A bloke had cooked for Ellie on a date once.
He was a charming one, too. Good smile, nice jumper. She’d liked the look of his hands as he chopped veg and drizzled olive oil. They’d drunk wine and he’d asked her, “What’s the best meal you’ve ever had?”
She told him about a late night at the station in Alec’s office, her with her fish and chips warmed up in the microwave, Alec with his wilted salad he’d left in the fridge the day before. Mad with too little sleep and too many mysteries, they’d split their food—lettuce on the fish, fish on the lettuce and she’d nearly cried laughing at Alec’s whining and moaning. “You need your protein,” she’d argued, and Alec scoffed loudly.
“Can you call it ‘protein’ when it’s all battered and breaded?” Battered and breaded, those long-trilled Rs and the stretched-out As; his accent got so thick when he was tired. She laughed just remembering it. They’d been so loopy and wired that night.
Maybe it took her too long to notice the bloke’s dimmed smile, and she didn’t rightly note the tone of his voice when he’d asked, “You’re good mates, then, eh? You and your boss?”, but he’d not phoned her for a second date.
The Ellie Miller of years earlier had hated him.
Then life had done its number on her. She’d been such a cheerful detective sergeant, such a blissfully joyful mother and wife. Now, she was a woman who could have happily torn the father of her children apart with her teeth. It was hard to sit with normal people after that, when that feeling could still flare in her belly with one sudden reminder.
But she could sit with Alec Hardy.
With the Sandbrook case closed and Daisy living with him full-time, Alec was a man whose focus had shifted from his demons to his daughter. His obsessive fire cooled. He was still the grouchiest, most frustrating fuckwit she knew, but he had softened, just a little. He no longer lived like a man dying. She’d even see him laugh a time or two.
Alec stood at her kitchen counter, chopping vegetables. Meat baked in the oven. Whatever spices he’d used smelled amazing. Casefile in one hand, Ellie leaned over to grab a carrot off the cutting board with the other. Alec weakly swatted her away. “There’s CCTV on the northbound route,” she said, carrot crunching between her teeth.
“So that checked, we’ve narrowed the escape path to every other direction,” Alec replied flatly.
Broadchurch itself was beginning to heal. It would never be what it was, but it was a place where families could be happy again. Not all the murders that slid across their desks were as widely shattering as Danny’s, but there was always someone broken and burning inside, always someone who deserved justice. DI Hardy and DS Miller were a good team. They solved cases. They restored what peace they could and their success rate together impressed their superiors. The pay raises they received were so modest as to be a bit insulting, but they still didn’t go amiss for two single parents.
They brought their work home more and more, turning one house or the other into a war room when a case demanded it. With Chloe Latimer off at university there were precious few child minders Ellie trusted with Fred, and since the incident with the pornography, she’d wanted to keep a tighter rein on Tom. When they were at Ellie’s, Daisy almost always came along with her father, either because Alec insisted or because she preferred to do her homework at Ellie’s kitchen table and with Ellie’s help. Eventually, Alec started cooking when he grew tired of the takeaway Ellie suggested, and she had, at least, gotten him to expand upon salads. “We have growing children here,” she’d insisted. “They can’t eat like rabbits.”
Someone thumped down the steps and Ellie would have assumed it was Tom or Fred if not for Daisy’s voice calling out. “Ellie?” She moved through the house as easily as if she lived there. It made Ellie smile. “Can I borrow this for the party?”
She lifted her hand and a necklace glinted in the sun coming through the window. The dangling pendant of a whale spun lazily. Ellie halted, inside and out.
“Where’d you find that?” she heard herself ask.
“It was on the floor in Fred’s room.”
It had been a gift from Joe, a reminder of one of their dates—whale watching where they’d not seen a single whale. “So I got you one you can see all the time,” he’d said as he kissed her. She could still hear his voice and the bile threatened in her throat. But—
“Of course you can borrow it, sweetheart,” she replied. “No, you know what? You can have it.” She stood from the table spread with files and photos. It was beyond time to make new memories of all these little pieces tainted by Joe.
“Are you sure?” Daisy asked.
“Yes. Let me help you with it, though. It’s got a fiddly clasp.”
“Thanks.” Daisy grinned. “It’s beautiful.”
“Isn’t it?” She stepped behind her as Daisy lifted her long blonde hair out of the way. “I’d stopped wearing it because Fred was always grabbing it. Guess he grabbed it for good and I forgot, what with everything…” She fastened it and gently let the chain rest against Daisy’s skin.
Daisy turned to her. “S’all right?”
“Perfect,” Ellie answered honestly. Seeing Daisy’s flattered smile did her heart good. A beautiful new memory to replace an old one gone sour. “It’ll look good with that red dress.”
“That’s what I was thinking.” Daisy laughed. “Dinner ready soon, Dad? I’m starving.”
Ellie looked over Daisy’s shoulder to see Alec watching them. She’d never seen his expression so gentle or so still. He shook it off quickly enough as Daisy bounded over to him, stealing a slice of pepper. “Oi, hands off,” he said. “It’ll never be ready if you both eat all the ingredients ‘fore I’ve cooked ‘em.”
Ellie let the image glow in her heart a little, especially as Fred and Tom thundered down the stairs to call Daisy back to their game—and then got very distracted by the smells of dinner and snatching vegetables off Alec’s cutting board. Ellie encouraged them, but only a little.
She checked her watch, smiling tightly and trying not to radiate impatience as she waited for her order. “Sally?” Ellie glanced at the blonde woman waiting just a few steps behind her. She brightened her smile and tried to remember when she’d last seen Sally.
“Ellie!” Sally smiled back, her mascara-accented eyes darting a bit. “How are you?”
“I’m good, yeah. Good. Look at you! You look great!”
And she did. Sally always did. Ellie remembered that. Alec had a type: Zoe and Sally and Tess and all the other women she’d ever seen him fancy, they all had that sort of radiance, sophistication, and poise. They were elegant. Ellie’s gaze drifted despite herself, taking in Sally’s silk blouse and fitted skirt. It looked designer. She tugged at the strap of her bag slung across her shoulder and fought the urge to fix her hair, even though she knew it was, at best, curling chaos. She had a butter stain on her blazer, too.
“Thanks,” Sally said. “Running a bit frazzled this morning. You know how it is.”
“Erm,” Ellie replied, her smile feeling a little crazed. This is you frazzled? For fuck’s sake...
