“It was a dark and stormy night . . .? Pull the other one, Chris, we are not handing in a story starting like that.”
Chris Mullen, reporter of psychic phenomena, wobbled on his makeshift seat on a hay bale and typed three “e”s in “sheep.” Swearing, he backtracked with one finger to put the damage right, and jumped as a gust of wind flipped some papers over his foot. Seconds later he jumped again when lightning threatened to split the barn roof above his head, and he had to grab the laptop before it slid right off his lap. He glanced over his shoulder to where his partner and sometime lover Jo Perry had cocooned herself in a sleeping bag. “I don’t see why not. Perfectly good start for a story if you ask me. Especially when it happens to be true.”
As if to prove his point, thunder boomed and crashed, and three chickens set up a panic-stricken clucking in one corner of the barn. Chris wished he could stick his fingers in his ears, but typing and hanging onto the laptop required two hands, and sadly, that was all he had. The din swallowed Jo’s reply; he waited ’til things had abated somewhat before yelling, “What did you say?”
“I said, fat chance of any ghosts showing up with all this racket going on. Shall we give up and go back home?”
“It’s tempting. I don’t know where the farmer got all those stories about ghostly footsteps in the farmyard, but there’s about as much psychic activity here as our local takeaway. Talk about a damp squib.”
“So pack up then.” Jo had a habit of yawning like a builder, surprisingly inelegant for a woman. She did it now, giving Chris a grandstand view of her tonsils. “We can cook something up for Geoffrey between the two of us.”
Chris waited out another rumble of thunder before replying. “I don’t know. I suppose we ought to give it the benefit of the doubt and stay for one night. Just make sure you keep the hailstones out of the sleeping bags.”
They’d arrived at the farm late after the usual Friday night crawl up the M1. Set in the wilds at the northern edge of Derbyshire’s Peak District, it was supposed to be haunted with an eighteenth-century carriage-and-four and an assortment of farmers’ sons who’d met with varying degrees of sticky ends. The current farmer had been especially colourful about the last, a young chap who seemed to have fed himself into a hay baler in 1943. “I heard it made a real mess of the barn, that one,” he’d said with great relish over the phone. “Blood all over the place, I daresay. He were my great-uncle. Or he would have been, if he’d lived.”
They’d set up with the barest minimum of equipment until they’d had a chance to check the place out. So far, it had failed to live up to its promise in a quite spectacular way. The only sound had been the insistent beat of rain on the roof, and the only things Chris was likely to go home with were a cobbled-together article, straw burns on his backside, and an incipient cold.
“I hate farms.” He sniffed, and resisted the urge to wipe his nose on one sleeve. “I’m sick of sleeping rough, and I’m especially sick of rain. Not to mention chickens,” he added as the birds began to clatter about again.
Jo snorted. “Stop moaning. You know you enjoy it really—you get off on the thrill. You wouldn’t have been doing it for the last twelve years if you didn’t.”
Horror replaced the pretend lost-puppy hurt. “Bloody hell, is it really that long? Talk about time flying. Thanks for reminding me, dear.”
“Any time, darling. And yes, it must be that long. There’s a reunion dinner at the university next month—I opened the letter just before we left. Twenty years since we graduated.”
“I feel old.” Chris rubbed one hand through sand-and-salt hair. These days the salt seemed to be creeping over the sand, like foam at high tide, a little more each time he dared to look in the mirror.
“You look it.” Jo dodged as Chris threw a wad of straw at her. “My, my, we are touchy tonight.”
“You can blame lack of sleep for that. This farmer must grow the sharpest straw in the country, and I don’t suppose I’ll ever get comfortable enough to drop off. Even just sitting here I’ve got bits jabbing into me. And if you twitch and mumble half the night like you usually do, it isn’t going to help.” In fact he never slept well on a job, partly from excitement and partly from something else, but they had an unwritten rule not to talk about it at work—or anywhere much else, come to that.
“I do not twitch. Or mumble.”
Jo stuck her tongue out and the argument degenerated into a playground scuffle of screwed-up paper balls and flying straw. Just as it was starting to threaten the safety of the barn, Chris held up his hand. “What was that?”
“What was what?”
“I can’t hear anything.”
“Well you won’t if you keep blathering on like that. Shut up and let me listen.”
