chances, selling herself outrageous lies just to stop her mind falling to pieces.

Each lie was intricate and full of the essential details nobody would ever ask but her. And just beyond was the truth, a horrific thing, dark and encompassing, a hell-like pit and she couldn’t even go near it, let alone do something about it. Somehow the mystery of Darren hurt even more than that of her own mother, simply because there was no end to him. She’d touched him, felt his beating heart against her palm while her mother was just a shadow, a newspaper tragedy she couldn’t even remember.

“So, this Darren?” Zed’s voice. It was the most warming sound she’d ever heard. “He was the only guy you’ve been with?”

“Mm-hm.”

“Do you still think of him?” His voice didn’t catch on the question. Was he jealous? Vi doubted it. Something about Zed was far too full of life to get hung up on insecurities.

“Sometimes,” she said.

The helpless truth lurked in the back of her mind. Darren wasn’t the kind of guy who’d get paid off. He just wasn’t. She closed her eyes. Or maybe he was. Maybe she’d been wrong about him. She’d been what – eighteen? Practically a child. Naive and gullible. Darren had taken the damn money and ridden off into his sunset with Maria. Darren. Her mind took off before she could pull back the reins and then she was gone, hurtling through the memories of him, the memories of them, the stolen nights, the stolen days, wind in her hair and his voice in her ear.

He wasn’t perfect. Neither of them were. Too young. Too restless and greedy. And when it all came to an end, when he vanished without warning, the world seemed to lose colour. All the time after came in grayscale memories. His car. He drove a tornado red Seat Ibiza, an ancient nineties piece of engineering and when he’d left, his car hadn’t. It’d stayed in the grounds for almost a week until it disappeared overnight. Details. They didn’t add up to a reasonable number. Something about the little catches, the invasive uncertainties filled her with fear.

Zed shifted beside her.

“So Friday? It’s on, right?”

Violet blinked. She looked at the ceiling, at the way the moonlight from the leaded windows fell across it in a warped chequerboard glow.

“I don’t know, Zed. I really – it’s so risky.”

He didn’t speak for a few seconds but she sensed his silent frustration and something about it made her feel guilty. She frowned at the ceiling rose, at the ornate chandelier suspended from its centre. The risk. The risk that he’d disappear into nothingness, just like Darren had. But she’d been furiously careful this time. They’d never even ventured out of the grounds together. Nobody knew. They couldn’t know. And one night was feasible. The thought made her insides twist with anxiety but she swallowed hard. Wasn’t he worth it? Wasn’t he worth so much? Hadn’t he brought life back into her existence?

“But what’s life without risks?” she said lightly. “No risk, no reward, right?”

There was a pause.

“You’re serious?” Zed’s voice was already alight, and as he spoke it burned brighter like a flame tearing along a line of fuel. “Because I cleared it with my sister. Adrianna – she’s cool, totally cool with it and she won’t tell a soul. And nobody will know. Nobody will even think twice. And you know, even if they do, they’re not the kinda people to make trouble, you know? We only want fun. We don’t play those kind of games. You know what I mean? Games like – just those sick kinda games.”

“Rich people games?” Vi offered, “Manipulation? Blackmail?”

“Exactly,” he enthused and then added a belated, “No offence.”

Was she offended? Could a reasonable person be offended by the truth? Was she reasonable? What the hell did any of the words even mean anymore?

***

Just another Friday night. Ralph would drive Violet to the orchestra, dropping off Zed on the way. The show would last a couple of hours. And then they’d drive her home. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Don’t see the part where the car pauses too long outside Zed’s apartment block. Don’t see Violet go inside. Don’t see her switch outfits with Zed’s sister. Don’t see Adrianna replace her in the back of the car.

It happened too fast. Clothes, sunglasses, hurried instructions and then Adrianna was walking out and ducking into the car. Violet tried to stay calm. Everything was under control. Nobody would pay Adrianna any attention. Why should they? She’d get to the hall, sit in the assigned seat, and listen to the music. They’d reunite after the concert, change clothes and then Ralph would drive Violet home. Besides, from a distance, her and Zed's sister looked similar enough. Long, dark hair and a similar height. If everything went right, the plan was perfection.

Perfection. Like Zed’s hand, holding hers. There was an aching beauty in the gesture. She did her makeup in his car on the way to the gallery, going heavy on the eyes in a way she never did in public. Extra jewellery. Darker lipstick. Detractions.

