Note: NSFW, briefly.
At the sound of her father’s voice across the courtyard, we both jumped like we’d been burned, but as I made to pull back, Angeline clamped her thighs tighter around me, locked her ankles behind my back. Her fingers tangled in my hair, she held me firmly in place.
“I didn’t say you could stop, Seth,” she whispered headily. “Don’t you dare stop.”
I could hear John calling again for his dog. His heavy footfall, against the stone pavement outside the building, was getting closer and closer to us.
“He’ll catch us,” I murmured.
She groaned, impassioned. “Let him.”
“He’ll beat me,” I tried to reason with her, with myself, even as I held her tighter, moved into her deeper, catching her breathless sighs in my mouth.
She suddenly whispered, frantically, against my lips, “Remember that I love you, yes?”
Angeline shoved me off her and I rolled on to my side, stunned for a second and wondering what I’d done, before I realised that her father had appeared blessedly, without his gun. He did not look amused to be greeted by the sight of me, on the floor, trousers down, with his pink-cheeked daughter beside me, but then his face was usually unamused.
“Hi Daddy,” Angeline chirped in that sweet voice she never used on me. “You’re awake early.”
“It’s four-thirty, Angeline,” John said and then he turned to look at me as one might survey the contents of an outhouse. “What in Watcher’s name do you think you’re doing, delinquent?!”
I really did try not to be so insouciant where her father was concerned, tried to let the insults slide and portray myself as a suitable partner for his precious princess, but what kind of question was that? “I’m trying to screw your daughter, John. Give us a minute?”
Angeline turned her laugh into an almost convincing gasp of horror and covered her smile with her hand, gazing up at her father with those puppy-dog eyes she’d perfected. She yanked me to my feet.
“Get dressed, Seth,” she snapped. “I’ve told you; the rash’ll go away on its own.”
John did not see the funny side, he never did, but he melted as he looked at her; she could do no wrong.
“Get out of here, Angel. I don’t want you to see this.”
“Please don’t hurt him, Daddy,” she said in her most innocent voice, her lip quivering and her eyes glassy with crocodile tears. “I invited him in. I just feel so very sorry for the lonely wretch. Look at his pitiful face! Even the whores don’t want him!”
“We should’ve let the lunatic hang,” he muttered. “Angeline, leave. Now.”
She ducked out of view, rolling her eyes and mocking her father as soon as she was out of his sight.
John, oblivious to this show behind him, cursed under his breath eyeing me with disgust as I fastened my belt and wondered if I could fit through the tiny window behind me.
“She is too kind for her own good, allowing scum like you a chance. Give me one good reason not to riddle you with bullets,” he snarled.
“You’d have to fetch your gun and that would give me time to run away,” I suggested, helpfully.
John growled at me, foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog. “Have you no shame, Seth?! She’s a good girl! A sweet girl! She does not enjoy your attentions; she pities you! She deserves an honourable man! An honest man!”
“She has one,” I insisted, trying not to laugh at John’s terribly inaccurate description of his own daughter.
“Nothing about you is honourable! Pray, if you make her with child, I will—“
“Allow us to marry?”
I don’t know who those words surprised more. Probably John, who was turning purple in his rage; his hands balled into tight fists at his sides and his head high, looking every inch of his 6 foot 5 frame.
“She will marry the devil himself before I permit her to marry you, you good-for-nothing cur!” he hissed through gritted teeth, showering me with spit. “Get off my land before I beat the living daylights out of you!”
I doubted he’d follow through on this threat, if only for Angeline’s sake. Regardless, I held up my hands in surrender and backed off. I could still hear John’s heavy boots stomping around on the flagstone floor of the workshop and kicking things even when I was outside.
As I passed the milking shed, I smiled at Angeline, gave her a short nod to let her know that I could meet her tonight. She tutted as if irritated by the idea, but I caught the smile that lifted the very corner of her mouth.
I knew she’d be waiting for me at our tree, at sunset.
The sun had not quite risen and Windenburg town centre was deserted. I climbed the rickety steps to the room in the ramshackle house that I called home. I spent so little time indoors these days that I may as well have not had an abode at all, but appearances mattered when you were trying to rebuild your life.
The landlord charged me twice the going rate for this dump.
I barely had any furniture, there was no fuel for the fire. Some might’ve called it poverty, but compared to what I’d had a year ago – a bucket and a mattress on the floor of my cell – it was a palace.
My stomach growled, prompting me to the pantry. Scanning the shelves for sustenance, I selected the apple that had seen better days over the raw onion and took my breakfast outside to watch the sun breaking over the horizon.
After spending more than half of my life incarcerated, I enjoyed the morning breeze through my hair, even on the days where the rain lashed against my skin and soaked my shirt.
Out among the leaves and the trees; that was where I belonged and where, this time, I intended to stay.
Since I had moved back here, a white cat had joined me daily for breakfast and today was no exception. He would usually circle around my ankles, sometimes hop on to my lap for a fuss. Today he eyed me almost suspiciously before climbing up.