Jo subsided, hedgehog-like, into a prickly ball, and Chris strained to hear whatever sound had cut through the thunder and the hens and the endless rustle of straw to impress itself on his subconscious ear.
Ping! Ping ping! Pang! Pingpingpingpingpang!
“Even I can hear that.” Jo stuck her head back over the parapet of her sleeping bag.
“Shush. That’s just hail on the barn roof. I meant the other sound.” The storm was moving away at last, the thunder diminishing into a mere growl in the distance, and even the hail only spits and spots. At first he thought the noise wasn’t going to repeat itself, but then at last he heard it—a faint but unmistakable clop, as of hooves on cobbled stones. A few seconds later it was followed by its twin, a muffled clip. Chris felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. The sound was coming from inside the barn. And it’d been a long time since he’d seen a hen wearing hobnail boots.
There was a pause, and then the same sounds rang out again, clip-clop, soft but audible over the receding racket of the storm. Clip-clop, clip-clop. It was getting faster now, and louder. “Can you hear the hooves?”
Jo’s white face stared back at him. “Yeah. That, er, shouldn’t really be possible, should it?” There was only the faintest quaver in her voice. “Can you feel anything?”
Chris was the one with the psychic abilities—a useful skill that had saved them from disaster more than once. “I’m not sure.” He peered about in the gloom. “I know what it sounds like, but . . . Hang on.” Clambering down from his bale of straw, he set off like a bloodhound after a trail, poking about with a torch along the sides of the barn and under the various tractors, harrows, and piles of hay. It took him some time, but at last he emerged triumphant, shaking bits of straw from his hair. “Got it. It’s a neat trick, too. An electric solenoid, designed to connect two chunks of metal together to make that clapping sound.”
“You’re kidding?” Jo pushed aside her sleeping bag and came to see for herself. “Well, of all the conniving, time-wasting bastards.”
“Hope you’re not referring to me.” Chris had meant it as a joke, but Jo’s eyebrows rose and then came down again in a single, uncompromising line. He changed the subject. “It’s a bit of a let down, isn’t it? And after Cornwall last week . . . I think people are catching on. They want the publicity, and they’re not too fussed how they get it.”
“They probably think if they can pull the wool over our eyes, they can get themselves on Most Haunted. What else did Farmer Giles say was supposed to be here? Is everything a hoax?”
“Almost certainly.” Chris rediscovered his laptop bag and dug out a sheet of paper. “Here we go—phantom coach and horses, spirit of an eighteenth-century dairymaid who was drowned on her way to her wedding, and no less than three assorted farmers’ sons, most of them up to no good.”
Jo rolled her eyes heavenwards. “Well, if a few dodgy sound effects are supposed to be the coach-and-four, I’d hate to see the rest. It’s a wonder he wasn’t using a couple of coconut shells. Talk about clichés. Why can’t they come up with something more original than dying on your wedding day? Oh well, what now? Pack up and head for home? Or find a B&B and try to grab some sleep?”
“D’you think Geoffrey will fork out for a B&B? He isn’t going to be very pleased with us as it is. This is the second time in a month we’ve come back without a shred of a story.”
Psychic phenomena didn’t tend to make the front pages very often, so they relied on tip-offs from property owners and members of the public for the ideas that formed the basis of their work. Occasionally it worked well—last year they’d done a terrific piece on a haunted Wiltshire mill, and only last month they’d spent a week crawling round a manor house that was simply riddled with priest holes and secret rooms. All too often, though, the whole thing turned out to be a con, or at the very least the promised ghosts didn’t show, which was what had happened at Polperro. Promised a pub full of spectral smugglers, pirates, and excise men, all they’d found were vast quantities of cobwebs and dust. The pub landlord had been deeply apologetic, and Chris didn’t think he’d been trying to lead them on. Ghosts were random creatures, and the chances of timing a visit to coincide with their latest forays weren’t particularly good. Their boss understood that most of the time, but he had a magazine to run, and sympathy wasn’t his middle name.
Jo began stuffing equipment back in their bags. “Well, if Geoffrey won’t cough up the expenses, I will. This is a total waste of time.”
Chris was inclined to agree. Every minute they spent sitting here was less time to go off and investigate something else. Not that there was much else to work on just now; he’d called in all his favours lately and knew Jo had done the same. “I’m beginning to think there aren’t any more ghosts,” he said, closing the lid of his laptop and fishing for its bag. “Maybe we’ve exhausted the stock.”