“Relax, please,” Zed parked on a street two blocks from the gallery and looked at her. “People see what they expect to see. We got this, Vi.”

He was right. Nobody looked at her twice. She wandered around the gallery, high on the lack of attention. Nobody cared. Nobody watched her. They were far more interested in the art, the artists and Zed whose popularity caught him off-guard though his photos more than warranted it. They were breath-taking black and white snapshots of the city, so well-timed that people crowded around to look.

A pedestrian racing across a road in front of a furiously gesticulating lorry driver. A taxi driver looking back anxiously at a speed camera. A woman in high heels chasing a dog who’d broken free of his leash.

Everyone loved them. Everyone wanted to know him, to talk to him, to ask him about his influences, his experiences, the places he went, the camera he used, the college he hadn’t attended. The night passed too fast, a haze of black dresses and champagne. Violet blended in and made small talk and by the time it was over, she wanted to do it again.

But there was no time.

It had been raining outside the glass doors and even though it’d stopped, a crack of lightning followed swiftly by thunder promised more.

“Shall we make a run for it?” Zed asked, glancing upward.

“Why not?”

But they were barely halfway down the street when the heavens opened.

He pulled her into the entryway of an abandoned shop and they stood there, breathlessly watching the rain. A man rushed by, clutching a broken umbrella. Across the road, the windows of a pub gleamed with light. A man stood under the awning, hurriedly smoking a cigarette.

Violet shifted her weight from foot to foot, anxious for the storm to pass.

“We’ve got time,” Zed reassured, checking his watch. “Did you enjoy it?”

She looked at him and smiled.

“You were incredible,” she said. “And don’t just laugh. You were. You are. They loved you. Everybody loves you.”

He kissed her right there in the doorway of the desolate building, the rain pouring down behind them.

“It’s all you,” he said. His voice had dipped into something lower and his hand tangled in her damp hair as he kissed her harder.

“You don’t even know all the things you do to me,” he murmured.

His hand slid under her dress and pushed between her legs before she could think of stopping him.

“You just make everything go – gold, Vi.”

She tried to tug his hand away but he didn’t move, his fingers strong and insistent.

“Zed?” Her voice was breathless. “Really?”

He kissed her again, his fingers slipping past her underwear and stroking her until she moaned into his mouth.

“This is crazy,” she whispered.

“Is it?” He looked at her, his hair damp and his eyes alive. “Does it really matter?”

His leg was between hers, holding them apart as his fingertip pushed inside her. She couldn’t even look at him. His finger slid further and curled. He eased it out, then pushed in two at once, making her gasp. His face was a shadow, his free hand still tangled in her hair. She leaned into it as his fingers slicked urgently, his thumb pressing against her clit.

“You like that?” His voice was a growl. “Does it feel good, princess?”

“Don’t call me that,”

He kissed her again and her teeth sank into his lip until she tasted blood. He didn’t try to pull away. His fingers didn’t stop moving, the endless stroke and push making her stomach clench.

“You gonna come?” he whispered into her mouth. “Are you gonna come all over my fucking hand?”

“Zed, please,” She fought for breath. “This is – I can’t - ”

“Give it to me,” His voice was as urgent as his fingers. “Fucking give it to me, Vi!”

As though she could help it. As though she could stop it. His thumb moved in a languorous circle, his fingers soaked in her warmth. She pressed her face into his neck, inhaled the sweat, the rain, the fading kick of his aftershave. In that moment, he was everything. Everything. His body pressed against hers, tight enough so she could feel the hard heat in his jeans.

“God!”

Everything felt hot and wet, clean and dirty all at once. Nothing mattered. The rest of the world was washed out with the rain, all she knew was Zed and his voice, the push of his hand, the heat of his body and the need in every breath. She clenched hard around his fingers, the orgasm building in waves of drowning pleasure.

“Zed. Zed!”

The urgent pleasure spilled through her. It felt like all she’d ever wanted. His fingers didn’t stop moving until she came again and even then, she had to push his hand away to make him stop. He let go of her and they stood there, breathing hard. His hand was wet and he raised it to his mouth, cleaning his fingers.

***

They were late. The changeover was a haphazard rush and by the time Ralph started the car, they were almost half an hour behind schedule.

“This is too fucking close,” he muttered.