A barista called out an order and both of them jerked, but a boy with his long hair in a bun grabbed it. Ellie glanced at Sally. At least they both seemed uncomfortable with the conversation.
“How’s Alec?” Sally asked at last.
“You tell me,” Ellie said. She chuckled. “You’ve probably seen more of him than I have. I mean-” She halted her sentence where it was, regretting the choice of words. Maybe they’d been in bed together just that morning, it was none of her business. And good for both of them, anyway, they deserved it.
“Now, we both know that’s not true.” Sally’s smile tightened at the edges, becoming decidedly less kind, and her small laugh had no warmth. “No one sees more of Alec than you.”
Another barista called out some order with skimmed milk and Sally claimed it quickly. She paused by Ellie on her way out. “Nice to see you, Ellie,” she said, and didn’t seem to mean it in the slightest.
Ellie delivered Alec his tea, leaving it in the tiny spot of bare wood amid all the files and photos on his desk. “What’s gone on with you and Sally?” she asked.
“Sally?” Alec looked up, squinting through his glasses. The fluorescent lights made him look particularly pale beneath his messy auburn fringe.
“Yes, Sally. Blonde, gorgeous. Drinks lattes with skimmed milk, apparently. You were dating her, remember?”
Alec opened a file folder, flipping through the pages within. “Ended weeks back.”
“Really? Who did the ending, you or her?”
“Can you focus, Miller?” He irritably tossed the file toward her side of his desk. “There’s crime. Remember crime?”
She smirked and took the file, then settled into her usual spot across from him.
“He said he’d call, but he hasn’t. Of course.” Lucy rolled her eyes. “I don’t know why I’m surprised. I was listening to this podcast talking ‘bout how lookin’ for connection after disappointment is actually strength. Figure I’m at bloody Olympics levels now.”
“Hm.” Ellie made a non-committal noise; she hadn’t liked the man, if she was remembering the right one anyway. Her mobile buzzed in her pocket. “Mm.” She wiped chip grease from her fingers and swiped open to read the incoming text.
From: Alec Hardy
Suspect photo coming through now.
What followed was a picture of a very cross-eyed cow.
Ellie snorted a laugh.
“How’s Hardy?” Lucy asked.
Ellie tucked a swirling curl of hair behind her ear, fighting her smile as she typed out a quick response. “Farmer reported a tractor missing. He goes a bit mad on farm cases.”
Careful with that one. I hear she’s an expert in her field.
“I’m surprised he went without you.”
“He had to get some things for Daisy’s party. Farm’s on the way back here.” She put away her mobile and only then noticed Lucy’s pointed silence. She looked over to see her sister watching her with knowing eyes as she sipped from her fruit smoothie. “What?” she asked. She shoved another chip in her mouth.
“You sure you’ve not shagged him? You’d tell me, right?”
“What?!” Ellie groaned and rolled her eyes. “It’s possible to be mates with an attractive man, you know. Just ‘cause you can’t do it doesn’t mean no one else can.”
“I know they can, but you and that man are something else,” Lucy said. “Can you even remember the last time you went 12 hours without talking? Or texting?”
Lucy glowered at her the way only a sister could. “Easter?”
“Mmhm,” Ellie replied. She felt compelled to keep her mouth full of chips.
“He was on a plane to America with his daughter Easter weekend, Ellie. And he still called you when he landed, didn’t he?”
“He had to check in. We work together.”
“Don’t always talk about work, though, do you?”
“So what? We’re partners. Mates.”
Lucy nodded. “Yeah. Mates who talk every day, who work long nights and sleep at each other’s houses, mates who make each other dinner and help each other’s kids with their homework. I barely see you without him anymore.”
“So, he’s my best ma—oh, god.” She frowned in disgust, a chip half-way to her mouth. It was true, but that didn’t mean she had to like it.
Her sister gave her a slow smile, one eyebrow quirked. She chewed on her smoothie straw.
Ellie threw a chip at her. “Don’t know why you’re smug. We’re mates, I said. Best mates is mates.”
“Yeah, but you also called him attractive. Didn’t used to do that, did you?”
Ellie narrowed her eyes at her. The way she sipped her smoothie was infuriating.
“Don’t bite your straw,” Ellie snapped. She looked to her chips and sorted them about, looking for the best bits she’d left behind. “Stupid cow.”
Lucy just laughed.
She smiled, watching Daisy laugh with her mates. It was a joyful thing after her hard first year in Broadchurch. Even better was the awkward way her father had been standing on the periphery with a drink in hand. He wasn’t there now, though. Ellie glanced about and didn’t see Alec anywhere.
She wove her way through the cheerily talking crowd toward the sliding doors. She couldn’t let the host just hide... Not when it was so fun to watch him squirm.
Inside the house the music thumped more softly, the voices gabbed more distantly. Peace from the storm.
“You see how that’s not completed? So what’s that?”
She heard Alec’s voice coming from the tiny back room where he’d shoved all their casefiles and work to hide it from the guests.
And that was Tom talking to him. Curious, Ellie approached as quietly as she could, creeping toward the thin strip of light shining through the door resting ajar.
“Aye, good.” Alec nodded. He stood beside Tom with a sheet of white paper and an ink pad on the shelf in front of them.
“Show me, Uncle Alec.” Little Fred stood on his toes between them. “Can I see?”
“‘Course you can.” Alec turned the paper down to Fred’s height. “You wan’ yours on there?”
“Yeah, do mine.”
“Here, Tom,” Alec said, handing her oldest son the ink pad. “See if you can do it.”
Ellie couldn’t stop her smile, watching as Alec talked Tom through rolling a print. Tom had chosen fingerprinting for his final science project and no matter how she offered, he refused to ask her for her help. She supposed she shouldn’t be surprised he’d gone to Alec instead; even Alec Hardy was cooler than asking his mum.
Her smile faded and fear ticked inside. Since his father left their lives, Tom looked up to every man, every older boy, ready to place them on a pedestal, his eyes filled with hero worship. Time and time again, those men failed him by being more human than a wounded boy could withstand. It was a part of his brokenness that Ellie couldn’t fix. She could see it burning in his eyes again now as he drank in Alec’s every word and drop of attention.
“Then press it to the paper,” Alec instructed, and Tom did so, holding his little brother’s tiny ink-dirty finger. “Start on the side and roll it over. There you go. Perfect.”