“Don’t be daft, Chris. This is you talking, remember. You trip over ghosts every time you go out. You even find new ones in places their owners didn’t know about.”
Chris allowed himself to be cheered up. Jo knew him better than anybody, having worked with him since they’d first met at the horror film club at university. She was the one he’d had long, complicated discussions with about the merits of Poltergeist and The Exorcist—discussions he suspected, looking back, were full of pretentious crap, although they’d seemed erudite at the time, especially when spurred on by barrel-loads of cheap university beer. She was the one who’d first suggested they work together, even though his degree and hers were in such wildly different subjects that it had seemed impossible at first. And she understood his occasional bouts of depression and self-doubt, and usually seemed to have the knack of jolting him back out.
“Well, fine, but if we do piss off home, I’m leaving Geoffrey to your tender mercies come Monday morning. You handle him better than I do.”
“I handle most things better than you do. Driving, typing, coming back from the supermarket with all the right stuff.”
“Not to mention modesty,” said Chris, and lugged a box of videotapes out to their waiting car. He might have added relationships, but he didn’t particularly want to die tonight. Besides, if he was honest with himself, neither of them were much good at those. It didn’t exactly help that he’d spent the last twenty-odd years trying to work out whether he preferred women or men, and was no nearer to a solution than he’d been at nineteen.
Jo appeared at his shoulder as he was gathering the last few papers. “What do we tell the farmer?”
“I’ll think of something in the morning. And no, it won’t involve me being afraid of chickens. I know you think I’m a wimp, but I’m not that bad.”
They packed the car in silence for a while, keeping one eye on the heavens and the other on the chickens, which kept threatening to escape through the open barn door. Finally Chris slapped his hands to free them of straw dust and said, “Have we got everything?”
“There’s one last crate. I’m just going to, er, find a bush.”
“Fine. Don’t frighten the horses.” Wandering back into the barn, he spied a last, stray box and retrieved it. It was surprisingly heavy, and threatened to burst at the seams. Swearing, he got one arm underneath and cradled it like a baby, hoping it wouldn’t deposit its contents at his feet. Footsteps behind him heralded Jo’s reappearance—rather sooner than he’d have guessed—and he said without turning round, “Here, give us a hand with this, will you? I think it’s going to break.”
There was no reply, and when he turned, awkward because of the box, there was no one there. He grunted and assumed he was hearing things—those blasted chickens again—but a thin frisson trickled up the back of his neck and a cool breeze stirred his hair, even though he’d closed the barn door on the way in.
“Jo? Is that you? Quit messing about.”
Once again there was no response, apart from an occasional sleepy cluck. The odd feeling vanished as quickly as it came, and he shrugged. Ten to one it was his imagination playing tricks on him again, or a draught from a gap in the barn’s sturdy wooden sides. He hefted the box in both arms, hooked open the door with his toe, and staggered out to the car.
By Monday they’d pacified the farmer (with a tale involving a relative taken ill in the middle of the night) but were no nearer to dredging up a suitable report for the magazine. Chris wished now that he’d stayed behind and investigated the odd sensation he’d had just before they’d left. In the heat of the moment, with Jo tugging his sleeve and another thunderstorm threatening overhead, it had been all too easy to turn tail and jump into the car, and now whatever story there might have been was lost. He kicked his own ankle under the desk, a little too hard. “Ow.”
“What’s up with you?” said Jo from her desk against the other wall.
“Never mind. Any luck with the story yet?”
“Hardly. I’ve got as far as the dodgy solenoid and that’s it.”
Jo pushed a strand of hair behind one ear and prodded her keyboard. “Maybe we should do another Cornwall.”
They’d handed in their report on Polperro on Friday afternoon, just before setting off for the wilds of Derbyshire. For once, they’d been entirely truthful, and instead of inventing ghostly capers and bumps in the night, they’d told it like it was: not so much warts and all as boredom, no-shows, and all. “Better wait and see what Geoffrey’s reaction to that is first, before we start making trouble for ourselves. We’ll only have wasted our time if we have to rewrite the bloody thing.”
