Lying close to you
Hearing your heart beating
And I’m wonderin’ what you’re dreamin’
Wonderin’ if it’s me you’re seein’
And then I kiss your eyes
And thank God we’re together.
I just wanna stay with you in this moment forever.- Aerosmith, “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing”
A burst of morning sunshine flooded the bedroom with light as Mark burrowed beneath the duvet, struggling to keep hold of the dream that was slipping from his consciousness like grains of sand through his fingers. He could still feel the warmth of her snuggled against his side, his arm draped over her shoulders. Perhaps he would just lie here all day until the dream dissolved, inhaling the lingering fragrance of her that still clung to the bedclothes. Just as he’d begun to drop off to sleep again, however, a sharp poke in the ribs jolted him awake.
“Mark!” Her voice in his ear now rendered the delusion even more convincing; how long, he wondered, could he lie there until this warm, shimmering soap bubble burst? Another jab in the ribs effectively recalled him to his senses, and that well-known, well-loved pair of blue eyes was gazing down at him, dancing with amusement.
“It’s about time,” she said. For several moments, Mark could only stare, fearing if he looked away, her image might dissolve.
“Hello? Earth to Mark Darcy!”
Finally, he smiled. “Bridget,” he whispered, reassuring himself with the warmth of her skin as he cradled her cheek in his palm.
“I thought you’d never wake up.”
“I was having a rather enjoyable dream,” he said, “but it would appear that this is one of the few moments in life when reality far surpasses fantasy.”
“Well,” said Bridget, “I need breakfast.” As she wiggled out from beneath his arm, Mark pulled her back down beside him and commenced nibbling her ear, and her giggle of protest flooded his heart with warmth. God, how he had missed this woman; the way her body fit so perfectly in the crook of his arm, as if they were two halves of a puzzle; the way her hair tickled his face when she rested her head against his shoulder; the way her eyes shone when he spoke her name.
“I could stay like this forever,” he whispered, drawing her closer and resting his chin on the top of her head.
“We can’t, Mark.”
“Why ever not?” he asked, trying to ignore the prickle of unease in the pit of his stomach.
“Because,” said Bridget, resting a hand against the soft swell of her abdomen, “eventually I’m going to need the loo again.”
“Oh, Bridget.” Mark almost didn’t recognize the laugh that bubbled up from deep within him, so long had it been since he’d permitted himself to feel it. “I didn’t think I’d ever laugh like that again,” he said eventually, dipping his head to drop a kiss on the end of her nose.
“I’d imagine not,” Bridget replied dryly. “Philippa seemed the sort of woman who’d have kicked you out of bed for laughing.” She paused, brow furrowed, then added, “You never did tell me how that happened, you know.” Mark winced; he’d known this moment would come, and if they were truly going to make a new start, they must do so unencumbered by baggage. It was only natural, after all, that Bridget should express curiosity about his brief, unmitigated disaster of a relationship with Philippa—a colleague who’d joined Mark’s office not long after he and Bridget had split.
When fertility struggles had placed far more strain on their relationship than either of them could bear, Mark had, in what he’d considered at the time the only noble thing to do, deemed it unfair to keep Bridget tethered to a commitment that could no longer give her the life of which she’d always dreamed. After all the attempts, the medical consultations, the long talks, and the tears, one cold, hard fact remained: they wanted children, but Mark, it seemed, couldn’t give Bridget children. Knowing this, and in spite of, or perhaps because of his love for her, he couldn’t have lived with himself if Bridget’s remaining with him meant losing the one thing she wanted that he couldn’t give her. Following their separation, Mark had retreated into his protective shell and plunged himself into his work, hoping, and yet fearing, that he could learn to live without Bridget. When Philippa had been brought on, he’d taken little notice of her at first, though he might have observed that her tenacious, career-climbing work ethic bore a striking resemblance to Natasha’s had he paid her more notice. Despite the endless hours of strategy sessions and business dinners that had thrown them into constant contact, any conversations Mark had held with her had occurred across conference room tables and had gotten no more personal than an arbitrary compliment on a fountain pen.
Then one evening, they had both been in attendance at one of Jeremy and Magda’s dinner parties; they had, in fact, arrived together, Mark’s gallantry having come to the rescue when Philippa had casually made mention that morning of car trouble. Bridget was supposed to have been present as well but for an apparent scheduling conflict, and whilst later overhearing a whispered conversation between Jeremy and Magda, Mark had surmised that she’d begun dating again. He’d wanted this for her, or so he reminded himself while endeavoring to breathe through the tightness in his chest. Philippa, observing his discomfort, had gently drawn him aside, and without intending to, Mark had found himself talking quietly with her about Bridget.
