I switched on my music but kept it low so as not to disturb alco-mum and began to hang the new wallpaper. It was cream with very faint champagne, silver and chocolate stripes. I’d have to get new cushions for the couch and change the floor lamp, but I didn’t care. Decorating always zoned me out and I needed to zone out big time. I started at ten and by eleven I was feeling completely relaxed and sated from having eaten two doughnuts. I was in the middle of hanging a sheet of wallpaper, thinking that the kitchen cabinets could do with a repaint, when there was a knock at the door.
Turning on my stepladder, my hands high above me holding the wallpaper away from the wall, I yelled, ‘Who is it?’
Nope. He wasn’t going to destroy my calm. I took a deep breath and looked back at what I’d accomplished so far. I was on my last piece of wallpaper and the room looked brighter and fresher already. ‘Come in!’ I lined up the paper and used the brush to smooth the top of it to the wall.
Two seconds later I heard him ask behind me, ‘What are you doing?’
Ignoring the effect of his voice on my body, I slid the paper slightly, checking its position before smoothing down another section. ‘I’m wallpapering.’
‘By yourself?’ I could hear the incredulity in his voice.
I nodded, taking a step down the ladder so I could smooth the middle section. It was lining up exactly. Practice did make perfect. ‘Who do you think decorated this place? The wallpaper, the paint, the sanded floors …’ I finished off the piece and stepped back, smiling at the new look.
Turning to Cam, I was surprised to find a slightly dumbfounded look on his face as his eyes searched the room and then came back to me. ‘Do you know how bloody hard it is to hang wallpaper? You just did it like a pro.’
I made a face at him. I didn’t see what the big deal was. ‘Uncle Mick taught me.’
‘When you were ten?’ he asked, smiling in curiosity. ‘When did you start this?’ He nodded at the folding table.
‘An hour ago.’
Those gorgeous eyes of his widened. ‘And you’re done already? Jo, this place is really nicely put together. It looks professional. You know that, right?’
I grinned at the compliment, feeling a flush of pleasure that he thought so. ‘Thank you. It drives Cole nuts. He almost had a fit when he saw the stripped walls.’
‘Actually’ – Cam took a step towards me – ‘The reason I came by was because of Cole. I got this weird text from him saying, “Jo’s wallpapering. She only does that when something’s up. Do you know what’s going on?” ’
Traitor. I sighed, looking away from Cam. So it had got to the point where Cole was now going to our neighbour for help, even when it concerned me. Was I to have no secrets?
I shrugged. ‘Every now and then it helps me relax.’ I tried to placate him with a smile. ‘Cam, you of all people know my life is stressful. I just do this to relieve it.’
Seeming to have mercy on me, Cam gave me a slow nod. ‘Right.’ He looked at the floor now, his eyes running along it to the paintwork on the skirting board. Without saying a word he disappeared and turned towards the kitchen. I heard him in the kitchen and then watched him appear, passing the doorway to head along to the bedrooms and bathroom. I heard three doors open. Bathroom, Cole’s room and my room.
Cam returned to the living room to encounter my ‘look’, featuring raised eyebrows and arms crossed over my chest. His lips twitched at it. Mine did not. ‘Are you done, you nosy bugger?’
He grinned. ‘You have a lot of books.’
‘Explains the vocab.’
‘You’re very articulate. Well read.’
Why did Cam’s compliments always have to be the best? It was very irritating to someone who was trying to get him out from under her skin.
‘You’re also talented.’
Astonishment jolted through my body. ‘Me? Talented?’ Was he high?
His arm swept around the room. ‘Jo, you should be doing this for a living.’
‘Um, doing what?’
‘Painting and decorating.’
I laughed at the absurdity of it. ‘Oh, okay. Who in their right mind would hire a high school dropout with no experience to be a painter and decorator? Let’s face facts. I’m useless, Cam.’
His eyes instantly hardened, narrowing on me and pinning me in place. ‘You are not useless. Don’t talk about yourself like that in front of me. It pisses me off.’ It was lucky he had no intention of waiting for me to speak, since I didn’t know how to reply or react to the warm fuzzies in my chest. ‘You’re good at this. Really good. I think Nate knows someone with his own company. I could see about getting you an apprenticeship.’
‘No. I’m twenty-four. No one hires a twenty-four-year-old apprentice.’
‘They do if it’s a favour for a friend.’
‘Jo, come on, at least think about it. You enjoy it and you’re good at it. It’s better than working two jobs and dating –’ He stopped himself, blanching when he realized he’d almost crossed the line.
Well, not really ‘almost’. He had crossed it. I clenched my jaw, forcing back the sting of tears in my eyes as I realized he still saw me that way – the bimbo after the rich guy’s wallet. I wiped the paste off the folding table, deciding to ignore him.
‘Jo, think about it. Please.’
‘I said no, thanks.’ I couldn’t imagine anyone would ever want to hire me, and the humiliation of rejection didn’t sound like a lot of fun.