Jo stuck out her bottom lip and looked inclined to argue the point, but before she could say anything, the office door banged open and a young lad stuck a pockmarked face and a shock of gelled hair round the jamb. “Hey, you guys, the old man wants to see you.”
Jo scowled. “That’s Mr. Mason to you, Dean.”
“Yeah, whatever.” The lad shrugged. “I wouldn’t leave it too long, though, he’s in a right strop this morning. Rather you than me.”
The face and the hair vanished, and they could hear his trainers scuffing the corridor as he wandered away.
“I swear that boy gets more annoying every day,” said Jo, compressing her lips into a narrow line.
“Oh, leave him alone. We were all young once.”
“Not like that, we weren’t. I don’t know what he does all day once he’s finished sorting the post, other than running the occasional errand that we could manage just as easily on the phone. Don’t know why the old man keeps him on.”
“That’s Mr. Mason to you, remember.”
Jo stuck out her tongue, then shoved her chair back. “Better get it over with. I suppose the shit’s hit over Cornwall.”
Chris put down the stapler he’d been fiddling with, his hands moving to tidy his hair. The summons had come far too soon for his peace of mind; he’d been hoping to have the morning free at least, to give his overstretched brain time to work. “Probably. And we’ve still got to break the bad news about this weekend.”
They tussled briefly at the door. Chris instinctively held it open, not because he thought Jo couldn’t manage it on her own but because he’d been well brought up and that was what men did. Jo never saw it like that, though, and as usual refused to go first.
“After you,” said Chris.
“No, no, after you.”
Then of course they both tried to get through at once, with inevitable results. Chris rubbed an elbow and kicked himself again. One of these days, he would remember the effect chivalry had on Jo, and save himself the bother.
The Paranormal Times (incorporating Ghost & Ghoul Monthly) had offices in a converted Victorian house on a garden square in the outer skirtings of Bloomsbury. The conversion had clearly been done many years ago, before the current trend for knocking through and stripping out, and the result was a bewildering maze of staircases, corridors, cellars, and attics, some of which ran straight through into the house next door. Chris and Jo shared an office on the ground floor at the back, and their boss worked on the floor above, but for some reason the quickest way to reach it was via the basement and up the front stairs. Chris often thought the basement would make a good setting for a stalk-and-slash scene in a film, and that a more sensitive soul would find it a scary place. A rat’s nest of passageways and tiny rooms under a menacing brick vault roof, it confused and baffled and sapped your sense of direction until it was a wonder anyone who strayed down there found their way back out.
Down here was the post room—Dean’s lair when he wasn’t meandering back and forth delivering messages or the mail. No one knew why the Times still used such an archaic system of communication, although it was rumoured that the boss thought telephones were an invention of the devil. Certainly the old man kept an antique black Bakelite handset on his desk, although Chris had rarely seen him use it and suspected he had a mobile hidden in a drawer. There was more to Geoffrey Mason than tended to meet the eye.
The post room door was closed, but a rhythmic, tinny tsk, tsk leaked out around the joints.
“Listening to his iPod again,” said Jo. “There’ll be hell to pay if Geoffrey catches him with that.”
Chris followed his partner along the lava tunnel between stacked boxes of paper, ink cartridges, and other supplies. He whistled a snatch of an old Kylie Minogue song he’d heard on the radio the other day, but he wasn’t feeling lucky, or as cheerful as the catchy melody suggested. Jo’s dig about his age had hit home harder than he wanted to admit—all those years piled up behind him like flotsam on a beach, and it wasn’t as though he had much to show for it. This job, a decent car, a flat he shared with Jo when she wasn’t off with someone else—and that was that. No wife, no children, no sign of the book he’d always promised himself he’d write by the time he was forty. And whose fault is that?
Usually he had a good face for playing poker, with regular features that could smooth over into a mask a Buddhist monk would be proud of, but for once his emotions were too strong and the mask slipped. As they paused outside Mason’s office door, Jo took one look at his expression and said, “Come on, Chris, it can’t be that bad. We’ve weathered Mason’s tantrums before. What’s the worst he can do?”
“Chuck us out without a reference? Send us to work in the mail room with Dean?” He was glad Jo had misinterpreted his sudden gloom, however much of a wimp it made him look. If she got wind of the real reason, he might never hear the last of it.