Violet looked out of the window at the world racing by. Ralph drove fast, trying to make up the lost time and she hated herself for doing it to him.

“Too – fucking – close,” he said again. “Do you fucking hear me?”

She opened her mouth but didn’t trust herself not to start crying. There was something empty about being alone after the crowds, after the warm light, after Zed.

“I’m not doing this again,” Ralph said. The car swung down a side road and he accelerated, tyres screeching in protest. “This was the stupidest thing. I can’t believe I let you talk me into it at all.”

Violet still didn’t speak. Streetlights sent flashing strobes of light into the car, illuminating the reflection of Ralph’s face in the rear-view mirror. He caught her eye and she looked away hurriedly, not wanting him to see the tears.

“I’m serious,” he said, and his voice was marginally softer. “There’s no happy ending here, Vi. Please wake the fuck up.”

***

Wake the fuck up.

She woke the next morning, got washed and dressed, went to eat breakfast. Everything seemed fine. No questions. She almost believed they’d gotten away with it. Then her father arrived.

They ate together a handful of times a year and never at breakfast. But he didn’t eat. He dropped down into a chair on the opposite side of the table. One of his ever-present companions obeyed some invisible signal and rushed to pour a cup of coffee.

“So,” the King said. “How was the opera?”

Violet looked at him. He looked at her.

“It was – wasn’t opera. It was an orchestra.”

“Right,” He took a gulp from his cup. “And how was it?”

“It was fine. Just – fine.” Details. She needed details like she had in all the lies she saved up for herself but now, at the one moment it mattered, her mind had gone blank. All she could think of was Zed. His hand. The things he did to her. She looked blankly down at her toast, her mind racing.

“Uh – it was a young conductor, actually,” Her voice wavered a little and she fought to normalise it. “A prodigy. About thirty years old, I think. He was educated at the Royal Academy, actually. I think he got a scholarship.”

The King seemed unimpressed.

“And how long did this show last? From what I’ve heard you were back late last night.”

He could see the lies. She knew he could. But did he know the truth? She looked at him. Did he even care about her beyond what she represented? He sighed and looked away. She tried to eat but felt she might be physically sick. She reached instead for her own coffee.

“Sometimes, Violet, you remind me far too much of your mother,”

One sentence. He didn’t even look at her as he said it and half a minute later he’d left the table and disappeared with his mob of advisors. Violet’s hand was shaking so much, she dropped her cup. It smashed on the cold tile floor.

***

She had to end it. There was no other solution. She couldn’t deal with another disappearance. Her thoughts went to Darren. He’d paled into insignificance since Zed had arrived but the pain still lingered. She couldn’t let it happen to Zed. There were too many people. She thought of the newspaper stories she’d read about a mother she hadn’t even known. Boating accident. Too young. A convenient death for an inconvenient woman.

In the attic room, Zed tried to get her to smile, his precious camera endlessly snapping pictures.

“Come on, princess. You know I’ve sold hundred of prints since last night?”

She looked at him. His easy smile. His untidy hair and his perfect face.

“Congratulations,” she said. “You deserve it.”

“You could sound a little more psyched,” he frowned, adjusting the camera. “Gimme one smile. One. That’s all I want.”

He crouched down beside her, the camera too close to her face. She pushed him away.

“Stop, Zed. Just put it away. Please.”

He sighed but switched the camera off.

“Fine. D’you mind if I leave this here just for a few days?” He held up the camera. “Ade’s boyfriend’s moving in with us and he’s an ex-addict. I don’t trust the bastard.”

“Fine. No one comes up here anyway.”

“You’re sure?”

Violet sighed. “Yes. Honestly, you love that thing too much. I’d buy you a new one if you lost it anyway.”

Zed narrowed his eyes.

“It took me five years to save up for, Vi. I earned it. It kinda means a lot.” He laughed self-consciously. “Sentimental bullshit, I know, but I guess -”

“I get it,” she cut him off.

He frowned and she turned away, looking at the old books neatly boxed away. Her head hurt.

Ralph’s words from the night before were all she could think of. No happy ending. He was right, of course. Everything they were doing had a time limit. Soon enough it’d have to stop. The pain would hit sooner or later. There was no way to avoid it.

“Vi? Are you okay?”

Zed had put the camera away. His hand touched the back of her neck and she pulled away.

“No. We can’t do this anymore, Zed. I can’t.”

