Nice Lads Don't Kiss Like That.
Even though Derry was a place that had experienced decades of pain, death and violence, it had seen its fair share of happiness, life and laughter too.
To Erin Quinn, it was home...
In spite of her semi-drunken state, it took her all of three minutes to find herself half way down the street, encompassed at all angles by the housing estate in which she'd grown up.
There was a cold bite to the wintery air, almost like snow was on its way. The county council's strings of multicoloured Christmas lights made her feel even more dizzy and disorientated than she already was as she replayed the last few moments of insanity over and over in her mind until it drove her half mad.
Sure, what else should Erin have expected coming home to Derry? Nothing else, that's what.
No matter where she and her fellow Derry Girls seemed to go in life, chaos still followed close behind...and nothing, not even growing into proper semi-functional adults, had changed that.
She huffed, nostrils flaring.
Erin Quinn was frustrated with herself, with James and with stupid feckin' Siobhan McGuigan for coming over and bursting their bubble; a perfectly comfortable and platonic bubble they'd lived in for the better part of a decade, thank you very feckin' much...
A part of her wanted desperately to bury her head in the sand, deny everything and let her relationship with James go right back to how it had been just a few moments earlier.
...but then Erin remembered how he had looked at her, very much a man but still sporting that same damned earnest look that brought to mind the gangly English teenager who stumbled into her life, trailing crestfallen behind Michelle, nine years earlier on his first day at school.
James Maguire was one of her best friends, her fellow Derry Girl and deep down Erin had been absolutely totally and embarrassingly in love with him for much longer than she would ever dare to confess.
Falling for James had been the easy part; it was admitting to herself (and to him!) that it had happened was what Erin was struggling with.
Sweet Sufferin' Jesus, she was fucked!
The whole evening had been downright lovely; familiar in a way that Erin hadn't even known she'd been longing for in the weeks since she'd last been home.
Perched up on the bar counter and surrounded by a group of fellas they'd known in school, Michelle seemed determined to belt out yet another (very drunken!) verse of Shane McGowan's 'This Woman's Got Me Drinkin'!', all the while loudly summoning up the bartender for another round of gin.
Erin watched with a faint smile as a flustered looking Clare blushed under the attentive eye of Aoife, her new girlfriend, and Orla slow danced with herself to whatever cheesy 90s banger the half-banjaxsed jukebox felt like splurging out to futilely compete with Michelle. The pub, decorated with ten year old fairy lights and half wilted garlands, was chocablock with a rousing crowd of twenty-somethings, most of whom were home for Christmas.
Happily buzzed, Erin let her head dip into the crook of James's neck...blaming it solely on the alcohol when his arm came around her shoulders and made her stomach flutter.
It was all in the spirit of perfectly platonic behaviour of course...
"Are you alright?", James asked, his lips warm at the cartilage of her ear. Visibly, he was every bit as out of it as Erin was but still remained somber enough to be concerned about her.
Erin nodded, her smirk unfaltering. "I'm a Derry Girl, James", she said, lording the title like a proud peacock. "It'll take more than a few drinks to get me hammered."
James smiled somewhat tenderly, shaking his head.
Clearly he hadn't forgotten how pissed drunk Erin had gotten on quite a few occasions (after only a few swigs from Michelle's litre bottle of Vodka) during their last few years at Mary Immaculate College, all but bellowing out. Every. Bloody. Stanza. of her 'edgy' teenage poetry for anyone within a two mile radius to hear.
"If that's what gets you to sleep at night", James teased back gently.
Erin rolled her eyes, elbowing him lightly in the ribs, but decidedly not moving out of his arms.
Save for a few phonecalls, they hadn't actally seen each other in person for weeks and this closeness...well, it felt pretty cracker actually.
"James! Erin! How 'bout ye!"
Erin glanced up, startled by the interruption even though they'd be running into former school mates all night. Her gaze fell on a familiar looking blonde haired woman, with kind eyes and curly hair; Siobhan McGuigan.
Well, they hadn't seen her around in a while...
Somehow managing a tight lipped smile, Erin found herself nodding civilly to James's ex girlfriend from Upper Sixth. She tried to ignore the small, but very insistent, twinge of annoyance in the pit of her stomach as he greeted the other woman with a characteristically warm and good natured smile.
In hindsight, Erin knew that she hadn't always acted the best towards James's ex but in all fairness, who was she to know that Siobhan wasn't just some careless wee melter trying to break her best friend's heart?
Sure, there was no way Erin could have possibly known any better! (Save, of course, for several strict scoldings from Clare, a suggestive quirk of the eyebrows from Michelle and three months worth of hurt and affronted glances from James...Christ, she'd been such an eejit back then!).