As the evening had drawn to a close, Mark had been reluctant to part company, and Philippa’s offer to linger for a nightcap when he’d dropped her home had seemed far more inviting than his empty house, where memories of Bridget whispered in the echoing silence.
“You just seem like you could do with a friend,” Philippa had observed. Mark hadn’t disagreed, though what had followed—or what he had recalled of it, at least—hadn’t precisely been what he would have classified as ‘friendly’. He dimly recollected, through the fog that had obscured his brain, the touch of Philippa’s hand on his cheek as her lips found his, thinking dully that the well-manicured, ring-bedecked fingers stroking his face left none of the lingering warmth of Bridget’s caress. His next vaguely coherent memory had been waking in an unfamiliar bed, head throbbing, Philippa asleep beside him.
“I’m still not entirely sure,” he said as he concluded the story, “how I allowed things to progress as quickly or as far as they did. It wasn’t my intention.”
“Mark,” Bridget said gently, “you don’t have to justify your actions to me. We were split up. You were free to do whatever you wanted, with whoever you wanted. I didn’t expect you to live the life of a monk.”
“I know, but you asked me what happened, and I’m trying to give you an explanation.”
Bridget manufactured a frown, barely managing to prevent the amused twitch at the corners of her mouth. “So,” she said slowly, “let me see if I’ve got this straight. You accidentally spent the evening with her at a party, accidentally drove her home, accidentally drank too much and had what I can only guess was painfully unspectacular sex, and accidentally passed out in her bed?”
Mark sighed. “I said I allowed the situation to progress in a manner I hadn’t intended. I didn’t say I’m evading culpability. Two people don’t just inadvertently fall naked on top of one another.”
“Unless they’re drunk,” she quipped.
“Bridget, you’re missing the point.”
“Which is what? That you’re actually capable of making poor decisions under the influence of alcohol? I’m shocked, Mr Darcy.”
“there’s a first time for everything, apparently.”
“I wonder,” murmured Bridget, “what might have happened if we hadn’t run into each other eventually?” Mark’s answering shrug conveyed more nonchalance than he felt; it was easy to think, lying beside Bridget now, that he might have realized and endeavored to correct his mistake, but had fate not intervened, who knew for how long his pride might have held him back?
After the fog had lifted from that night with Philippa and the pair of them had slipped without much discussion into something resembling a comfortable companionship, Mark had endeavored to remind himself that happiness in life wasn’t having what made him contented, but being contented with what he had. He convinced himself that he wasn’t drawing comparisons with Bridget when he observed that Philippa’s smile didn’t quite reach her eyes when she looked at him or the slight frown that curled at the corners of her mouth when she encountered someone she deemed beneath her (which seemed quite often). Then, once again, Bridget had whipped through the reestablished order in his world with all the dizzying, unceremonious chaos of a tornado.
Philippa folded her arms and fixed Mark with a resolute stare. “I’ve changed my mind.”
“It’s too late to back out now,” Mark replied calmly. “We needn’t stay long, if you’re not up to it, but it would look terribly inconsiderate when we already told them we’d attend.” He’d just arrived to pick her up for another of Magda and Jeremy’s dinner-parties only to discover that Philippa had stubbornly decided not to accompany him for reasons best known only to herself.
“I’m not telling you not to go,” she snapped, “but I really see no reason to ingratiate myself any further. They’re more your friends than mine.”
Mark sighed. “That’s rather ungracious of you; quite a few of them are your colleagues, and as for the rest of the--” He stopped short of appropriating Bridget’s preferred ‘smug marrieds’ to refer to the usual collection of attendees. Clearing his throat, he continued, “as for everyone else, you could try making an effort to get to know them instead of looking down your nose at absolutely everyone.” His words dislodged a memory that thumped painfully against his heart—Bridget hurling precisely the same accusation at him.
“How can I?” demanded Philippa. “All Magda ever talks about is Bridget; how lovely Bridget is; how funny Bridget is; who is she, that they should all hold me up to her as some sort of gold standard I’m expected to match?”
“Philippa,” Mark said gently, “you’re being unreasonable. Bridget is one of Magda’s oldest friends. They were at university together. You know that.”
“One of Magda’s oldest friends?” Philippa’s lip curled. “Mark, she’s your ex!”