Her throat hurt with every word. She picked up a pristine paperback and flicked through it.

“Is this ‘cause of yesterday?” Zed asked. “I mean – sure we almost fucked it up but it all turned out okay, didn’t it? It’s not like anyone found out. And it was a one-off. Why would it even change anything?”

Violet didn’t answer. She looked down at a random page of the book. The words were blurry.

“Hey,” Zed’s hand came out again, touching her bare elbow this time. She pulled away and he exhaled. “For fuck’s sake, Vi. Why are you doing this? What have I done wrong? I’m not asking you for anything more.”

She swallowed hard. It hurt too much. Everything always hurt. Her eyes were already wet and she blinked away the tears, wondering what she’d even do with her days now. Life before Zed seemed like a distant memory, a listless, lonely place she didn’t ever want to see again.

“Vi, come on.”

He looked at her pretending to read the book and let out a controlled sigh. He reached out, snatched the book from her hands and threw it onto the floor.

“Fucking talk to me. What is it?”

Violet paced to pick up the book and then left it.

“My dad was – I don’t know,” The words spilled out desperately. “He’s acting differently. He knows something. I can’t do this. It’s like the past repeating itself.”

“How would he know?” Zed frowned. “He can’t know.”

“Well, he knows something!” Violet’s voice broke and she turned away. “We can’t. I can’t. I’m sorry.”

She unlocked the door and ran down the stairs before he could stop her.

***

He didn’t stay away. Late night. She knew he’d show up like he did on any night he could and even though she dreaded it, relief flooded her at the sound of his voice.

“You’re overreacting,” His voice on the other side of her bedroom door. She didn’t open it but found herself standing beside it, desperate for contact. “Your dad doesn’t know. We don’t have to end this.”

“Stop it,” Her voice was thin and useless. “You know how stupid this is.”

“Do you think I give a fuck?”

“I’m not doing this again,” She tried to sound assertive. “I’m not. It’s selfish and sick and I can’t, Zed. I’m going to bed now.”

“No you’re not,” he said. “And it’s not selfish.”

“Do you even – do you have any idea what we’re doing? How stupid this is?”

“What’s he gonna fucking do, Vi? We’re not doing anything wrong!”

“You’re even more stupid than I thought,” she said and waited for him to be offended. He wasn’t.

“Let’s just get out of here,” he said. His voice came through the door and eased into her. She pressed her forehead against the cool wood.

“What do you mean?”

“We’ll just run away,” he said, like it was that easy. “Just fucking get out of this hell. We could go anywhere. I don’t know. Where d’you wanna go? France? Italy? Morocco? I’ll take you there. I’ll take you anywhere you fucking want, princess.”

“Shut up,” The idea was so beautifully ludicrous she couldn’t bear it. “Shut up, Zed.”

He didn’t speak for a while, though she knew he hadn’t left. She felt his presence and when he finally did speak, his voice was low.

“Let me in, Vi. C’mon. What’s the harm?”

“I like you too much,” It was the truth and it hurt her physically to say it. “I like you far too much and this is all going to blow up in our faces. I can’t have it. I can’t have you. We should stay away from each other.”

“But why?” His fingers were tapping out a soft, inconsistent beat on the door. “I don’t mind keeping it quiet. Why can’t we just be together? Just us? No one has to know. Ever. No one will ever know.”

Violet swallowed hard.

“You think? You really think they won’t know? How many people are in this already, Zed?”

He paused like it was a trick question.

“Just- us, right?”

“No. Me. You. Your sister. Ralph. That’s four, Zed. And we can’t do this without Ralph. What happens if he leaves? If he accidentally tells someone else? We’ve already taken too many risks. My dad knows. I swear he already knows!”

“Hey,” Again, the seep of his voice. It was like cool water under the endless glaring spotlight. “Hey. He doesn’t know a damn thing. Ralph’s cool. Ade’s cool. We got this.”

But they didn’t have it. They didn’t have anything but a fragile web of intricate deceit and sooner or later it’d be torn apart. If she’d learnt anything about her own life, it was that nothing stayed secret for very long.

“God, Vi. You’re killing me. D’you know that? It makes me hurt so bad.”

His words were her emotions and she couldn’t bear it.

“Stop, please.”

He didn’t.