Erin tried to tune back into the conversation, barely suppressing the panicky awkward grimace of a person who'd caught a whiff of something particularly shocking.
It took her brain just a second too long to process the next sentence that came from Siobhan's mouth...
"Ahh it's no surprise that the two of ye got together. Head over heels, James always was for ya, Erin. Sure, it was why we broke up in the first place."
Erin felt her stomach drop, her palms sweat and her heart pick up its pace until she could hear blood pounding in her ears. She felt somber, stone cold somber.
Whirling around to face James, Erin expected to see amusement and hear his polite refusal of Siobhan's observation but instead she found herself on the receiving end of a sheepish half smile...before his face turned to panic at her silence.
James's feelings had been outed, and he damn well knew it too!
"Erin?", he whispered softly, shaking her shoulder.
The look in his eyes was raw...vulnerable. It scared the absolute shite out of her.
Grabbing her coat, Erin scrambled out of her seat before she could hear Siobhan's hurried, but clearly genuine, apologies. Her heart was still thumping fiercely in her chest, her mind running at a hundred miles an hour until she found herself completely unable to make sense of anything that was going on around her anymore. Her legs seemed to know what they were doing though, and they carried her out of the pub as fast as they possibly could.
Erin felt James's arm fall limply from her shoulder, and shook her head to dispell the cold empty feeling that overwhelmed her when he was no longer by her side...
As a journalist and aspiring novelist, words were generally not a problem for Erin. They were her livelihood and her passion. They kept a roof over her head and they paid her bills.
Right now, Erin was speechless. James had made her speechless.
She heard his footfalls on the pavement long before he'd said anything, trailing several feet behind her in hot pursuit. Erin tried desperately to pull herself together, tried to steel her composure and stop her bottom lip from all its feckin' quivering.
What was she supposed to do? What the actual fuck was she supposed to say? James had fancied her back in the day...surely, he didn't still fancy her now?
And did 'fancy' even begin to cover how she felt for him anymore —Erin didn't think so.
She felt James's fingers wrap around her elbow, carefully whirling her around to face him as if he expected her to explode at any moment.
James's eyes were wild, as wild as the curls he'd clearly ran his hands through in frustration.
"Erin! For goodness sake, Erin. Wait!
She guffawed, attempting to sound as confident and self assured as she would like...but failing miserably. The next words that spilled from her mouth did exactly that, spilling out in a complete and utter mile a minute frenzy.
"That was a right load of balls, wasn't it? What Siobhan said. You don't—Surely, even when we were wee'uns you didn't—."
Before Erin could even voice Siobhan McGuigan's suggestion, James chipped in gently.
"What if I did?"
The warmth in his voice made Erin feel more at ease in a way few other things could. She found herself hesitantly reaching for him, fingers wrapping around his elbows to steady herself. She let out a shaky breath, worrying her lip between her teeth.
Frowning, she asked to clarify; "You fancied me when we were eighteen?"
James smiled bashfully, avoiding her gaze in a way that made him look far younger than his twenty five years. "I've actually been in love with you since we were sixteen...just to be clear."
"WHAT?", Erin spluttered, feeling her face heat up in disbelief. She didn't know whether she wanted to cry, laugh or kiss James senseless...so she settled for fixing him with an intensely incredulous glare.
Looking at James, Erin felt as though her stomach was tied up in knots... and it was all because he not only loved her (something she had always known!) but was, in actual fact, in love with her.
"Jesus Christ, James! This is mental! This is ABSOLUTELY feckin' mental!"
James shifted awkwardly. "Look, Erin. It doesn't mean we have to change anything. The five of us, we're family, aren't we? Nothing could ever change that."
Deflating somewhat, Erin felt her initial panic ebb away at his words and shook her head adamantly, knowing James well enough to hear the double meaning and hidden fears that were wrapped up in his words.
They were family; them and the girls. They had been ever since the day they'd all barrelled into him for a group hug on the bridge overlooking the Clintons' parade, the day he'd proclaimed himself a Derry Girl.
James had lost his mother that day. Not exactly estranged, his relationship with Kathy had never been quite right ever since he'd opted to stay behind in Derry. Erin squeezed James fingers, her frown softening as she gave him a reassuring smile.
He'd never lose her and the girls in the same way he'd lost his mam...that was for sure.
"Of course not", Erin whispered, the strength of their promise that nothing could ever change the way in which they look at one another giving her just enough courage to continue with her next question. "Yer not- yer not still in love with me are ya?"