I petted his soft head and he flinched, sniffed at my hand, my face. Perhaps he could pick up traces of Angeline’s scent on me.
I didn’t usually visit her in the mornings but last night I couldn’t stop thinking about her, I couldn’t sleep. I had wandered around the town walls, restlessly, finding myself heading down the path towards her farm. I had thought she would be sleeping, but I saw her outside, barefoot, studying her saplings.
She had rolled her eyes when she’d spotted me, leaning on the wall, watching her. She sighed, “Do you not have anything better to do?”
Was there anything better to do?
The sound of the squeaky cart barely even registered to me anymore, but it always startled my furry companion who scarpered into the bushes.
“A bad apple?” Noah asked, seating himself beside me. “Don’t tell me that’s all you’ve eaten.”
I grinned at him. “All right, I won’t tell you.”
Noah shook his head. “You need a decent meal, Seth. You cannot survive on fruit alone—“
Ah, this familiar play. I usually ignored him, but my morning activity had me fired up. “You’re right, I cannot survive on fruit alone,” I replied.
“You’ll get triple threat and gout and… what?” Noah stopped; stunned as I stepped off-script. “You’re agreeing with me? You never agree with me. About anything. Am I finally getting through to you?” he rejoiced.
I tried to stifle my laugh. “Yes, sir. I’ll have vegetables tonight, for a change,” I joked, amused as Noah’s confusion turned to outrage.
“You cad! You got me! But this is not funny; you’re wasting away!” he insisted. “Please, come by the house this evening; Betty is preparing a fine lamb.”
Now I ignored him. Noah offered this daily; only the meat ever changed. I took a final bite of my apple and threw the core into the nearby bushes.
Noah sighed and handed me another apple from his cart. “Fine. But if you must insist on doing this, going along with her strangeness, at least eat fresh crops.”
The market was quiet today, but Noah’s stall always had customers. His fresh produce was certainly attractive, but the main draw for one young woman was definitely not the exotic new fruits he’d grown.
“Back again?” I teased. “We’re out of potatoes, as you know.”
Harriet’s cheeks flushed pink. “I forgot a different ingredient for my pie! The… um…” she scanned the table. “The strawberries!” she gushed. “I forgot the strawberries! Can’t make the recipe without strawberries. Silly me!”
“Strawberries and potatoes? That’s an interesting pie.”
“It’s, um, a foreign recipe,” she murmured. “From, um, Sulani.”
“Exotic,” I said and placed the fruits inside her basket on top of the twenty-eight potatoes she’d already purchased in four different transactions that morning. “Anything else?”
“No, I—” She glanced over at her friends, who were watching with interest. Her gaze fluttered down to her full basket and empty coin purse, then back to me. “Actually… actually… yes.” She smiled at me with what she likely thought was coquettishness, but was more a shyness that was almost painful to observe. “I can think of one other thing I would like, yes.”
Harriet looked at me for a second before she laughed in a brainless, frothy way that probably should have made me warm to her, but only served to annoy me.
“You’re so funny! There’s no cabbage in this recipe! Oh, you! You do make me laugh!” she laughed again, to demonstrate. “Perhaps… perhaps if you’re not so busy this afternoon, you’d like to keep me company, Seth?” She glanced back over at her friends again, her cheeks burning red. “Only because I need someone to help me eat this pie. I will not possibly be able to eat a whole pie by myself.”
“Then perhaps don’t make one,” I suggested.
Harriet wilted and blinked back tears, her voice small, “Of course… yes that would make sense, wouldn’t it?” She looked back over to her friends who were still giving their encouragement.
“I can do this,” she said quietly, shifting the weight of her basket on her arm and looking like she wanted the ground to swallow her. “Forget the pie. Father has a wedding to officiate today so I will be lonely. Oh! Not that I’m offering anything untoward – I’m certainly not – oh my goodness! Unless you want to, then I might permit you to hold my hand.”
She rambled on, looking like she might pass out. I could feel the heat from her face from where I was standing. “Not that I want you to hold my hand! Well, I do, of course I do, you’re handsome and you’re charming, but – oh my goodness! I am making such a mess of this! Do you want to come over?” she blurted.
“No,” I replied. I didn’t offer a reason and she didn’t ask for one. She nodded and as her eyes overflowed with tears I almost felt a twinge of guilt. She hurried away to her girlfriends without another word.
“You are cruel sometimes, Seth. You could do far worse than Harriet,” Noah uttered. “Her cooking skills and those hips? Watcher. She would be a fine wife and would bear you children.”
“I’m taken,” I replied as a familiar face with green eyes and a messy braid wandered into the square and headed straight for Ma’s curio store, as always.
Noah followed my gaze and sighed. “You are a law unto yourself. What do you see in Angeline?”
“She accepts me.”
“I’m sure she does,” Noah scoffed. “Which is precisely why you should forget her and find a wife who will keep you in line.”
I had to fight to keep the smirk from my face. “She keeps me in line.”