“Regardless,” replied Mark, laboring with a calm tone to tamp down his rising frustration, “Magda’s friendship with Bridget and my relationship with Bridget are entirely separate, and forgive me for pointing this out, but if this is an attempt on your part to avoid Bridget, assuming she’ll even be there, doesn’t that say more about you than about her?”
“You think I’m intimidated by her?”
“I think you do seem exceedingly preoccupied with being compared to her for someone who’s confident enough in herself not to be concerned about that sort of thing.” Ignoring the flash of indignation in her eyes, he continued, “Neither Magda nor anyone else is comparing you to Bridget.” In truth, given Bridget’s past propensity for dissecting his every move with microscopic attention as if he were a laboratory mouse, Mark wasn’t absolutely certain that this was the case. On-balance, however, in the interest of relationship diplomacy, he thought it best to alleviate rather than feed Philippa’s insecurity.
Still sneering, Philippa rested a hand on her hip. “they are, Mark, and so are you, which you’d realize if you weren’t still in love with her.”
Mark closed his eyes and silently counted to ten. “This conversation is getting us nowhere,” he said finally. “If you don’t want to come with me, that’s entirely up to you; if you change your mind, you’re welcome to join me.”
Mark hardly gave Philippa’s accusation a thought until he glanced up during the evening and, with a jolt that left him winded, he spotted Bridget across the room. She, like him, appeared to be on her own, and he’d just begun to wonder whether he could muster the courage to approach her when his mobile demanded his attention. He didn’t need to glance at the display to know the caller was Philippa; she’d been trying to reach him all evening. Quietly slipping into the hallway, he ensured he had privacy before returning the call.
“It’s about time,” Philippa sneered down the line.
“Philippa,” Mark whispered, “look, I’m sorry I left you so abruptly. I just needed space to clear my head.”
“Mark, I—I’m sorry. I was being unfair. You were right.”
“Sh, I can’t talk here, all right?”
“But we really need to talk, Mark,” she insisted, her voice wavering with the effort to
suppress her tears.
“I agree, but this is neither the time nor the place. Why don’t you just relax? Pour yourself a glass of wine, and I’ll try to get away early and come round so we can sit down and discuss this like civilized adults.”
“Are you still angry?”
“Don’t worry about that now. We’ll sort this out later, okay?”
“Right then. I’ll see you as soon as I can.”
“You’re a dear, Mark.”
“I do my best.” As he ended the call and turned to exit the hallway, he suddenly found himself face to face with. . . “Bridget.”
Blushing furiously at the sound of her name, she averted her eyes and took several scrambling steps back. “Oh, I didn’t. . . I was just. . . I mean. . . hi.”
Mark swallowed, fighting down the lump rising in his throat. “Hello.”
“I didn’t mean to—I’m sorry I interrupted,” Bridget apologized, her words tumbling and skittering over one another like arrant marbles. “I just, um, needed the loo.”
Realizing he’d been standing with his back against the door in question, Mark quickly stepped aside. “My apologies. Go right ahead.”
“Oh, ah, um, thanks.” Still wavering between moving forward and continuing her hasty retreat, Bridget teetered on the spot, the heel of her shoe catching on a snag in the carpet and causing her to overbalance. Instinctively Mark stepped forward, catching her round the waist to break her fall, and as she fell against him, her lips somehow brushed the side of his neck.
“Hello,” he whispered again, bringing a hand up to caress her cheek.
“hi,” she said. “How are you?”
“Fine, thanks. You?”
“Oh, you know, not too bad.”
“Right. Well. . .”