‘Cam, why are you here?’ I cut him off sharply. I immediately regretted my tone, but there was no taking it back.
He blew out the air between his lips, his eyes searching mine, and as if he couldn’t find what he was looking for, he took a step back. ‘No reason. I better go. I’ve –’
‘Jo!’ My mum’s voice cut him off this time, her shrill shriek making us wince.
It was the first time she’d called for my help since the incident. I sighed heavily and dumped the paste brush back in the bucket. ‘Cam, stay. I’ll see to Mum, you make yourself a coffee. Maybe get me a tea while you’re at it.’
‘I’m coming!’ I shouted and Cam seemed taken aback. ‘What?’ I asked as I moved to pass him.
He smirked. ‘Never heard you raise your voice.’
‘You’ve obviously never seen me approached by a spider.’
Laughing, Cam waved towards the door. ‘I’ll get the coffee.’
Feeling relieved that he’d decided to stay I hurried to get whatever Mum needed over and done with.
To my surprise she was lying in her bed, not seeming to be in any kind of ‘situation’ after all. Oh, God, I hoped she hadn’t lost control of her bladder. That had happened before. ‘What?’ I asked, hovering in the doorway.
‘Who is that?’ she asked loudly, nodding her head to indicate behind me. ‘I’ve heard his voice lately. Who is it?’
It was the first time Mum had really ever taken an interest in anything outside of her gin-soaked, wasted existence and I couldn’t help but reply, ‘That’s Cam. He’s a friend.’
‘You f**king him?’
‘Mum,’ I snapped, flinching at how loudly the question had been asked.
‘Well?’ she asked with a sneer. ‘Look at you! Standing there, judging me. Get that look oot yer eyes, girl. You think yer better than me. Accusing me of hitting Cole, thinking I’m nothing. Well, look in the mirror, girl, ’cause yer nothing too!’ As her eyes sparked with her contempt, I knew this was what she’d been waiting for. This was her payback for my attack. Humiliating me in front of Cam. ‘Yer useless and that piece oot there will walk away when he gets bored with what’s between yer legs!’
I slammed the door shut, my whole body shaking as I leaned my forehead against it, trying to control my breathing. A few seconds later I heard her start to cry.
I sucked in my breath at his voice and turned slowly around to find him standing in the hallway, his eyes glittering with anger. He took the few steps he needed to be close to me and he said loudly, so Mum would hear, I imagine, ‘You are not useless. You are not what they say you are.’
I glanced down at his tattoo.
When my eyes travelled back up to his and I saw pain in his eyes for me, I knew that Cam was the only guy who had ever seen me. And even more important, he saw beyond what I could see. I was more to Cam.
I wanted to grab his hand, lead him down the hall to my room, strip myself bare before him, and let him take everything I could give him.
And take everything he could give me.
Instead of doing what I really wanted to do, I gave him a platonic but grateful smile. ‘Let’s have that coffee.’
The following Saturday everything I was avoiding feeling, everything that wasn’t being admitted out loud, came to a head.
The week before, Malcolm had invited me to a party that Becca’s flatmate was hosting. The party was to be held in their place in Bruntsfield and Malcolm had said he’d put in an appearance. However, he didn’t want to feel like a fish out of water, so he’d practically begged me to accompany him. I wasn’t really looking forward to seeing Cam and Becca in action together, but since I’d been unfaithful to Malcolm in my head, I thought it was the least I could do for him.
The morning of that Saturday I was up early because Mum had woken us up smashing empty bottles of gin in the kitchen sink. I’d got to her before she did too much damage, wrapped a few plasters around little cuts on her hands, held her while she curled into me and bawled like a baby, and finally accepted Cole’s help getting her back into bed. The muscles in her legs were wasting away – it was a wonder she could even walk. Cole and I had given up trying to get her out and about, and seeing the damage I began to feel guilty.
Trying to shake off the grim sadness that always overwhelmed me when Mum found a way to let us know she was just as angry at her addiction as we were, I thought I’d spend a rare Saturday morning reading while Cole hurried down to Cam’s flat. Since I was still trying to weigh whether we could afford the expense of Cole taking up a martial art, Cam had started training lessons with him on Saturday mornings. Cole loved every minute of it, and honestly, I think Cam was enjoying teaching what he’d learned.
I was immersed in the translation of a romance novel by one of my favourite Japanese writers when the doorbell rang.
It was Jamie, Cole’s friend.
As soon as I opened the door, the short, slightly chubby kid turned beetroot. I bit my lip, trying not to smile. ‘Hi, Jamie.’
‘Hi, Jo.’ He gulped, his eyes looking anywhere but at my face. ‘Is Cole in? He was supposed to meet me outside fifteen minutes ago.’
Clearly Cole had lost track of the time. I stifled my aggravated sigh and stepped out of the flat, shutting the door gently behind me – I had been at a really good part in my book. ‘Let me take you to him.’