Jo pretended to shudder. “Now that would be the end. Oh well, here goes.” She beat a flamboyant rat-a-tat just below the solid brass plate with the word “Editor” inscribed in flowing script, waited a scant second, and breezed inside. Chris followed with rather more caution, back-heeling the door closed behind them. For once their boss was on the Bakelite phone, antique receiver cradled between shoulder and chin as he beckoned them forward to the two chairs in front of his desk. In spite of the plush comfort of the furnishings—olive carpet, polished walnut desk, leather chairs—Chris couldn’t help feeling like a naughty schoolboy summoned before the headmaster. In Jo’s case, the image wasn’t far wrong—with her tomboyish, freckled face she managed to look much younger than forty-one—but Chris still felt like a squirming, mucky ten-year-old.
At least Mason was less intimidating than his last headmaster, although he could still be unnerving at times. He had the sort of face that wouldn’t look out of place in a medieval monastery, with topaz eyes that could drill through armour plating from twenty feet away. In spite of that, he wasn’t a bad bloke to work for. He possessed a keen mind and a dry sense of humour that popped up when you least expected it, usually signalled only by a lurking twinkle in his eyes. And best of all, he was passionate about their work.
This morning there was no sign of the twinkle. Instead, a pair of furry brows bristled over the half-moon spectacles perched partway up his nose, and he’d no sooner clicked the phone back in place than he was waving a set of proofs at them. “This article on the haunted pub in Cornwall for next month’s issue. It won’t do. It won’t do at all. Hardly your usual sort of thing, is it?”
Chris had his mouth open to explain, but Jo, whose temper matched her hair colour, got there first. “Oh come on, Geoffrey, be fair. There was nothing there. We spent the whole bloody weekend hanging about and we didn’t get a single result.”
“Nevertheless, Paranormal readers do not take kindly to being told that their beloved hobby is, and I quote, ‘all a waste of time.’”
“If you ask me, that’s exactly what they want,” Jo said. “It’s about time we stopped spoon-feeding them fairy tales about grey ladies and headless coachmen and started doing some real investigative journalism around here.”
Chris winced, but the explosion he was expecting from Geoffrey’s direction failed to materialise. The old man tilted back in his chair, displaying the sweat stains under his arms, and pursed his lips. “You think so? Well, well, you could be right.”
“Damn right I’m right,” Jo muttered, but Chris nudged her in the ribs before she could say anything they’d both regret.
“After all, if we highlight the obvious fakes, it’ll lend weight to any genuine cases,” Chris said.
“Yes, yes, I see your point. Very well, I’ll run the piece, but no springing surprises like that on me again, you hear? If you have any more, ah, unusual angles, you come and discuss them with me first.”
“Fair enough,” said Jo, all cheery smiles now that they’d got their own way. She scratched the end of her nose, a sure sign that she was pondering something. “Um, talking of unusual angles, how d’you want us to play this latest case? This farm that was supposed to be full of headless coachmen or whatever it was.”
“I take it from your tone that you had little success tracing anything supernatural?”
“Bugger all. We spent the whole night in the barn and there wasn’t a sniff of anything weird. And Chris found a device hidden under some straw that was making ghostly noises. If you ask me, the whole thing was a massive hoax. Chris said he couldn’t feel a thing.”
Chris nodded but kept quiet, uncomfortable with the reminder of his abilities. It was one of the reasons he was so successful at his job, but there were times when he wished he had Jo’s thick skin—usually at about four o’clock in the morning when they were camped in someone’s attic and cold fingers were playing arpeggios up and down his spine.
Aware that the other two were waiting for a response, he summoned a grin and tried to lighten the mood. “Yeah, if there was anything there, it must have been a poultrygeist. You know, an invisible chicken that throws things.”
Jo raised her eyes heavenwards and groaned.
“Hey, come on, it’s only a joke. It was supposed to be a haunted farmyard, after all.”
Geoffrey stretched his lips into a thin smile. “Ah, yes, very good—but I’d like you to leave that story for now.”
Chris pouted. “But I’d already made a start on writing up the report.”
“Including the dark and stormy night,” Jo added in a stage whisper.
“Never mind, you can finish it another time. I have something much more interesting here. A contact of mine in Ireland tells me there’s a ruined church near where she lives that the locals swear is haunted by a former priest’s son. Apparently, the manifestations include voices, things that only appear at certain times, and a strong smell of tobacco. Most of the villagers won’t go near the place.”