Ellie let out a breath with one calming thought: This is Alec.
Alec Hardy was the only person she’d ever known who showed his bad side first. No façade, no niceties—in fact, a stubborn refusal to use niceties at all, the knob. And then there he was, with her sons, those skinny little glasses balanced on his nose, the most trustworthy and respectable man she’d ever known. Like a diamond wrapped in absolute shit.
Some men—Joe—could talk sweet and be lying. Alec would keep a vow even if it killed him, she’d seen that for herself. Tom might actually have started looking up to a man who deserved it.
“Mum!” Fred cried out happily when he spied her in her hiding spot. “Look!”
She stepped into view with a big grin and welcomed a black-fingered Fred into her arms. She loved it when they still accepted her hugs without grumbling. “So this is where my loves have gone,” she said. She lifted her head to look at Tom but met Alec’s eyes instead. Her heart thumped in a way that felt new. The words still felt true.
“Mum, look at what Alec taught me.” Tom showed her the paper and told her everything Alec had been teaching them about whorls and arches and loops. Ellie tried to listen, tried to focus on every word, playing her hands through Fred’s soft curls, but she felt unreasonably aware of Alec’s presence. He looked healthier in his blue jumper, a bit gentler and younger, even though they were both older. Both so much older in ways that went beyond years.
“I am glad you’re getting a jump on your schoolwork,” she said, pressing a kiss to Tom’s cheek, “but get your bottoms back outside. This is Daisy’s party.”
“Okay,” Tom said. “Thanks, Alec!”
“You’re welcome, lad.”
She dared to look at Alec again. “You, too, Dad. Hiding in here won’t stop her going to uni.”
“Damn.” Alec’s mouth quirked.
Ellie turned to follow Tom out, Fred’s hand in hers and Alec right behind them. In an unexpected fluster, Alec kept walking just as Fred pulled her back—“Oh, Mum, did you see?!”—and for the span of a heartbeat, Ellie’s back bumped to the wall and Alec braced to keep his body from colliding with hers. Fred showed her something, but she had no idea what. She saw nothing but Alec’s deep brown eyes so close to hers, then dropping heavy to her lips. He’s going to kiss me. A thrill sped down her spine.
“Sorry, darling,” Ellie whispered, pulling her gaze from Alec. She turned to her son and Alec followed Tom out the sliding door. The party noise entered then fell muted again.
“Dad, shut up!” Ellie yelled.
He did, though mostly because she startled him. It was too much to hope he’d decided to listen.
“They are trying to help you.” She stalked to his bedside. “So stop being a such an arsehole and let them, or god help me, I will get handcuffs and have you restrained.”
He stopped fighting and let them draw his blood or check his blood pressure or whatever it was they were doing. Ellie was distracted by yanking her handbag off over her head and sifting through her dad’s words—“You would do that, wouldn’t you? Can’t take care of me yourself. My mother took care of her dad.”—for anything she actually needed to hear.
“They want to send me to the city,” he groused. “This woman—”
“Doctor, Dad. She’s your doctor, so I don’t want to hear that tone out of you, thank you very much.” Ellie looked to Dr. Mahajan observing her father with the patience of a saint and mouthed an apology.
Dr. Mahajan nodded, accepting it. “Perhaps we could talk outside, Ms. Barrett.”
“Eugh, it’s Miller,” Ellie corrected spontaneously. She had only the seconds from the bed to the hallway to consider how her feelings about her surname had changed. He’d helped her reclaim it, Alec had, she realized. She’d thought about returning to her maiden name, but she didn’t exactly fancy taking back what felt like her dad’s surname either. And some part of her didn’t want to lose Alec’s hollered, “Miller!” as he strode out of the station. It made “Miller” hers, not Joe’s.
In the corridor, Ellie listened distractedly to Dr. Mahajan’s recommendation for transport into the city where the surgical suites were better equipped, where her father’s unexpected but not life-threatening colon procedure would be routine. Through it all, she could hear her father grousing and insulting the medics. He was cantankerous at the best of times. In pain, he was absolute bastard.
“Thank you, doctor, really,” Ellie said, shaking the woman’s hand. “I’m so sorry about him. I just—You can’t raise your parents, can you?” She laughed uncomfortably. “I’m never good enough for him either, so you know... It’s not you.”
Ellie wanted Dr. Majahan to laugh, too, but she didn’t. The woman’s dark eyes, wise wrinkles at their corners, just looked at her with such profound kindness. “Sometimes we should be proud of who we disappoint,” she said.
Ellie felt her chin wobble and thought, Don’t be nice to me. But she couldn’t just say that to people who weren’t Alec. The doctor left and Ellie made it to the loo before she burst into sobs. She hid out in a stall, sitting atop a closed toilet seat, and cried until her cheeks felt raw from toilet tissue.
After several minutes, she heard a soft knock and a familiar, “Come out, Miller.”
Ellie growled, irritated and embarrassed. “Don’t follow me into toilets, Alec!”
“Don’t hide in them, Ellie!” Alec called back.
Ellie stood and yanked open the stall door. She stalked past Alec to the bank of mirrors to wipe at her face. She glared at his reflection, even as he just stared back, face calm and understanding. He just watched her and it felt so reminiscent of another time, she felt she might vomit.
“My dad still screaming down the hall?” she asked.
“No,” Alec said. “He seems all right now. Your sister’s in with him.”
“Good. He likes her better anyway.”
His transparent bewilderment at that made Ellie feel a little better. She let out a long sigh and only then noticed the paper bag in Alec’s grip. “Why are you here then?”
“Brought you food,” he said. “You missed lunch.” He held the bag out to her.
“Don’t give it to me in the loo.”
“All right.” He lowered his hand again. “You okay?”
“No. My dad is being a total shit to everyone trying to help him and he loves Lucy, but Lucy’s homeless half the time, isn’t she, so when it comes to taking care of him, it’ll be on me. I’ll get to be the one he screams at and insults while he hogs the telly with football and those slimy daytime programmes.” She let out a shuddering breath and closed her eyes a moment, trying to calm herself, to steady herself the way she’d been learning to do through all the awful shit of the last few years.
When she opened them again, Alec was leaning against the wall of stalls. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “You deserve better than all that.”
Ellie shifted on her feet, chin wobbling again and eyes watering. “Don’t be nice to me,” she said.
