Authors: Sarah Alderson
Jack scowls some more at the photograph of Suki, before tossing it onto the pile. ‘I’m on call tonight,’ he says.
‘You want me to come over if you get a call-out?’ I ask. Then add quickly, ‘Just in case Lila wakes up and you’re not here?’
‘That would be great. Thanks.’
And just then we hear movement overhead. Lila’s finally awake. Jack immediately starts gathering up the papers on the table and stuffing them inside the folder, which he then takes and slides into a drawer beneath a cutlery tray. He crosses to the stove and switches on the hob before turning back to me. ‘Remember,’ he says, ‘we say nothing of this to Lila, OK?’
After a few more minutes we hear a creak on the landing and then a pause as she hesitates. Jack and I both cross to the door and walk out into the hallway.
I reach the bottom of the stairs before Jack and look up. And there she is. Lila. Taking the stairs two at a time, head bowed, hair flying, looking as though she’s being chased. She glances up just then and I catch sight of her face, and am instantly struck by how different she looks – not at all the Lila I remember – but before I can process the change, what it is exactly that’s different about her, she trips on the next step and comes flying towards me. I catch hold of her by the tops of her arms and steady her.
She stays like that, her head against my chest, not moving. Her hair is tickling my jaw, her hands pressing against my stomach. For a handful of seconds neither of us moves. And then she pulls away abruptly and my arms fall to my sides and I realise with a shock that takes a few seconds to register that I hadn’t wanted to let her go. I dismiss the thought almost as soon as it arrives. It’s only that I’ve missed her and here she is. Right here in front of me. But at the same time, seeing her again feels just like it does when summer finally comes around after an endless winter. You’re shocked by just how much you’ve missed the warmth and the smell and the ease of it.
‘Lila,’ I say, ‘it’s good to see you.’ I open my arms up wide. ‘Do I get a proper hug?’
She steps forward into my arms, this time pressing her hands lightly and slightly tentatively round my waist, and I pull her tight and feel the tension in her body ebb as she takes a deep breath and presses herself closer. This time I pull away first.
I study her. The girl that left three years ago is not the same girl standing in front of me now. That skinny, slightly awkward kid with bangs and braces, who seemed to always be wearing an oversized T-shirt, has been replaced by a girl on the cusp of something I’m not sure whether to call beautiful or stunning. A voice in my head pipes up loudly, reminding me that she’s neither. She’s JACK’S SISTER. I shouldn’t even be looking at her in that way. It’s Lila. Forget about her being Jack’s sister, she’s practically MY sister. And yet . . . I’m not sure how else to look at her. You’d have to be blind not to think she was attractive, beautiful even. I might be her brother’s best friend, I might have known her since she was born, but I’m still a guy. And I’m definitely not blind.
I follow her into the kitchen, all too aware that I can’t stop staring and that I need to redirect my eyes northwards and my thinking elsewhere. I will. I just need time to absorb. To absorb and process and then I’ll be able to see her once more as JACK’S SISTER.
‘Been a long time,’ I say when we’re facing each other again in the kitchen. ‘You’re looking well.’
Lila gives me a small smile, her eyes – are they contacts? Because I’m sure they weren’t that green last time I saw her – keep skirting the floor, her hands moving self-consciously to tuck her hair behind one ear and then to pull up the strap of her tank top which has slipped down over one shoulder. No more oversized T-shirts either, I note. She’s still flushed from sleep, but pale beneath that, the freckles across the bridge of her nose faded. Her hair’s darker than it used to be too, and longer, but it suits her.
I pull out a chair for her and she sits and I lean against the counter, keen to observe her, interested to see if I can read what’s going on from her body language. She’s guarded. Definitely hiding something. She won’t hold my gaze for long and her hands keep flitting to her thighs and I have to force my own gaze to stop following them. But she’s not as transparent as she used to be, I realise. It’s more like she’s opaque – the windshield has shattered. It’s clear there’s something beneath the surface, I just can’t make out what it is. Yet.
‘So, what’s the deal, then?’ I ask. ‘Why the escape to southern California? London not rocking enough for a teenage girl, so you’ve got to check out the entertainment factor of a military town?’
Even as I say it, I see the way she winces and her eyes dart to Jack, who’s busy frying steaks but clearly listening to every word. He’s held his cool – hasn’t yet asked her why she’s here. And to his credit, after much persuasion, he didn’t hand her a return ticket as soon as she got off the plane.
‘Kind of, something like that,’ Lila mumbles in response. And then she looks up at me and holds my gaze and she smiles a smile so full of undisguised happiness that her whole face lights up with it and it makes me catch my breath.
And that’s when I know for sure that I’m in trouble.
John and Alula for the best adventure of my life.
Nic, Vic and Sara for all their love and support along the way. I miss you guys more than anything – more even than red wine and chocolate brownies from K&C.
Tara, once again I owe you hugely for making Lila sound American, and for role-playing Mrs Johnson – you were great, you should have been an actress.
Lauren – spectacular friend and co-conspirator, thanks for the American language edit and for the fun times at BL literary nights.
Olivia and Julia for being my teen test readers. You guys are brilliant and funny and I wish I could write as well as you do, Olivia.
Lindsay and Josh for the nutso psycho whackjob advice.
My mum for letting me practise my story-telling at a young age by allowing me to forge my own sick notes and fake her signature on them.
My dad for his technical advice on how to blow things up and the physics of sprinkler systems. (Is it physics? I still don’t know.)
The fantastic bloggers out there whose passion for reading and writing is something I am hugely grateful for. Especially those of you who make Alex your book boyfriend of the week.
MyAnna, Jess and Jess for the belief in these books and for all you are doing to widen the audience.
Till Kruss for my wonderful website and for being my personal German-flavoured Larry David.
My agent Amanda who never stops encouraging and supporting my writing despite the number of random ideas and crazy jottings I throw at her.
Venetia, my editor, and Lydia, Catherine, Mel, Caroline, Rumana and Nick at Simon & Schuster for all their hard work and support.
Jenny Cooper at Waterstones who has been so supportive of all my writing. I really appreciate it.
Jane Tait for your brilliant copy-editing skills on which I rely far too heavily. I’m glad that you know the correct use of the subjunctive tense because I clearly do not.