“Well. . .” Before either of them could begin to voice the myriad of questions hovering in the silence, their mouths met, closing the remaining distance between them. Bridget raised her arms around Mark’s neck at the same time he tightened his hold on her waist. As he drew her closer, deepening the kiss, he felt a hard knot deep inside his chest begin to unravel, as if he were releasing a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding; each kiss, each breath seemed to revive his spirit, pulling him back from the suffocating existence in which he’d buried himself. After a long, pleasant interlude, Mark lifted his head and gestured toward the closed door to the toilet; when Bridget nodded in silent ascent, he scooped her up in his arms and carried her inside, swiftly kicking the door closed behind him. Their gazes remained locked as they swiftly undressed, and without preamble, Mark grasped Bridget’s shoulders, pressed her back against the wall, and felt her catch his lower lip between her teeth as he thrust. Her hips pivoted forward to meet him, and in an instant, their bodies were locked into a steady, familiar piston. Just as the sound of a familiar rhythm recalls the lyrics of a long-forgotten song, the movement of their bodies in sync evoked memories of the language of their intimacy. She knew his shivers of pleasure when she trailed her lips along his collarbone; he recognized the precise note of her approaching climax—a wavering moan that hovered on the octave of a cry. Mark poured himself into her now, holding nothing back, willing himself as he moved inside her to leave the imprint of his love upon her very core. Bridget hooked her hands behind his head to strain him closer, the shock of her momentum as she pressed herself against him nearly knocking them both off balance. Finally, with one last, lingering kiss, she collapsed against his chest, her arms wound around his back to prevent her trembling legs from giving way beneath her. For several minutes, he simply cradled her against his chest, absently twining his fingers through her hair as he gazed down at her. She knew—she must have known about Philippa; Mark felt certain that either Magda or Jeremy would have told her. Yet the moment their mouths had met, she had colluded with him in what had followed. Philippa didn’t love him, Mark new; she loved his name; his position; the power and prestige that would be hers by association by forming an alliance with him. yet he still experienced a twinge of gilt over his actions—actions that had sent him spinning off the path he’d always charted for himself with a strict, moral compass. If only he could be sure, now, that fate had intervened and set him on a course back toward Bridget; he couldn’t, he mustn’t squander this chance. AS if reading his thoughts, Bridget lifted her head, her eyes seeking his.
“Bridget,” he whispered, cupping her face in his hands and endeavoring with his look to communicate the words that had become lodged in his throat. He pressed a kiss to her forehead before gently releasing her and gathering up his abandoned clothes; he avoided his reflection in the glass until the last possible moment, when he paused to comb his fingers through his hair and smooth down the wrinkles in his shirt.
Mark didn’t go to Philippa that night; he went home, took down a bottle of scotch, and endeavored to work out how best to end their relationship until alcohol and exhausted dragged him down into the blissful comfort of oblivion. He woke the following morning to a long, tearfully persuasive message on his answerphone from Philippa that effectively dislodged the guilt he’d managed to submerge the night before. It would be only a matter of time, Mark knew, until she found fault with him again, and in an admittedly passive-aggressive maneuver, he lay in wait for that moment to present itself.
“Mark?” With a start, he realized he’d begun to slide back into a doze as he reflected on all that had transpired during the last several months. “Mark, are you okay?” He took the hand that rested on his arm and raised it to his lips. “Bridget, may I ask you something, since we’re being honest?” She nodded. “Why did it take you so long to return my calls?” Despite his bravest endeavors, Mark had failed to put Bridget out of his mind following their might together, but when his multiple attempts to contact her over the next several weeks had yielded no result, he had dropped dejectedly back into the numbing existence of what passed for life with Philippa. Bridget hesitated now, biting her lower lip in thought. “Bridget,” he repeated urgently, cradling her hand between both of his. “Please, tell me. Whatever it is, whatever I’ve done, I want to mend it, if I can. Please.”
“It wasn’t you, precisely,” Bridget replied eventually.
“Then what? Darling, tell me. Please.”
“I don’t suppose Philippa told you we ran into each other a few weeks after Magda and Jeremy’s dinner-party?”
“What? No, she made no mention of it to me, unless--.” Mark suddenly recalled an evening several weeks after his impromptu tryst with Bridget when he’d gone round to meet Philippa for dinner and observed her quietly smug aura. When he’d questioned her, she’d replied evasively that she’d had a productive day at work.
“Bridget, what happened? What did she say to you?”
“I was meeting a few colleagues for lunch and spotted Jeremy and a woman who turned out to be Philippa with a client.”
Mark winced sympathetically for his friend as well as for Bridget. “This can only end well,” he commented dryly.
Bridget gave a nervous giggle. “Poor Jeremy didn’t know where to look, but he tried to gloss the whole thing over—introduced us—and we chatted for a few minutes.”
“I hope Philippa was at least cordial to you.”
“She was, at first. She said she’d heard all about me from Magda, and I asked after you, of course.”
“Just, you know, to be polite.”
“Naturally, and, um, what did she say?”
“She said. . .” Bridget paused, her eyes suddenly welling with tears, but she brushed them away, took a deep breath, and plowed on. “She said you were really happy, that you were probably going to move in together. You weren’t, were you? Mark, please. Forget about what happened that night at Magda and Jeremy’s; forget about what’s happening as a result. Tell me the truth, please.”
“Oh, Bridget.” Mark gathered her into his arms and held her close, pulling her head to his shoulder. “Of course it’s not true; I wouldn’t have, I couldn’t have done. . . what we did if I weren’t still as madly in love with you as I was—as I am.”