He didn’t look away, and his face didn’t lose a touch of its kindness. She could always count on Alec Hardy to be contrary. “You’re not alone, Ellie,” he said, and he’d never sounded so nice. “I know that doesn’t fix this or make it fair, but if there’s something I can do, I’ll do it.”
“Thank you, Alec.” Her voice came out in a tear-choked whisper. She wouldn’t have said no to a hug now, but Alec didn’t offer. Instead, he turned for the door.
“Come on now,” he said, striding out. “Come into the hall so I can give you this sodding scotch egg.”
Alec returned with her to her dad’s room and listened to him gripe with that same bored, droopy-eyed skepticism that met suspects in the interrogation room. The hospital must have made note of Mr.- Barrett-in-room-307’s particular disposition because every nurse who entered the room did not take a single iota of guff from a sour old man. Ellie delighted in their humoring smiles and thanked god for their patience and professionalism.
Assured he was in good hands, Ellie slung her handbag back across her body.
“Where are you going?” her father snapped. Lucy looked up from the chair by his bedside, a bit of alarm in her eyes. Two people so used to clinging to Ellie for support.
Ellie wanted to feel triumphant, maybe even smug, but the fact was, it hurt. It hurt that she couldn’t trust her family to have her best interests at heart. “They need me back at the station,” she said. She looked to Alec beside her. “Isn’t that right, sir?”
Alec nodded in agreement even though it wasn’t true at all.
“All right,” she said, interrupting the constable’s story about whatever drunken escapades from their last night out.
“All right?” Constable Waters grinned with big, white teeth. She was loud and raunchy in that way that Ellie sort of admired, but never wanted to be. “All right! The girls and I ‘pre-game’ at Nance’s, then head out to The Horn. I’ll text you the addy.”
Hours later, with Tom at a friend’s and Fred with Lucy, Ellie stood in an uncomfortable dress at a nightclub where the music was too loud. Disco lights spun and looped across a dance floor that was empty enough to be awkward and Ellie wasn’t sure why she’d finally told Constable Waters yes. She supposed she missed kissing. She missed sex. She missed good sex, at any rate. She was in no hurry to repeat the messy, unsatisfying shag she’d had the night she’d gone out with Claire Ripley.
The music was at least good, though loud, and the men perfectly attractive, but Ellie couldn’t muster interest in a single one. Everything felt different after the nightmares revealed during the Trish Winterman case. Her eyes followed every woman to confirm her safety. She watched drinks that weren’t hers and refused to drink anything that wasn’t from a bottle she watched the bartender open. Flirtations could no longer be innocent; her world was full of monsters.
A bloke probably 20 years her junior with his fringe in an unmoving swoop bought her an ale and told her he could show her a good time. “I could go down on you for hours,” he said, his accent sounding more and more American as he drank.
Hours? Ellie thought. I have shit to do. It doesn’t need to be hours, it just needs to be good. She knew it wouldn’t be, not with him. Not with any of these men. Not with anyone she couldn’t trust and she might never be able to trust any man ever again.
She wetted a towel and dabbed at her sweaty face. Her reflection in the loo’s mirror looked wary and frustrated, though perhaps that was because she could feel the tension in her limbs. She felt hot and distracted in a way she’d not been since her 30s in what she’d thought was her sexual peak. Her life becoming what it had, she hoped she had another peak to come, and she could not stop thinking about the freckles across Alec’s nose. What a bloody useless thing to be thinking about.
Ellie jerked, startling as the door flew open and a woman stumbled in on towering heels.
“Oh, love! I’m sorry!” The woman shouted. The vanity lights caught the red sequins on her dress and covered the walls in dancing red spheres.
So very pissed, thought Ellie, and caught a sequined waist when the woman tripped.
“Thank you, gorgeous.” She smiled at Ellie with heavy-lashed green eyes. “I am taking these off!” She dropped to the tile floor, legs sprawled, and began unfastening the serious buckle on her shoes. The door thumped shut, leaving them in alone in relative silence. Ellie wanted to leave—certainly the loo and maybe the club entirely—but her new companion had blocked the way out. Ellie stood watching as the woman threw aside first one shoe and then the second. “You’ve got a good energy.”
With a soothing sigh, the woman peered up at Ellie. “Your energy. You feel nice.”
“Oh. Thank you.” Ellie smiled awkwardly and tried to slide by to the door.
“I haveta wee.” The woman extended a hand. “Help me to the toilet.”
Ellie paused, then did as asked. So, she found herself in a stall with a pissing stranger who would not release her hand. In fact, the woman inspected her palm with such focus, Ellie thought that might actually be odder than the urinating.
“Oh, sweetie, you are loved.”
“Sorry?” How could one person have held this much liquid?
“I read palms, you know. Tarot, too.” The woman traced the lines on her hand with a chipped fingernail. “Your love line here. Y’see? You got some love ahead of you. Wow. Sweetie, such a love.”
Ellie felt her heart stumble drunkenly. “Sorry?” she said again.
“You like boys?”
“Yeah. Well, er, men.”
“Men, boys. All the same, ain’t they?”
No. Ellie thought. No, they’re not. And she let a stranger continue to hold her hand while she peed.
“If you don’t know the fella already, you keep your eyes open, you do.”
“Any clues you can give me?” Ellie chuckled a little dryly. “So I don’t pass him by.”
Bright green eyes tilted up and met hers, now strikingly clear. The woman smiled. “Oh, you already know ‘im, don’t you?”
“No,” Ellie replied, shaking her head, but it felt a little like a lie.
Then, the urine stopped and Ellie found her hand released so the woman could wipe and flush and it all managed to undercut the dramatic way Ellie’s heart was pounding. She saw the woman reunited with her friends and safely on her way home.
Ellie strolled slowly in the chill night on her way to her sister’s place. She searched through every drunken and pissing comment, looking for clues to the suspect’s identity. She made it all the way to Lucy’s to pick up Fred before the truth finally dawned on her.
It didn’t matter who the woman might have meant or whether there was a single bit of faith to be put into pissed palm reading.
Ellie wanted it to be Alec.
Julie nodded with that kindly placid expression of hers. When Ellie had first started coming for her counseling appointments years back, Julie’s calm unnerved her. It made her feel ragged, raw and nearly feral in her grief. She had been, of course, but Julie had also proven to be more spirited than she’d seemed in those early days.
