“I still don’t understand the rules of Yahtzee.” James pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose and frowned down at the yellowed pamphlet he had pulled out of the only game box they could find. “Maybe we should try and get the TV working again?”
Mandy giggled at the thought of him leaning over the boxy old TV screen to direct the aerial again. He had come away covered in dust, brushing at his hair as she sat happily on the floor in a bundle of blankets. They had given up on modern amenities shortly afterwards, but there was only so much time that could be spent fondling on the floor. Perhaps fortunately, the weather had taken a turn for the worse and the rain was pounding the courtyard outside of their cottage. Ample excuse, ankle excluded, to not do anything all day. She turned her attention back to James, nudged him gently with the toe of her good foot.
“That old thing will never work. And we can’t spend all day kissing!”
“Can’t we?” A quick wink and she blushed, stomach flipping under his gaze.
Had he always looked at her so fondly? It was hard to think now that she recognised adoration in his eyes. She thought that, maybe, yes he had and she had been naive all along. He kissed her like no one had before; softly possessive, but hungry, like he had everything in his grasp but was afraid of it slipping away.
She knew that feeling all too well; those moments at the beginning of university she had allowed herself to rationalise away. An aborted kiss and then three years of longing simmering underneath the surface.
Propped up against the armchair across the rug from her, he had returned his attention to the rules of the game and was reading the pamphlet silently. Lips parted, his hair flopping over his eyes, he made her heart beat just a little faster.
She let her gaze linger slightly too long on his lips as he popped a sweet from his pocket in to his mouth. They stumbled, clinging to one another, across a garden that was slowly emptying as people took themselves indoors to avoid the chill of the summer night. Feeling cooped up and a little overwhelmed, Mandy had suggested that they do the opposite and get some air, which had the benefit of avoiding the winks her classmates were giving her after their game of truth or dare.
She had warned him to always pick truth around her friends. Although he was considered a staple whenever Mandy was invited to a party there was still the pressing knowledge that he was younger, sweeter than some of the more worldly girls in her class, and not accustomed to drinking as much as the rest of them. Seventeen and nervous, they had pounced and James had been dared to kiss her. Spluttering in to his drink, he had glanced down at her. Mandy did a quick units calculation in her head and came up feeling a little worse for wear.
“I don’t think Mandy wants that-”
“That’s the game, babe.” Heather Bailes had smiled sweetly, touched his arm and winked at Mandy, “Or do you want to down that drink?”
James had glanced down at the full glass in his hand- poured, Mandy realised, by Heather from a cheap vodka bottle moments earlier- and paled. Raising an eyebrow at her, he had waited for her almost imperceptible nod and then obliged, giving her a chaste kiss on the lips.
In the fresh air, he swayed clumsily against her.
There was something familiar about his lips that she couldn’t quite place.
Her head swam.
Her classmates had whooped and cheered and his face had reddened when he pulled back. From then on the party had only grown louder and soon she recognised the tell-tale signs that her best friend was uncomfortable and, taking his elbow in the palm of her hand, had nodded towards the door to the back garden.
“You’re lucky,” Heather had whispered nastily as Mandy pulled James towards the porch, “I was going to dare you to make her c-”
The slamming door had cut her off, but Mandy felt herself growing hotter even as the air cooled around them. Beside her, James had bristled. They pressed on towards the end of the garden, where the trees lined the fence before the scenery gave way to moors and heathland.
A clink of ice against glass made her look down and she realised that James had drained most of his drink and was swirling the last of it around in the glass. At a safe distance from the house they stopped walking and, leaning against a tree, she gazed up at him.
“Sorry about Heather,” she said quietly, throwing a glare back towards the party, “She likes to pick on the-”
“Weaker ones?” he said, slightly bitterly, and swigged the last of his drink with his head tipped back. She rolled her eyes and touched his cheek to bring his gaze back down to her.
“No, she likes to pick on anyone she worries might be more likeable than her. Which is most people.”
At that he smiled, a lopsided grin that she always found charming, and leant against the thick trunk next to her, arms folded. He stood slightly taller than her now, having hit a growth spurt in the last couple of years, and she had to crane her chin up to look him in the eyes. Something gnawed at the edges of her stomach. She put it down to the alcohol.
Amelia Banks had invited them both to her leaver’s party. No adults, had been the draw for most people. Bring that cute friend of yours had done it for Mandy. Despite being younger, James had a subtle charm that many of the girls in her year found appealing. They’d never ‘do’ anything, they assured Mandy, but they took pains to remind her that her best friend had grown in to his looks. She was inclined to agree, although she felt she was probably biased.
He licked his lips and she settled against the tree, back pressed firmly to the bark. Usually a fan of personal space, she felt a little trill of pleasure when James stepped closer, almost imperceptibly except for the warmth of his thigh brushing against hers.
“I think I drank too much,” he laughed softly, head dipped to get closer to her, “I really didn’t want to down that vodka.”
“Small price to pay to not have you pass out on me later,” she joked lightly. In truth, her eyelids felt heavy and and her heart was pounding and she wondered if she could just lay down and sleep right there in the garden. James didn’t look like he was faring much better; he gazed at her through long eyelashes, soft and gentle, like he was slipping away in to a dream.
“Yeah… small price,” he whispered, breath rolling across her cheeks like a punctuation of sorts. He dropped his arms, fingers brushing past her.
“You know what I…” Cut off by his lips brushing hers, she gasped. He pulled back slightly, eyes searching hers. “… mean. You know what I mean.”
They came together again, his lips warm and open as they parted her own. He tasted sweet, but not unpleasantly so, like apple sweets with the undercurrent of vodka. His lips were soft, his cheeks slightly rough from early days of shaving when she reached up to hold his face still. Dizzy, she steadied herself against him and found herself sandwiched between the rough, cool bark at her back and James’ chest, pressed firmly against her own as his arms held her tight. He licked in to her mouth and she pulled him closer, sighing.
Emboldened, James snaked a hand up her body to entwine his fingers in her hair; his hold was strong, but his body felt looser against her, like an exhale that flowed right through him. His knee pushed between her legs and she was astonished at how good it felt to be pinned against the tree by him.
For a moment he paused for breath and she took the opportunity to trail her lips along his jaw, peppering him with kisses as his laughed softly. His hands slipped from her hips to her waist, his fingertips brushing the underside of her bra through the fabric of her shirt.
The sounds of the moors rolled around them; soft and almost silent as the leaves bristled against the wind and the harvest mice rustled the tall grasses. Mandy felt something inside her flip with delight when he moaned gently, tipped his chin up so that she could press her lips in to the hollow beneath his jaw. Grateful that she had decided to wear her usual jeans and shirt, she shivered when he slipped his hands along the bare skin across her back.
She was working her lips along the pale skin on his neck when he stiffened suddenly and pulled back.
“Sorry,” he spluttered, not meeting her eye, “Sorry, I shouldn’t have- I’ve had too much. Sorry.”
“It’s okay, don’t…” But he was pulling away, wiping his mouth with a flat palm and looking back at her guiltily. His shoulder hunched, embarrassed, and she recognised the signs of him withdrawing in to himself- signs she had seen more and more since his dad had started spending more time away from home and she had been planning for university. It was pointless to try and ease him back now. The moment had passed.
They walked home in silence.