“I just – I want you forever. Is that such a bad thing? Nothing means anything without you. I sold so many goddamn prints and it’s empty, Vi. It’s nothing if I can’t share it with you.”

“You don’t need me,”

“How the fuck would you know?”

She closed her eyes tight, trying to stop the tears. Everything was pain. Anxious, terrifying pain. Was anything worth anything? Did it make sense to push away someone she’d already allowed to come so close?

“Let me in,” he said. “What’s the difference in being on this side of the door?”

They both knew the difference but she couldn’t say no. She opened the door. He stood leaning against the wall outside. They eyed each other warily.

“Don’t slam it in my face,” he said. “People might hear.”

“You’re not funny,” she said.

He straightened up and stepped into the room, shutting the door behind him.

“If I could stay away, I would,” he said. “I swear I would. But I can’t, Vi. And I’m not gonna apologise because what the fuck. What the fuck. We both want the same thing.”

He kissed her before she could speak and they stumbled across the room onto the bed. Every kiss was desperate. All they had were secrets. A relationship balanced on an unstable stack of worn lies. There was no sense in plans, in ideas or fantasies. There was just now. Now. This moment. The dark bedroom and his hands pulling off her t-shirt, dragging her shorts down her legs. His shirt on the floor and his jeans next to it. A wrangle of sprawling bodies. His cock pushed insistently inside her before she could even tell him how much he meant to her and even then he didn’t let her speak, his mouth covering hers every time she opened it. Her legs went around him, making him go deeper, making her eyes water at the intensity of each urgent thrust.

“How can you want to stop this?” His eyes were accusatory. “Do you even know how much it hurts?”

If he’d have let her speak, she’d have told him she felt the same but even as his mouth left hers, his fingers replaced it, sliding deep until she moaned around them.

His pulsing cock felt like heaven, driving away all the doubts and fears. With each packing thrust she fell further into the moment. He pulled his fingers from her mouth to grasp at one of her tits and she took the opportunity before he stole it back.

“It hurts me more than you know,” she whispered. “I can’t even tell you, Zed. I just – you mean the world to me.”

“I do?” His finger and thumb found her nipple and tugged at it. “Really, princess?”

“You know you do.”

His cock was stationary inside her and he pushed harder, trying to get deeper still. His free hand slid beneath her, under her ass and she squirmed as his fingers moved, skimming across her asshole.

“Zed – what’re you –“

He pulled free of her snatch.

“I wanna fuck your ass,”

Violet swallowed hard. He’d said it before, countless times but it’d always been easy to laugh her way out of it. Tonight, everything felt heavier, darker, more insistent.

“Zed, please.”

“C’mon, princess,” he whispered. “Don’t you wanna give me everything?”

They kissed, mouths open, tongues swirling in a tangle of wet desire. He was everywhere, occupying all her senses. He knew how to touch her; knew the way to get between her legs; where to bite, where to stroke. Sometimes she felt like nothing more than an instrument beneath him.

He sat up above her, leaned to the bedside table and extracted the ever-present tub of Vaseline. She didn’t stop him. She didn’t want to, didn’t dare to, didn’t want to do anything but make him happy. He slathered the lube onto his hard cock. They watched each other silently.

“I don’t care who your fucking father is,” he said, eventually. “I don’t care what he thinks. This is us. Why should anyone get between it?”

“I know,” Her voice was like an inconsequential shadow. “And I wish it wasn’t like this.”

He eased his weight off her.

“Turn around.”

She obeyed wordlessly, her heart pounding. His hand went between her legs and curled around her snatch, his fingers dragging wetly over her star. He pushed her legs wider apart. All Violet could feel was the thump of her heart. Her fists clenched as the head of his cock pushed against her asshole.

“Relax,” His hand pressed hard on her lower back. “Just let it go.”

She swallowed hard, her fingernails digging into her palms. He pushed harder, pulled back and pushed again. She heard the box of lube thump softly onto the carpet. Zed’s hands went to her hips as he pushed. It didn’t take as long as she expected. Once the head of his cock had entered, her passage seemed to relent and the rest of his pulsing dick slid in easily enough. It felt like nothing else. There wasn’t a pain she could pinpoint, but a long feeling of stretching violation.

“Is that okay?”

“I – think so.”

He pulled back and she gasped into the sheets, her hands clutching at them desperately.