James smiled sheepishly, his ears reddening. His reaction was, in all honesty, more of a tell-tale for her than words could ever be.
Holy fuck, why hadn't they just bucked up and had this conversation years ago? It surely would have saved both of them more time and heartache than either cared to mention in that moment.
"I don't think I could ever stop loving you."
Erin shook her head in ecstatic disbelief, face sinking into her hands as she huffed out a relieved laugh."For God's sake, James", she said, eyeing him through her fingers. "We've been so stupid! So feckin' stupid!"
James smiled softly, gently pulling her hands away from her face. "How so?"
Raising her eyebrows, Erin smirked. In the light of James's confession, a thousand different awkward instances from their shared past suddenly made perfect sense
"I tried to seduce you once, remember?"
Clearly taken aback, James eyed her quizzically. "What? When?"
"In our second year of college. We were up vistin' Clare in Glasgow. I thought I'd finally mastered some proper moves at that point and all. I climbed on top of you and everythin'."
Recognition dawned on James's face, the five year old penny finally dropping.
"I thought you were drunk!"
Erin chuckled humourlessly, remembering how hurt and rejected she'd felt afterwards and how she'd not so subtly announced over breakfast the following morning that she'd been totally langers the night before in order to cover her tracks.
In reality, she'd had less than half a bottle of Bulmers (liquid confidence!) before cornering James...the romantic in her having wanted to remember the night perfectly.
"Ach, James. You're just too chivalrous for yer own good."
Looking at little disappointed that they'd missed their chance in college, James took both of her hands in his. "I'm sorry, Erin. If I'd known-."
She shook her head adamantly, her lips curling upwards into a teasing smile. "Naah, it's alright. It was fairly sweet to be honest, lookin' back. I thought you were gonna shite the tights altogether."
"I was just trying to be respectful", James admitted sincerely, laughing a little at the memory of his very panicked and more than a little tempted twenty year old self attempting to get a super horny and slightly tipsy Erin off his lap. "That, and I really didn't want to lose you...or you know, accidentally mess everything up."
Erin nodded, understanding completely. "Yeah, I get that now."
Not exactly sure what was supposed to come next, they two found themselves strolling past the Quinn-McCool residence, neither ready or willing to part company just yet.
A pale orange band of light began to wrap around the bottom edge of the night sky, a new dawn approaching from horizon to horizon.
With James's arm linked through hers and Erin's temple effortlessly finding his shoulder, they chatted aimlessly about everything and anything. From work to their future plans. From stories of their crazier university escapades to the epic tales of drugged scones, canine exhumations, decapitated wee Jesuses and Take That concerts from their secondary school days.
"I do love you too, ya know?", Erin admitted after quite some time, suddenly becoming very aware that she hadn't verbally returned James's confession just yet. "I always have."
"Really?", he asked, his voice hopeful.
She nodded, never more sure of anything. "Aye."
James smiled wryly, his gaze full of a certain earnestness and candour that never failed to make her knees weak. Erin felt the explosion within her, the burst of love that had been threatening to break out all along.
Then she knew...
She knew it was never just her yearning for him or him yearning for her. It was mutual. It had been there all along. Ever since they were teenagers.
"Would it be okay if I kissed you?", he asked, all soft edges, quiet confidence and lopsided smiles.
Erin beamed, her tone almost comically insistent. "If you don't c'mere right now, so help me God!"
James chuckled breathlessly, clearly every bit as giddy as she was.
His lips brushed against Erin's, a decade's worth of pent up emotions finally unleashed. His kisses weren't innocent, like a tease, but hot, fiery and passionate. It made the world around them all but slip away.
Erin felt a smoldering heat burn deep within her as James's grip on her waist tightened, crushing her body to his, gentle yet firm. He slanted her head further, deepening the kiss and capturing each of her little moans between his teeth.
She found her hands wandering up and down the length of his back, the desperate need to touch absolutely every inch of James consuming Erin totally. Her touch coaxed shivers from him, the man who'd been her friend for years.
Knowing she could do that to him was a heady exhilarating feeling; exciting, dizzying and totally completely cracker!
"From my experience, nice lads don't kiss like that."
Erin felt her smile widen at the look on James face; that perfect blend of achingly sweet and unreasonably sexy...just enough to drive her mad. It was the kind of look she knew a sixteen year old Erin would have waxed poetry about, the kind of look that, admittedly, sent a shiver of anticipation up the spine of twenty five year old Erin.
James's lips were still only inches from hers, his dark green eyes dilated with wonder, lust and love.
He smiled cheekily, cupping her face in his hands.
"Oh yes they fucking do...