By the time I reached the main road, my lungs were sandpaper-dry. My hair whipped painfully around my face, and the heel of my left foot was bleeding.
It was one hell of a start to married life.
I’d been married, ooh, around three hours. I’d been running for the best part of the last one. Running with no aim or direction, no one in pursuit, but running like my immortal soul depended on it. Desperate to get as far as possible from Ethan and all the rest of them.
One foot in front of the other, Kitty. Eyes on the horizon. No turning back, no giving in… not this time.
Not this time.
But no matter how I fixed my eyes on the horizon, where the dusky satsuma sun had just started to sink behind the intimidating ridge of the fells, the hacking in my chest was bound to defeat me eventually. At last I slowed my sprint to a jog, then to a walk, and, when I couldn’t bear another second’s agony, I stopped.
I gripped the drystone wall that ran alongside the road in bleached knuckles, struggling for oxygen. Short, panting breaths surged painfully up through my windpipe. With my free hand, I clutched my stomach. I could feel bile rising up my gullet, the threat of another vomiting episode as anger and grief battled for mouthfuls of my sanity, but I willed it back. I needed to keep calm. I needed to keep focused. And above all, I needed to keep moving.
I slumped down onto the tarmac and allowed myself the indulgence of another round of angry, puzzled tears. Bewildered motorists stared at me as they whizzed by, but they didn’t stop. Well, why would they? They had their own affairs to see to.
There was a part of me that didn’t want to keep moving. That part of me wanted to curl up and die, right there by the side of the road. The throbbing in my gut, the images whirling in my brain, were almost enough to paralyse me. But deep inside, underneath the layers of taffeta and rage, some sort of survival instinct was fighting to make itself heard. Push on, it said. Get away, far away, and then there’ll be time to mourn.
I don’t think I’d been there long. I could’ve been wrong, it could’ve been hours; my head was spinning so much that time didn’t really seem to exist. But I think it was about ten minutes later when a sunshine-orange VW campervan, one of those cutesy-pie ’60s numbers with the bug front, pulled up beside me.
‘Are you all right there, lass?’ the driver asked, leaning out of his window to examine me.
Hastily I wiped my eyes.
‘Yeah. Sorry, I, um – my car got towed.’
The dark-haired man cocked an eyebrow. ‘What, your car got towed and they just left you here?’
There was the lilt of an Irish accent nestling among the deep, gentle tones. It sounded reassuring. Made me think of my nan.
‘Er, yeah,’ I said, wincing at the obvious lie.
Great start, Kitty. Keep it up.
The man didn’t look convinced, but he refrained from commenting. ‘Well I can’t just leave you here. You get a lot of boy racers down these side roads, you know. Where’re you going?’
‘Anywhere.’ I grimaced. ‘I mean, Wastwater. I’m going to Wastwater. To a… um… gala dinner.’ I glanced down at my fetching wellies, colour-coordinated with the off-the-shoulder green taffeta ballgown I was wearing. ‘For farmers.’
Gala dinner for farmers. Of course that’s where I was going. I mean, why wouldn’t I be? Oh, this just got better and better…
‘Are you a farmer?’ the man asked.
‘No. Just, er, trying to fit in.’
‘None of my business,’ he said generously. ‘Come on, hop in. I’m heading to the Lakes anyway, I’ll drop you off.’
I hesitated. I’d never hitchhiked before and I couldn’t suppress a feeling of danger – stranger danger, that fear that’s bred into you in your schooldays. Don’t get into cars with strange men, Kitty. Don’t let them give you sweets and just say no when they ask if you want to get into their van to see their puppies. This guy could be anyone, couldn’t he? Offering me a lift – what was in it for him?
I could hear my mum’s voice in the back of my mind. Never trust a boy who offers you a favour, angel. Men always expect to get paid…
But Mum wasn’t here, and this man looked friendly enough to me. He was handsome in a scruffy sort of way, with jet-black hair that curled onto his neck, long stubble and dark brown eyes. I think in the end, though, it was the smile, a lopsided, open grin, that convinced me I could trust him. That, and the fact I was seriously out of options.
The instinct driving me now was to get as far from home as possible, and I was desperate enough to take some serious risks, even with my own self – at least, whatever of it I still had left to give a damn about. A large chunk of me was some miles away back in Elden, my home town in the Yorkshire Dales, lying in a blackened, smoking puddle at Ethan’s feet. Getting into a car with a stranger didn’t feel like nearly the scariest thing I’d had to deal with today.
‘Thanks,’ I mumbled, walking round to the passenger side and climbing in.
‘Jack Duffy,’ the man said, holding out his hand to me.
I wondered for a second whether to give a fake name, but decided against it. I might be on the run, but I wasn’t exactly James Bond. Who, come to think of it, was a bit shit when it came to cover stories, giving out his real name so often he’d actually managed to make it a catchphrase.
‘Clayton. Kitty Clayton,’ I said in true Bond style, shaking Jack’s hand.
‘I like it. Very… alliterative.’
‘Got a bit of a secret identity vibe,’ he said. ‘Not a superhero, are you?’
‘Maybe. But if I tell you I’ll have to kill you.’
Not the world’s most original joke, but the best I could manage in my current state. Anyway, it got a laugh.
‘So would that be short for anything?’ he asked.
‘No. It’s usually for Catherine, but my mum just liked Kitty.’
I started when I heard a little bark. Glancing over my shoulder, I caught sight of a tubby yellow mongrel curled in a dog bed, eyeing me with suspicion.
‘Oh, and this is Sandy,’ Jack said. ‘Don’t mind dogs, do you?’