“Sounds intriguing. I wonder how many crates of Guinness the locals had got through when they saw all that,” said Jo.
“Hang on a minute,” Chris added. “I thought priests weren’t allowed to get married. So how come this one had a son?”
Mason steepled his hands. “Ah, yes, I was hoping one of you would notice that. You obviously haven’t been reading up on your Irish history lately. Until 1922, the Republic was under British rule and the official religion was Anglican—Church of Ireland to be precise—so the priests were allowed to have families just as they would over here. This seems to have been a particularly sad case, though. According to my contact, the old fellow’s only son was killed in the Great War.”
“Why isn’t it the priest who ‘walks,’ then?” said Chris. “That would make more sense—he could be clinging to the place where his son lived.”
“You would tend to think so, wouldn’t you? That’s one of the things I’d like you to find out. It should make a pleasant change—I’ve heard Ireland is rather wonderful at this time of year. You’ll find the church at a village called Kilveenan on the Galway coast. There’s a flight tomorrow morning at seven, and Miss Feeney, who runs seal-spotting trips from the harbour, has offered to meet you and show you around. Back here in one week, please, unless you uncover anything spectacular. And keep in touch! I’m perfectly well aware that Ireland has telephones.”
Back in the corridor and safely out of Geoffrey’s earshot, Jo pursed her lips in a soundless whistle. “That went better than I expected.”
Chris frowned. “No thanks to you. I wish you’d learn some sense, Jo. Baiting the old man like that doesn’t do my heart the least bit of good.”
“Geoffrey likes people who stand up to him. I should’ve thought you’d have worked that one out after all this time.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe I just don’t like tempting fate.”
Back in their own office, Jo performed a series of pirouettes. “How about that? A whole week in Ireland. Could be a decent break—it’s been ages since I had a holiday. I don’t know much about Galway, though. Is that where your family’s from?”
Chris dragged his attention back from an appraisal of Jo’s legs, revealed in all their shapely splendour as her skirt swirled upwards. “No, my grandfather came over from Wicklow. Galway’s a new area for me too. I’ve heard it’s pretty wild out there.”
“But they still have phones, remember.”
“How could I forget? It’s just like the old stoat to spoil our fun. We could have sneaked off for a week’s holiday and checked out that church as an afterthought, but now I’ll have the feeling he’s looking over our shoulders all the time. I just hope the accommodation’s a step up from last weekend.”
“There’s bound to be a B&B in the area. We can moor up there for the week. Even Geoffrey can’t moan about the expense if we share a room.”
Chris promptly wished he’d kept his mouth shut. The thought of a whole week spent crammed into the same room as Jo, let alone the same bed, was enough to give him the shudders—and it had nothing to do with ghosts. Lately she’d seemed to take great delight in flaunting her body and then grumbling when he took the bait. “That’s just what I was afraid of,” he muttered, heart sinking in the general direction of his boots.
Jo was clattering with her laptop, but at that, her head came up. “What?”
“Nothing. Anyway, come on. We’d better grab some stuff, get ourselves home, and get cracking on the suitcases if we want to catch that flight.”
Jo pulled a face. “I was supposed to be going out for a meal with Jim Spencer tonight, but I’ll have to cancel that now. Bloody hell, Chris, that’s the second time in two weeks. He’ll kill me.”
“You’ll live,” said Chris, and hoped his elation wasn’t quite as conspicuous as it felt. Spencer was the latest thorn in his side, a stuck-up prig of a journalist Jo had met at some media launch or other who talked incessantly about himself, drenched his overly muscular body in musky aftershave, and looked at Chris as though he were a lower order of life. He worked for a rival—and more upmarket—publication, and Jo’s excuse for seeing so much of him was that she was pumping him for useful editorial. Chris had an uneasy feeling there was more to it than that, although what Jo saw in the bloke, other than Russell Crowe’s shoulders and Clint Eastwood’s legs, he couldn’t begin to think. But the relationship, if a relationship it was, had lasted for over four months now, so they must have something in common. Unless of course the pair of them just bonked like rabbits. Knowing Jo, that was always possible.