“Okay,” Julie said. “Let’s talk about Alec. What’s on your mind?”
“Well, it’s the just, the other day, I thought he was going to...to kiss me. And I didn’t hate the idea, funnily enough.” Ellie laughed awkwardly, but it dissolved into a tense breath.
“It is. A bit.”
“How do you feel about that?”
“Why awful?” Julie asked.
“It’s Alec,” Ellie answered, as though that explained it all. “He’s skinny and grouchy. He’s barely human! He doesn’t even answer questions half the time, did you know that? You’ll ask him something and he just pretends you never said anything. He stares off cliffs like some great bloody, brooding arse. He barely eats anything but salad. He doesn’t know to say good morning or good night. He’s a—he’s a knob.”
“Why do you think you wanted to kiss him?”
“I didn’t want to kiss him. I thought he was going to kiss me and it didn’t bother me like it should have.”
“Why do you think it didn’t bother you?”
“I’m lonely. Obviously.” Ellie let out a sigh. “And in desperate need of a shag.”
“That’s not new.”
Julie smiled, that hint of humor glinting in her dark eyes. “What I mean is you’ve been lonely before,” she clarified. “You’ve been ‘in desperate need of a shag’ before. You’ve known Alec for years. Have you ever felt attracted to him before?”
“Not...really…” Ellie searched her memory. “I mean, there’s been—I felt jealous sometimes. Like when his wife—his ex-wife—when she was around, it felt like...like she was trying to take my spot. Or I was taking hers. I don’t know. It was a confusing time. But I like him, god knows why.”
“You seem to enjoy irritating each other.”
“Yeah.” Ellie felt her cheeks heat with a fond smile.
“Would you like to have a romantic relationship with Alec?”
Ellie grimaced and twitched in her seat. She wanted to say ‘no’ without hesitation, but she recalled Alec with Tom and Fred, the soft look on his face when he talked with Daisy and the way he’d changed so much to be a good dad for her; she thought of homemade meals at her dinner table and a kindness that felt more loving than anything she’d ever called ‘family.’ “I don’t know,” she said.
“What’s going through your mind right now?”
“Nothing. Just that...I don’t know if I can be in a relationship anyway. With anyone. I don’t know if I’m made for one. Look at me, I’m a disaster. I’m old, divorced, from a murderer, I have two kids and an old arsehole of a dad to take care of besides, I have a job that keeps me up all hours of the day and night. Who would want all that? Who’d want anything to do with that, long-term? No one in their right mind. I’m better alone. I do better alone. I don’t feel as alone when there’s not—"
Then a vice squeezed her chest and the tears rose to her eyes like a sudden flood. Julie wordlessly moved the box of tissues closer to her. Ellie grabbed one and wiped her face.
“I don’t feel as alone,” Ellie continued, strained, “when there’s no one there. When I lean on someone and they let me down—I can’t do that anymore. I can’t.”
Julie moved forward a little on her chair, attentive. “When you think about being in a relationship, what do you feel?”
Ellie’s voice escaped in a choked sob. “I’m afraid.”
“What are you afraid of?”
“That I’ll get it wrong again. I thought I knew people, but I—I’m a bad judge of character, I think. I must be.”
“Alec isn’t Joe, Ellie.”
Ellie grabbed another tissue and wiped at the fresh tears sliding down her cheeks. The tightness in her chest made her feel suffocated and so scared she could barely breathe like she was sitting in the courtroom all over again, her worst decision and her utter blindness on display in the monster she’d loved as a husband.
“And you’re not who you were either,” Julie continued calmly. “This is not the life you chose for yourself—”
“It’s not,” Ellie croaked.
“—but you’ve done such beautiful things with it. You’ve worked to be a better mother, a better detective, a better person. You are so much stronger than you think you are, and your instincts are stronger, too.”
“I know. I know.” Ellie took a deep breath, trying to ease her tears. She’d seen it in her work; she was much keener a detective than she’d been years ago. She didn’t trust like she used to, and that wasn’t always a bad thing. Most of the time she even felt proud of who she was.
“Did you know you mention Alec quite a lot in here?”
“We’re mates. We work together.”
“You work very well together by the sounds of it, too.”
“Yeah,” Ellie agreed, sniffling.
“You’ve been through a lot of hard times together.”
“You eat salads for him, Ellie.”
Ellie snorted a startled laugh. It relieved a bit of the pressure in her chest. “God, I know. I hate salad.”
“From all you’ve told me, there’s a lot of respect and admiration between you two.”
Ellie nodded because she couldn’t deny it. “We make each other better.”
“I think you do.” Julie smiled, warm and gentle. “So you never have to kiss him if you don’t absolutely want to, but trust yourself, Ellie. Your love is coming from a much more aware and awake place than it was when you met Joe. Trust the woman you’ve become. And if you can, try to trust the man you’ve seen Alec to be.”
“What if I decide I wa—want...something with him and he doesn’t feel that way about me?
“That’s always the risk. If that’s what happens, it will hurt—there’s nothing we can ever do to make that not hurt—but your heart knows how to heal. You know you’re strong enough to get through it. But Ellie, even if it’s not with Alec, you deserve someone who sees you and loves you, who supports you in your hardest moments and knows your strength. You deserve kissing and great sex and a partner in your life. You deserve that. None of your mistakes means you’re unworthy of love. There is nothing about you that makes you unlovable. You deserve to be happy and deeply loved.”
Ellie wanted to argue or disagree, but the tears pouring out of her in broken sobs wouldn’t let her.
“You’re a detective, Miller. They’re biscuits.”
“Why do you have biscuits?”
“I can’t have biscuits?” Alec asked.
“You never have.”
“I do now. You don’t have to eat them.”
“All right.” She sipped her tea—made just as she liked it with a bit of sugar—and watched Alec stroll too casually to the wall of evidence. He’d made her tea just as she liked it. That had to mean something, didn’t it? Like a scotch egg at the hospital and the way he’d looked at her mouth. Tension frizzled through Ellie’s body and she felt awkward, like she had six elbows.
Everything felt awkward now that she’d crossed the line in her head. She didn’t want it to feel awkward because that might mean they shouldn’t be anything more than this and she’d ruin the best friendship she’d ever had. If it’s right, it shouldn’t feel awkward, right? Because she had an answer for Julie now. Yes.