“I know that now,” she said, “but at the time, I was angry; I was confused. I didn’t know what to think.”
Mark sighed. “Look, the thing is—Christ, this is awkward. That night, at Magda and Jeremy’s, Philippa was supposed to have been with me, but she decided she didn’t want to attend. She felt, well, I’m not sure threatened is the correct word, exactly, but she felt like she was competing with you.”
Bridget frowned. “But if she suspected you were still in love with me, why didn’t she just chuck you and have done with it? Sorry,” she added quickly, “but it’s a fair question.”
“It is, and she might have, but she was never emotionally invested in the relationship; I always knew that, and neither was I, frankly. I could have ended it; I should have. I didn’t want to stay, but I couldn’t muster the strength to leave. If Philippa had been in love with me, that might have made it easier for me to walk away, which sounds counterintuitive, I know.”
“It doesn’t, actually.” Bridget raised her head and placed a light kiss on his jaw. “You would have felt like you were holding her hostage in a relationship that wasn’t going anywhere, and you’d rather have seen her happy with someone else.” He nodded, his heart contracting at her words; she, of all people, would recognize his reasoning, because it was precisely why he had let her go. His intentions, however misguided, had been driven by the desire to see Bridget happy and by the belief that she couldn’t find that happiness with him.
“I think I understand,” Bridget said eventually. “She had plans, and I got in the way of those plans. Incidentally,” she added, “how’s Natasha doing these days? Is she still in New York?”
Mark frowned. “What on earth has that got to do with anything?”
“I was just wondering, because Philippa seems to be channeling her spirit.” Mark laughed and kissed the top of her head. “I should have realized what she was up to,” Bridget continued. “I just felt so confused after you—after we—well, when I thought about it, when I realized Philippa was a part of the equation, none of it made sense. It seemed so out of character for you; I didn’t think you’d commit to her and then risk everything for a casual shag. That wasn’t the Mark Darcy I knew; that wasn’t the Mark Darcy I loved. I didn’t know what to do; that was why I kept avoiding your calls. Lucky for us, fate intervened, I guess.”
When Mark had finally received a call from Bridget several weeks previous, asking him to meet her for lunch, never could he have foreseen the turn of events that had sent his head and heart reeling. Bridget was pregnant, she’d revealed, at which he’d automatically, with a hard knot in the pit of his stomach, replied that he wished her nothing but happiness. The reason for her silence had become clear in that moment; of course she had moved on. Of course she had found the happiness she deserved. It was the reason he had let her go, and he must accept it. Then she had reached across the table and taken his hand, and the flood of memories that her warm touch released brought tears to his eyes.
“Mark,” she’d whispered, “you don’t understand. I’m telling you because its—I mean, the baby—I think it’s ours.” He’d protested; the child couldn’t be his.
“Bridget, we’ve been through this. We tried; I couldn’t—I can’t—it’s not possible.”
“Well, it’s certainly not a virgin birth,” she’d retorted, at which his mouth had twitched a reluctant smile.
“Look, Mark, I know this is unexpected.”
“As an understatement, yes.”
“And I’m not asking you for anything; I just thought you had a right to know, and a right to. . . be involved. I don’t have any expectations beyond that. Honestly.”
To satisfy his conscience and convince Bridget, Mark had agreed to a paternity test, and the moment he’d received the results, his mind had flashed back to a memory of Bridget, the night he’d first told her he loved her, smiling and holding up the key to her flat. Processing the results of the paternity test, Mark had almost felt the outline of that key in his palm once again, opening up a life of possibility he’d thought he’d shut the door on forever. He smiled now as he wrapped his arms around Bridget’s waist and danced his fingers across the barely detectable swell of her abdomen.
“You know,” he murmured, resting his chin on her shoulder, “there’s just one thing I regret—that we might have had this moment much sooner if I hadn’t been such a fool. When I think how much time I wasted, believing this could never happen for us. . . Bridget, can you ever forgive me?”
Bridget turned in the circle of his arm to kiss him. “I think maybe it was meant to be this way—just us, just the feelings, without the stress of trying.” Mark nodded, recalling that night and how effortlessly their bodies had merged—how is love had flowed into her, unbidden and unburdened.
“I really think,” he said, pressing a kiss to her temple, “that we might have to stay like this forever.”
Bridget smiled and snuggled back into the crook of his arm. “You know what, Mark Darcy? I think you might be right.”