# # #
Back home, in the airy loft apartment with river glimpses he’d bought with his mum’s legacy seven years ago, he grabbed a beer out of the fridge and immersed himself in packing. He still followed the methodical routine his parents had taught him as a kid: lay everything out on the bed first, then stow it in the case in the right order, heavies at the bottom, undies and shirts on top, and all the awkward bits and pieces tucked down the sides. Even though it was May, Ireland had a reputation for being cold and wet, so he packed a woolly sweater and some thick socks alongside his work clothes and jeans.
Twenty minutes later, he emerged from his bedroom to be greeted by the sight of Jo’s legs protruding from the landing cupboard, barely clad in a rucked-up skirt and laddered nylon tights. “Very elegant, I’m sure.”
“You haven’t seen my big suitcase anywhere, have you?” demanded a muffled voice. “I could’ve sworn I left it in here.”
“It’s on top of the wardrobe in the bedroom.” Chris swallowed his desire as the legs wriggled themselves out of the cupboard and Jo stood up, dusting off her wrinkled clothes. He longed to reach out and lend a helping hand, but the last time he’d tried that without warning, she’d given him a lecture about personal space and he hadn’t dared since. “You said it would be easier to remember where it was if you kept it with mine.”
“Oh yes, so I did,” said Jo, and padded off to find it. After various thumps and bumps, she reappeared lugging an enormous old Antler valise that looked big enough to pack half a herd of elephants, with enough space in the pocket for a spare rhinoceros or two.
“Beats me why you need that thing.” He watched her haul the contraption onto the bed and undo yards of strapping and zips. “We’re going to Ireland, not the North Pole for a month.”
Jo began the Herculean task of transferring clothes from the wardrobe into the cavernous depths. “We can’t all manage on two pairs of pants and a toothbrush. I always need loads of stuff when I’m going on holiday.”
“We’re not going on holiday.”
“Same difference. Here, make yourself useful and fold these. You’re much better at it than I am.”
“Oh? I thought you were better at everything.”
“There’s an exception to every rule.”
Chris fielded the proffered garments and did as he was told. “Call yourself a housewife . . .” he added, and kicked himself for the third time that day as Jo’s head came up. Of all the damned, stupid, clumsy things to say, that had to rate as one of the worst. True, it’d been over a year since the divorce and true, Jo wasn’t exactly pining for her ex-husband, but even so . . . Next time, try engaging your brain before you open your mouth, he told himself, and shrugged an apology.
“Tried that,” Jo said tersely, stuffing pots of cosmetics into the suitcase’s open maw. “Didn’t work. It’s less hassle without.”
“Amen to that.” Chris handed back the folded clothes and mooched off to put his work kit in a bag before he could upset her again.
He was checking the plugs on all their electrical equipment when Jo stuck her head round the door. “Just going to have a quick shower and wash away the office dust—I don’t want to turn up in Ireland stinking of printers’ ink and musty old books.”
“Fair enough.” Chris glanced automatically at his watch. “Make it quick though—we’ll need to leave in about half an hour.”
“Sod that. If you set off too soon, you just spend hours hanging round the airport on a hard plastic chair. I’d rather wait here where it’s comfortable and I can make myself a decent cup of tea.”
Her footsteps receded along the landing, and the next thing Chris heard was running water. It seemed louder than usual; when he went to investigate, he found Jo had left the bathroom door open in blatant invitation. He knew he should resist the temptation—not just because of their imminent departure, but also because sex wasn’t the panacea it was made out to be. Too often it led to arguments, or at best to long uncomfortable silences, but too often, against Jo’s particular brand of lure, he seemed as helpless as an enchanted princess. He sighed, dragged his sweater over his head, and followed the cloud of steam to its source, unfastening buttons as he went.
Jo hadn’t even bothered to pull the curtain across the bath. She stood there in all her glory, hair flowing down her back as the water cascaded over her face and between her small breasts. In spite of the racket of water drumming on the plastic bath, she must have sensed Chris’s presence because she half turned, gazing over her shoulder through heavy-lidded eyes. “Thought you might want to scrub my back.”
The breath caught in Chris’s throat. Without a word, he tugged off trousers and undies and hopped into the bath, sandwiching himself against Jo’s wet back. They fitted together like a dovetailed joint—Jo was slimmer than he was but almost as tall, and the groove of her back captured his chest. Water bounced off his head and dripped into his eyes, but he was oblivious to everything but