Yes, I want a romantic relationship with Alec and though she knew her heart would heal, she was so tired and she didn’t want it to have to. She didn’t want to have to let this go. She wanted to hug him when he was at her stove cooking veg, and bicker with him when they climbed into bed at night. She wouldn’t mind if every event for the rest of her life was lived right by the side of Alec bloody Hardy.
“So what’s caught your eye?” He set his hands on his hips and squinted at the photos through his glasses.
“Ah.” You’re a detective, Ellie thought, and started to put together some clues, even as she shared her observations. She grabbed a biscuit and took a bite. “Did you make these?” she asked suddenly, interrupting herself.
“Of course not. I got them at the bakery by the station.”
“The one you hate?”
“The one you like.” Alec didn’t once remove his gaze from the wall, and Ellie wondered how much he was truly seeing. The biscuits were her favorite flavor, too.
An hour later, they stood opposite each other with a box of evidence between them. Alec sorted computer files while Ellie thumbed through electronic receipts.
“I heard you went out with Constable Waters.”
Ellie looked up, but Alec’s eyes stayed on the files in front of him. He’d barely looked at her all afternoon. The computer screen glowed blue against his lenses.
“How’d you hear about that?” Ellie asked.
“Couldn’t avoid her in the car park.”
“She talks to everybody,” Alec said.
“According to her, you found yourself a bloke to take home.”
“What’s she telling people that for?” Ellie tossed aside another receipt stamped with the wrong date. Alec gave only a slight shrug in response. “There was no bloke. Just a sloshed fortune teller.”
“Pissed girl in the loo,” Ellie explained. “She read my palm, I helped her find her friends. You know how it is. I couldn’t find Constable Waters in the crowd and wasn’t interested in the reasons she’d try to give me to stay. I messaged her that I was going home.”
“Well, she must have assumed you weren’t alone.” He scanned the screen in front of him, but Ellie wondered again how much he was seeing.
“That explains the emojis she sent me then. No, just got Fred from Lucy’s and went home to bed. Alone. Except for Fred.” She handed a receipt over to him. “How’s that one then?”
Alec nodded, inspecting the paper. “I’ll add it to the timeline.” He stood and crossed to the wall. “So, why?”
“Why did you go home alone?” Alec asked, sounding almost distracted as he pinned the receipt amongst the photos and CCTV stills. “No one interest you?”
Ellie watched him, though Alec didn’t even glance her way. You’re a detective. Alec was acting so casual there was no way any of this was. “No, they didn’t,” she replied, and a bit of bravery flickered inside. “‘Sides, my palm reader says someone’s already in love with me.”
At that, Alec did look over. Gotcha. Ellie got that feeling she did when a suspect just told the lie that would tear his alibi apart.
“Guess I’ll just wait for him,” she said, trying to match Alec’s casualness. Her heart thundered in her chest and she started idly sorting the papers in front of her to steady herself.
“Now who was this in the loo?” Alec asked.
Ellie held up her hand, showing her palm. “I told you. Drunk girl read my palm. Someone loves me.” She grinned.
Alec just stared at her through his glasses, hands on his hips. “Huh,” he said, then turned back to the wall. “Right.”
Ellie scowled at his skinny back. “You are bloody infuriating, you know that?”
“What?” He turned back to her.
“You should kiss me,” she said, flipping the file closed for good, “or I should kiss you. Somebody should kiss someone because this is stupid.”
“I know,” he replied. He pulled off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
“I’m agreeing with you, Miller,” he said. “Why are you shouting?”
“Well, why are you agreeing with me?”
“Because you’re right!”
They stared at each other across the room, eyes hard like when they clashed over the interviewing of a suspect or when Hardy was being a fuckwit about something, which was always, Ellie thought with a huff. I like his eyes. She thought that, too.
“Okay, then.” She shifted awkwardly on her feet.
“Okay,” he agreed. “So I’ll kiss you then.”
“Okay,” she said.
He stepped around the boxes of evidence with a certainty she would have called smooth if she hadn’t known him. Alec wasn’t smooth. He was direct. And right now, he was coming directly for her. She had just time enough to close her eyes before his lips met hers. He was gentle, careful—thank god he’s a good kisser—then he wrapped his arms around her and hauled her tight to that long body of his and oh.
If she’d ever thought to imagine this, she might have assumed they’d take it slow. This was a big change in their friendship. Maybe they’d kiss, then hold hands, then go on a real date. But it felt so good and it had been so long since she’d been kissed by someone who knew how.
So, she wasn’t sure who reached for shirt buttons first, but it ended up a mutual decision. He was skinny, but solid and strong. The hair on his chest felt incredible against her palms. His hands spread wide on her back, keeping her close as if she wanted to be anywhere else, and she was happy to learn Alec knew quite well how to unhook a bra.
“Don’t mess up my files,” she breathed against his mouth when he pushed her back against the table. “I’ve got my place marked.”
“Smart,” he said, and redirected them, hands cupping her jaw. “Bedroom all right?”
“Yes, thank you.”
The last decade of her life had been punctuated by events she could not have ever imagined until they happened. Now among them was the unexpectedly glorious sight of Alec Hardy’s head between her legs.
Of course, he’s good at this, she thought irritably, even as she appreciated it very much, the way his beard rubbed against her sensitive inner thighs, the way he listened and followed her lead with every “right there,” and “harder.” She moaned, whined, and grabbed him up to her. “Get up here and fuck me. Please.”
He pressed a messy, grunting kiss to her lips when she palmed him through his trousers. He felt good and hard and she eagerly joined his hands in unfastening his belt. As she pushed his pants off his hips, he reached into the bedside table to pull out a foil condom packet. She snatched it from his fingers.
“Mind the dust,” he said with an awkward huff, as if he wanted to assure her this wasn’t something he’d done recently. She was charmed beyond belief, even if she knew. Knew him. Knew what sort of man he was and wouldn’t have judged him.
He'd barely slid hard and home inside her, tongue nice and filthy against hers, when her orgasm broke through her. It felt too good to even care about the noise that left her throat. The very definition of hitting the spot.
She sighed soul deep and bit her lip, feeling quite coy. She was gratified to see Alec’s eyes lock on her mouth with a hunger she’d not known him capable of. He’d stilled between her legs, not moving until she’d come back to him. Good man. She trailed her fingers along his spine just to feel him tremble. “Go on then,” she said, and rocked her hips up into his. He barely managed an answering smirk before a moan overtook him. With the edge off her own lust, she just enjoyed the ride.