“In a line of two, on the fringe of society,” Noah muttered. “Besides, even if she was a viable option, there is no way on Watcher’s green earth that John would give you her hand, Seth.”
“Of course you do.”
I turned to my friend, determined. “I’ll find a way. Perhaps you can write me a reference; tell John what a hard worker and all-round wonderful human being I am.”
Noah scoffed. “A monkey could pick fruit faster than you. Would probably eat less of it as well,” his stance was firm but there was warmth in his voice. “I’ve already put my neck on the line for you. Make a good decision for once; court Harriet. She’s too young to remember your misdeed and too sweet for prejudice. She might be your only chance.”
I glanced at Harriet, who perked up at my unexpected attention.
“I simply need more time,” I said. “If I can just convince John I’m a changed man—“
Noah rolled his eyes at this. “You freed all of his chickens last Tuesday.”
That had been Angeline but of course I’d been blamed for it. I laughed. “I’m not going to be slipping back into a life of crime because of a few chickens. Although it was hilarious watching John chasing them around the meadow. A perfect distraction while I fornicated with Angeline in the barn.”
Noah apologised to an elderly lady who had overheard that snippet of conversation and hissed at me, “Freeing chickens. Fornicating in a barn. Do you hear yourself when you talk? You need to grow up, Seth. You won’t live forever, you know. You are already twenty-seven, not that you act like it! If you truly wish to reintegrate into the community, you need to stop chasing fantasy. Forget about Angeline and go and talk to Harriet.”
I cast my eye over the young lady Noah was referring to, who was pretending to browse the book stand, no doubt so she could eavesdrop.
Granted, she was pleasant to look at and she was mild-mannered, innocent, uncomplicated. Very keen to find a husband; her friends all recently married. She could be mine in a heartbeat.
I would have instant good-standing in the community, marrying the priest’s daughter, and the satisfaction of seeing whether her father truly had forgiven me as he’d claimed. I could have a brood of beautiful children, a wife who would dote on me, bake me strange pies and call me sweet names.
The whole idea bored me to tears.
Angeline had left the store, slipping a small bottle into her pocket as she crossed the square towards me. She smiled as she approached, giddy with something to say… until she clocked the proximity of myself and Harriet.
I pretended I hadn’t seen her and my attention lingered on the blonde a lot longer than my interest held, until Harriet blushed crimson under my sultry gaze and Angeline’s green eyes glowed with envy.
She stormed out of the square, elbowing Harriet as she did so and giving me a look that told me I’d surely be in for quite a scolding from her later.
The charge that went through me was like nothing else.
“No,” I said firmly. “I don’t want Harriet. It must be Angeline.”
Noah shook his head. “Why? She is on the shelf for good reason; besides her evident promiscuity and her aberrant opinions, she has a bad temper and she is unremarkable, if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ask you,” I replied. “Perhaps I enjoy my women rebellious, bad-tempered and unremarkable.”
“Then marry Harriet,” Noah looked around, cursed as if he couldn’t believe what he was about to say and lowered his voice, “but utilise other services.”
I gasped and said very, very loudly, “Noah Bucket! Are you implying that I would, nay, should cheat on my wife with prostitutes?!”
Noah’s cheeks were almost as red as his hair as he stammered at this accusation, which had once again startled that poor old lady, causing her to abandon her shopping.
“N- no! I… I would never—“
“To think I’d settle for a quick bonk with a dirty stranger – who I had to pay for the privilege – over a woman who’s all mine! Scandalous! Besides, I prefer to take my time,” I flashed Harriet a grin as I purred, “to satisfy. To savour.”
The silly girl actually swooned; falling into the book stand, her friends rushed to her aid.
“Of course you do,” Noah muttered, even his ears were red now. “You live in your own time zone while the rest of us simply get on with it.” He placed the abandoned items back into their bowls while hissing at me through gritted teeth, “You’re one word from unemployment, Seth.”
“Is that so? Perhaps for my next career I will offer myself to the ladies of this village,” I joked, albeit this time at a volume that the whole market wouldn’t hear. “I feel your Betty might be a good customer of mine if you do, as you say, simply get on with it.”
Noah let out a droll laugh. “Go ahead and mock me. I have my business, my sons and Betty – who has never complained, I hasten to add. What do you have?”
“Do you?” Noah asked. “Because from where I’m standing, you seem rather trapped. You may not be locked up now, but you’re still isolated, disconnected and pushing everyone away. I think there’s a reason why you pursue the likes of Angeline and why you antagonise her father; you’re afraid to commit and, with her, you don’t have to.”
“I’m not afraid. And one doesn’t have to be married to be committed.”
“They do if they wish to be a part of this community, Seth. Or are you afraid of committing to us, too?” Noah continued softly, “You have a great opportunity here, with a lovely, young woman. If you don’t take a wife soon, you risk ending up a very lonely man. Come,” he said, laying a cloth over his produce. “You can think about your terrible life choices over an ale. My treat. You surely deserve it for flogging our surplus of potatoes.”