“Zed – I - ”

He worked with short strokes until the alien feeling subsided. His hand moved around to press against her dripping snatch as he increased the pace. She could hear the heavy grate of his breathing and he leaned over her as he moved, his mouth pressing into her neck.

“You feel like heaven,” he growled.

Violet couldn’t speak. She turned her head to the side, sucking in lungfuls of air. Her fingers sweated as they clutched at the bedsheets and the harder he went, the faster her heart beat. It felt too good. Too dirty. Too nasty and yet so beautiful. It wasn’t anything she’d ever fantasised about or contemplated but with Zed, it felt wonderful. He moved faster, his body smacking against hers.

His fingers were working against her, making her body reach for release and when it finally came, she felt as though she might expire from the force of it. Everything was a blinding, scorching mess and she tried to close her legs, tried to feel it for what it was but Zed was still there. He was still thrusting even as she clenched and she could feel his breath against her neck as he rasped out dirty, intelligible words. His hand didn’t stop moving until she came again, her snatch soaking his fingers.

“Zed, please!”

She didn’t think she could take any more and thankfully, he couldn’t either.

“Fuck!”

The word came out of him with a jerk as he forced himself deep inside her, thrusting desperately as his cock finally gave in, spurting urgently into her depths.

“Fuck,” he hissed the word again, his face pressed into her neck as he dragged in air. “Fucking hell, Vi.”

They were both shaking.

***

The following morning, Violet looked out of the second-floor window from where she could usually see him patrolling the gate. He wasn’t there but there was someone new, someone more heavyset with blonde hair. She frowned, scanning the guards scattered along the gates outside. Nothing.

He’d left before she’d woken, leaving no trace of his ever being there, bar the languorous aching of her body. But he always left early; his regular shift started at seven and he had to find a way to make his way out without arousing suspicion. She pressed her forehead against the glass, scanning the sporadic row of guards again. Maybe she’d missed him – maybe -

“He’s gone, Violet,”

Ralph’s voice. She turned.

“What?”

“Zed. He’s gone,” Ralph stepped closer. “Apparently he handed in his notice. He got a gig at some magazine.”

Violet turned back to the window. The glass felt hot against her forehead. She stared down at the gardeners slaving in the September sunshine.

“What magazine?”

The pause hung between them, soft and fragile.

“I – I don’t know, specifically.” Ralph said, “I figured – well, I thought you’d know already,”

She turned without a word, walked quickly past him and back down the corridor to the one guest room which looked out onto the staff car park.

Zed’s car was gone. Something like relief filtered through her but it wasn’t enough. It trickled hesitantly, far too meagre and insufficient to wash away her doubts. He wouldn’t. Things like this didn’t make sense. Did she want to know? Did she dare to find out, to ask questions, to feel a greater pain than abandonment could ever cause?

It’d be easier to accept Ralph’s words. To be heartbroken and betrayed. And yet she was turning from the window already, her mind too full of thoughts to work coherently. She rushed out of the room, down the carpeted corridor and ran up the main staircase, past empty rooms and empty people, past all of it to the stairs up to the attic and she was too far gone to care who might see.

Her shoes were loud on the solid stone steps. Higher and higher. Hotter and dryer. Dustier and dustier. All of it seemed stupid now; immature dreams and fucks, the pathetic life of a bored princess. She stopped at the very top of the stairs, steadying herself on the bannister. Something about the heat made her feel weak in a way she’d never felt before.

She didn’t want to know. She didn’t want to look. But she was walking down to the very last room, their room, the place they’d come to call their own. She pushed open the door. The book he’d thrown the day before lay abandoned on the floor. She didn’t touch it. She walked numbly to the corner and leaned over to lift the lid of the box where he’d stored his precious camera, hoping it’d be gone. He wouldn't leave without it.

Please be gone.

It wasn’t gone. It lay in the box, sleek and gleaming, unaffected and proud in its inanimateness. Violet replaced the lid. She blew out a long breath. The feeling inside her was cold. She felt detached, like what was happening couldn’t really be happening, like she might just wake up from a bad dream. But it wasn’t a dream. Moments like this were never dreams. Her nightmares had never surpassed the revulsion of real life.

It’d take her a while to come up with a sufficient explanation but she’d find one. She always did. It had already started. Money. Of course. Money made the world spin. They’d probably given him enough money to buy a hundred godforsaken cameras. She pressed her thumb and forefinger to her eyes and tried to stop the flow of tears.

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