She clung to him, hands stroking through his sweaty hair. She kissed his moaning mouth and touched him, his broad shoulders, his smooth back, his hairy chest, and the ghastly gorgeous scar reaching toward his left shoulder. This is what she’d missed. The smell and touch and feel of a man, the vulnerability of his eyes on her and the helpless sounds that left his throat, his pleasure as thrilling as hers because she cared for him and he cared for her and it was good.
His breathing grew more erratic as he neared his climax. She put a hand on his cheek, thumb against the freckles dusting the fragile skin beneath his eyes. She drank in his huffed breaths against her lips and held him tight.
She enjoyed his gasping groan and the way he stilled against her in his release. They breathed together, damp and warm, foreheads touching. It was the best sex Ellie had had in so long. Not because Alec was some sort dynamo (though, he did know how to move those narrow hips of his), but because there wasn’t a single moment she felt he wished he were somewhere or with someone else.
“You okay?” he asked. His breathing calmed, though she could still feel the strong drum of his heart against her breasts pressed tight to his chest.
“Mhm.” She nodded and felt giddy panic rising in her chest. She’d slept with Alec and it was really good, but she’d slept with Alec.
After a moment, he slid from her embrace and rested beside her. “Right. Gotta wee,” she said. She jumped up from the mattress and darted for his loo. She snatched up her knickers on the way from where Alec had tossed them aside.
She rinsed her face at the sink and fought with the anxiety starting to rise. She’d slept with Alec. Big, huge line crossed. Friendship possibly ruined. She lowered her head and gripped the edge of the sink. “Shit shit shit shit shit shit.”
Alec knocked softly at the door.
“I’m not hiding!” Ellie said, fighting to keep emotion from her voice.
“I know you’re not,” Alec said, muffled through the wood between them. “I have clothes you could sleep in. If you wanted to stay. To sleep. Here. With me.”
“All right.” Ellie wiped at her cheeks to look presentable, but she’d needn’t have. The door opened only a crack and Alec’s hand slid through with a large t-shirt dangling from his fingers. “You don’t have to do all that. Nothin’ you haven’t seen now.”
“I know, but that’s—just take the shirt, Ellie.”
Ellie couldn’t stop her fond smile and then nearly wanted to cry because goddamn it she wanted him. She wanted this with him. She took the shirt and pulled it on over her knickers. Of course, it was Alec’s shirt, so it was long enough to drape to her mid-thighs, but narrow enough to stretch tight across her breasts and belly in a way she wasn’t sure could be called sexy. It would be more comfortable than her own blouse with its buttons, though. She’d worry about her cellulite and stretch marks with a lesser man. Maybe with any other man.
She grabbed a swig of Alec’s mouthwash, swished and spit before she clicked off the lights and opened the door to see the faint shadow of Alec sitting on the edge of his bed. He stood. “Uh, my turn,” he said. Awkwardly. Fuck.
“Oh. Right.” Ellie stepped out of the way and Alec passed her to disappear into his loo. She glanced around the dark room, light spilling in from the living room where they’d left their files and probably some of their clothes, and then looked at the rumpled bed. She crawled across the mattress feeling stiff-limbed and nervous as she laid beneath covers, arms straight at her sides.
Behind the door, the toilet flushed, water ran in the sink and then the door opened again, Alec a long nearly naked shadow in the doorway. “Do,” he cleared his throat with a cough. “D’you need anything?”
“No. Thank you,” Ellie answered. “I’m fine. Thank you.”
Alec flicked the lights off again and crossed to the bed. “It’s okay if I—?”
“Get under the covers, Alec.”
“Just checking.” He settled beside her, his weight shifting the mattress. It reminded her too much of the night they shared a bed at the hotel in Sandbrook.
“You comfy?” she asked.
“Mmhm,” Alec answered.
With her arms at her side, she felt too tense to sleep, but she fell asleep almost right away. She jolted awake sometime later, face down and likely snoring into one of Alec’s thin pillows, and it took her a few seconds to register sounds from the next room. The thump of the sliding door. That’s what woke her, she realized.
“Hey, Dad!” she heard Daisy’s cheerful voice, followed hard upon by Alec’s low shushing. Ellie just caught the sight of his retreating form pulling on a shirt over his joggers.
“Sssh, hey, sweetheart,” he whispered. “Ellie’s sleeping.”
Daisy lowered her volume. “Ellie’s here? Where?”
There was a long pause and Ellie could only imagine the expressions exchanged between father and daughter, and she tried to remember if they’d left her bra out there.
“Is she in your room?!” Though whispered, the intensity of the words wasn’t muted.
“Did the two of you—?”
“That’s brilliant, Dad! You’ve been crazy about her for ages.”
“Ages. It’s almost been pathetic.”
“Thanks for that.”
The shafts of lights across the floor shifted and Ellie shut her eyes so as not to be caught awake and listening. Ages? she wondered.
“What’re you doing home?” Alec asked. “Didn’t expect to see you ‘til tomorrow.”
“My literature professor canceled Friday class. I texted, but I guess you were busy, huh?”
“None of that now,” Alec scoffed. “I’m glad to see you. Your room’s all ready for you.”
“Are you kidding? I’m not staying here.” Daisy laughed fondly. “Chloe’s home too, so I’ll just go stay with the Latimers. Let you and Ellie have the place to yourselves.”
“You don’t need to do that. This is your home, sweetheart.”
“I know that.” Daisy’s eyeroll was almost audible. “But you and Ellie—I never want details. Ever. But I’m so happy for you.”
There was a long silence, broken only by the shift of feet upon hardwood. Daisy’s voice, when it came, was a softer thing. It made Ellie want to open her eyes again, to see whatever expression on Alec’s face provoked that from her.
“Dad,” she said, “don’t be scared.
“‘m not scared.”
“Yeah, you are. You’re terrified. But this is Ellie. She knows you and she’s still here anyway. You won’t mess it up. I promise.”
“How d’you know?”
Rarely, so rarely in all the time they’d known each other had Ellie heard Alec sound so small and uncertain. She felt a throb of recognition. He didn’t know how to do this either.
“Because you’re friends,” Daisy answered plainly. The easy certainty of a 20-year-old who may still believe in love. “You and Mum were never really friends.”