‘No, I love them.’ I squinted at the tubby dog. ‘Er, he certainly looks well-fed.’
‘She. And it wasn’t the diet that caused the belly, it was the randy Jack Russell back in Settle.’
‘What, you mean she’s—’
‘Yeah. Less than a month to go now, I’m reckoning. Looks about ready to pop, doesn’t she?’ He turned the ignition key and the engine phutted into life. ‘Right, now we’re all friends, let’s get going.’
So he really had asked me back to his van to see his puppies… hmm. Still, in a way it was sort of comforting. A man who travelled with a pregnant dog couldn’t be too dodgy, could he? Maybe that was the logic of desperation but all the same, I relaxed slightly.
I could see him eyeing me curiously in the rear-view mirror as he drove, taking in my streaky mascara, my ballgown, my big green wellies.
‘You look like you don’t want to talk about it,’ he said at last.
‘God, I really don’t.’
‘Okay so. Then I won’t ask.’
I shot him a relieved smile. ‘Thanks.’
‘We’ll have to have some small talk though,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid the charge for this particular taxi service is scintillating conversation.’
‘Not sure I can pull off scintillating today. I can just about manage to form words, I think.’
‘Want to tell me why you’re going to Wastwater?’ he asked. ‘I mean, really? Hate to break it to you, but the dress codes for farmers’ dinners don’t tend to include wellies, whatever stereotypes might suggest.’
I examined Jack in the mirror. His expression was relaxed and careless, as if he’d be equally comfortable whether I chose to open up or not. He certainly had an easy face to trust.
There didn’t seem any harm in sharing my immediate plan with him, I eventually decided. I was heading for someone I knew I could depend on; someone who’d put me up until I’d sorted out my unholy mess of a life.
‘Okay, if you really want to know, I’m going to visit my aunty,’ I said. ‘She’s got a cottage in Wasdale Head.’
He glanced at the ballgown. ‘Must be a posh family.’
‘Yeah. She’s big on dressing for dinner.’
‘Muddy too, is it?’ he asked, eyeing my boots.
‘Something like that.’
We were on dangerous ground again. I tried to push the conversation back towards him. I just needed to kill a bit of time…
‘So, er, what do you do?’ I asked, the ultimate fallback conversation starter.
‘Human trafficker. I scour the highways for lone women and sell them into sex slavery. You?’
I laughed – the first real, genuine laugh I’d managed all day.
‘Serial killer,’ I said, matching my deadpan tone to his. ‘I lure men into laybys then hack them to bits. Although that’s really more of a hobby.’
He nodded soberly. ‘Always good to keep yourself busy. What do you do the rest of the time?’
‘I’m a project editor for this publishing company my stepsister Laurel runs, Whitestone Press.’
At least, I had been until about an hour ago. I think I’d effectively handed in my resignation when I’d decided to do a runner. My current occupation, if I was asked to fill in a form, probably amounted to ‘bum’.
‘What type of thing?’ Jack asked.
‘Travel guides. You know, things to see, restaurant reviews, handy phrases, all that.’
‘Sounds interesting. I suppose you get to travel quite a bit?’
I shook my head. ‘Someone else does. Then they write it up for me to edit and do the photo research.’
‘Still, must be fun. Bit of armchair travelling.’
I let out a little snort.
‘What?’ he said.
‘You know what I dreamt last week?’
‘Was it about a hunky Irishman with a devastating smile and abs you could grill a steak on?’
So we were doing a bit of social flirting now, were we? Okay…
‘It was actually. I love Aidan Turner.’
‘Funny,’ he said, eyes fixed on the road. ‘Turner can bite me.’
His reaction made me smile. If I’d tried that joke on Ethan, it would’ve been a three-day sulk at least.
‘So what did you really dream?’ Jack asked.
‘I dreamt I was in Iceland – the country, I mean, not the supermarket.’ My eyes clouded. ‘God, Jack, it was so vivid. The geysers, the glaciers, the lakes so dark they’re almost black. I could practically smell the herring.’
‘So, it just reminded me I’ve never been to Iceland. I read about all these beautiful places and I look at hundreds of pictures, but I never get to actually experience them. The most exotic trip I’ve ever been on was two weeks at a resort in Alicante three years ago.’
He looked puzzled. ‘So go, there’s nothing stopping you. Get off your backside and do it, girl.’
‘How? The thing about publishing – it’s interesting enough but it’s not that well-paid. Two weeks in Alicante every once in a while is about my limit.’
And then there was Ethan, who’d never wanted to go anywhere but a sunny beach with bars that showed the footie and hotels where there was always a full English on the breakfast table. The chances of getting him on a backpacking holiday to somewhere like Iceland had been exactly nil.
I mentally slapped myself. Thinking about Ethan was going to have me in tears again. I needed to hold it together, at least until I got to Aunty Julia’s.
‘So do you live in the Lakes?’ I asked Jack.
‘Yeah, when I feel like it. I live everywhere.’ He gestured round the van. ‘This is it for me. Home.’
‘You’re kidding! You can’t live in this tiny van all the time?’
‘Yep, me and Sandy. That’s the way we like it, life without fences.’
‘Bloody hell. You’re not part sardine, are you?’
He laughed. ‘Away with you, it’s not that small. Anyway, it’s just somewhere to sleep. We like to be off exploring.’
‘How did it happen? Is it a hippy thing?’
He didn’t answer. Just looked sober for a moment.
‘Sorry,’ I said, staring sheepishly into my lap. It felt like I’d crossed a line, although I was puzzled about where it had been. ‘None of my business.’
‘That’s okay.’ Jack forced a smile. ‘Tell you what. If I ever see you again, I’ll tell you all about it.’