Alec and Daisy went over the particulars of when she’d return and what they’d do while she visited, and Ellie let her mind drift. The pleasant vocal rhythms of people she loved accompanied dizzying thoughts. Ages? Had he liked her for ages? She knew she’d long ago stopped hating him. Long ago, he’d become one of her favorite people, but she didn’t quite know how long she’d loved him. She’d clung to him like a buoy during her worst days, and then just preferred to have him by her side during all the others.
“I know you’re not asleep, so don’t bother pretending,” Alec said as he walked back into the room. The mattress sank as he returned to his place under the covers.
“So you’ve fancied me a while, eh?” Ellie teased, thrilled. “Since when?”
Alec let out a sigh and didn’t answer in that annoying way of his. He fixed the blankets and adjusted the pillow beneath his head. But Ellie wanted to talk about it. They needed to talk about it.
“When they said all that in the trial about you and me havin’ an affair, I was disgusted,” she said.
“Oi,” he objected without heat.
“That’s just not me, sleeping with the boss. Or havin’ an affair for that matter, no matter how much the husband might deserve it.” The words were out of her mouth before she remembered Tess and everything that happened in Alec’s marriage. A flush of regret heated her cheeks, but she pretended she hadn’t remembered, pretended there was nothing but this moment between them. Alec rolled toward her, head on his pillow and bare shoulder highlighted by the security lights outside. She took that as encouragement.
“Plus,” she said, “skinny and grumpy you are.”
She softened the teasing by daring to take his hand on the mattress between them. It felt somehow more intimate, more revealing of her feelings than even the shagging had been.
“Yeah,” he agreed.
“Bit fond of you now, though.” She smiled. His eyes were inscrutable in the dim light, but they were on her, she knew. She could feel it, just as she could feel the bed dip when he leaned in to kiss her. It was a different sort of kiss, not pawing and passionate. It was the kind between people who knew the hard work that came after the passion and were still saying yes.
“I wouldn’t mind a bit of a cuddle, if you don’t mind,” she said into the darkness.
“I don’t mind,” he replied, almost under his breath. They jostled and shifted, trying to fit together, their heads on his pathetic little pillows. Despite his warmth beside her, her feet were ice cold under the blankets, so she wiggled her toes over to find Alec’s.
“Oi! Mind your feet,” he cried, and she giggled helplessly, a grin stretching her cheeks. He stared down at her and the look on his face, fighting an uncommon smile, made her feel beautiful. Ellie smiled back and brushed the messy fringe draping his forehead. Something settled then and they found the way they fit together. Alec’s arm settled over her.
They talked over little things, like his plans with Daisy and when she needed to pick up Tom and Fred, the same sort of chats they had on the bench by the pier with coffee and a Scotch egg. The only odd was how odd it wasn’t, and after a few minutes, they fell silent.
“Sandbrook,” Alec said after a time.
“Hm?” Ellie had been nearly asleep and it had been a long while since she’d heard that name from him.
“You asked how long. Sandbrook. The night you stayed here working. That’s when I caught on a bit anyway.”
“That far back?” she asked, shocked.
“‘spose so. You were like looking at myself. But prettier.”
Ellie snorted a laugh. “After I’d been working all night? No sleep and no shower and you still fancied me?”
“Yeah.” He scratched his eye, a small self-conscious thing.
“Gor, you really do have it bad.”
“Yeah. Don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
She swatted at his arm. He fought a smirk and she felt victorious. A smirk from Alec Hardy was more than a guffaw from anyone else. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’m telling you now,” he said.
“Got a bit obvious, though. Both of us.”
“I suppose I was still trying to make things work with Tess. And with the trial...”
“It wasn’t the right time,” Ellie said.
“I probably would’ve shoved you off the pier if you tried to kiss me.”
“You would have,” he agreed. “Wouldn’t even let me give you a bloody hug.”
“I’ll take one now, thank you very much.” She wiggled herself closer and he closed his arms around her.
She hadn’t even realized she’d missed this until she felt the tears burning in her eyes. The closeness and comfort, holding and being held, feeling in love. She slid her palm along the wiry strength of Alec’s arm around her middle. He pulled her close and kissed her cheek with a tenderness she would never have believed of him until she felt it, and it felt so right, so effortless from him. She should have known.
Wow. Sweetie, such a love.
The next morning, Ellie woke up before he did, with a suspicion tickling at her brain. She remembered something from one of the files she’d read. Alec still slept heavily in the bed beside her. As quietly as she could, she slipped out from beneath the covers and walked barefoot into the living room.
She lost track of time between pinning more to the wall and sorting through more receipts. Almost a full hour passed before she heard Alec move in his bedroom.
“I think I like you out of uniform, Miller,” Alec said, voice soft and gravelly from sleep.
Halfway to tacking up a photo, Ellie glanced down. She was still in nothing but Alec’s shirt and her knickers. She cast a look back to him leaning against the doorjamb bare chested in only his joggers. “Suits you, too,” she said, smirking. “Look here. I think I found something. It’s not much, but it brings our suspect list down by one.”
Alec slipped on his glasses and walked to her side, peering at the tiny detail she’d noted. “Oh, Ellie, you’re brilliant,” he breathed. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
He turned to her, startled. When he smiled, he looked at least 10 years younger. She smiled back and accepted his kiss when he gave it.
“Now make us some tea,” she said, turning back to the wall and their work. “And bring more of those biscuits.”
“All right,” he said happily. “I think I caught something in the computer files, too.” He pressed a kiss to her temple and left to put the kettle on, talking the whole way. “We should bring in Baynes and see what he says about that night.”
“If we’re bringing in Baynes, we should talk to Holsten.”
“Right,” Alec replied. “I’ll put a call in.” The dishes clinked and clattered as he set about making the tea and Ellie stepped back to get a better view of the case.
If it could be called a date. It was in the middle of the day, for starters, and in the middle of a rather violent murder investigation. A footie match played loudly from the TV in the next room where Ellie’s dad snored even louder, recovering from surgery. They sat on the same side of Ellie’s large dining room table, knees touching, examining the high-color crime scene photos spread before them. They argued as they discussed theories and Ellie added what Alec thought was too much salt and Alec left what Ellie thought was too much uneaten on his plate.
The years since Danny Latimer’s death had broken, burned, and reshaped them both. She’d hardened, he’d softened, and they’d somehow turned out to be made of the same stuff.
Ellie had never been happier.