Disclaimer - written for pleasure, not profit
Set directly after the end of the film Close My Eyes
Now Richard had finally gone the house seemed...calmer. She hadn't need to say anything else to him, he had seen the truth of it in her eyes: summer was over, it was time to move on.
She could never remember feeling this tired before; everything ached, including her brain as she tried to work out what would happen now. Sinclair would know. He always did.
Barefoot and bruised, she wandered through the house which had never truly been her home. Something bit in to the tender skin of her instep. Bending, she grimaced as she picked up the tie pin she had bought Sinclair after her weekend away fucking Richard.
Bringing gifts back after a weekend away was the oldest betrayal of all - a clarion call of guilt which Sinclair must have done his best to ignore. But he was too worldly-wise and she had been too obsessed with Richard, while trying to maintain the fiction of the concerned wife, to notice the subtle changes in Sinclair's behaviour.
Nothing unusual about that. She perched on the edge of the sofa. How long had it been since she'd spared a thought for Sinclair's needs? The workings of his mind baffled and perplexed her, his never very exciting love-making had been something to endure. She'd taken his trust and fucked it to death, careless of anyone who might be hurt in the fallout.
In her mind's eye she could still see his expression when, finally, he had been able to ignore the truth no longer.
Throwing the tie pin across the room, as if hoping it could be that easy to repudiate all it stood for, Natalie went to find her husband.
He was in the last place she tried - the huge Victorian conservatory. He stood at the open doors, one shoulder propped against the metal frame, seemingly oblivious to her arrival. Natalie came to a halt at his side.
"Here you are," she said, wincingly conscious of her over-bright voice without being able to do a thing about it. "It's getting cold. Aren't you cold?"
He did not react, except for the shivers which continued to ripple through him and over which he had no control.
About to touch him - needing to stake her claim - she halted the movement because she had the sudden sense that she was seeing him for the first time. The centre of her back supported by the other side of the wide French doors, she studied him as if he was a stranger.
His bottom teeth were crooked and there was a small silver-fleshed scar on his forearm. His left arm. He wore no rings, no jewels of any kind, and for such an exuberant man he was restrained in his dress. It always took her by surprise to realise how tall he was - and how broad his shoulders. Those wide, strong shoulders were hunched tonight, as if they carried a weight too heavy for him to bear. He looked pale in the lamplight. His rumpled hair spilled over his collar, lank and lifeless after the revelations of the day. Usually it tufted out over his ears, spilling over his forehead. She thought of him as blond when she thought of him at all but his hair was multi-shaded: ripe wheat streaked with amber and brown, near white and the odd fleck of steel grey.
From nowhere came the urge to wrap herself around that lean torso and fuck his mouth with her tongue. Ironic that her passion should flourish only now that she had killed his for her. She had never been particularly aware of, let alone attracted to, his physical appearance. What had drawn her had been the way he could light a room just by occupying it. His brilliant, quicksilver mind sometimes made him a daunting conversationalist, if only to her. Too often he seemed as inaccessible as the moon. She could rarely guess what he might be thinking or feeling.
It was disconcerting - disquieting - to realise how little she knew of the man she had married four years ago. The knowledge shook her from the sense of security she hadn't been aware had been hers until it was threatened.
How was it possible to trust someone so totally yet know so little about them?
At forty one he was twelve years her senior. His world intimidated her, making her feel unworldly, stupid, and dull. His friends tolerated her with a pitying patronage - they knew a trophy wife when they saw one - and made little secret of the fact she bored them. The only wonder was that she didn't bore Sinclair.
He had trusted her implicitly; already he was marked by her betrayal. In some strange way he seemed to have shrunk inside his clothing, designer elegance hanging baggily, like a clown's outfit. There was nothing comic about the introspection of his haggard face.
The ache deep inside intensified as she recognised the extent of his unhappiness.
She'd always presumed passion was missing from their equation. Subconsciously she had blamed Sinclair but what about her? Accommodating and indulgent, she had never turned him away, and was adept at faking it, but how often must there have been the suggestion that she was humouring some perverse whim of his?
Richard made her feel - he even made her come. She'd never given Sinclair a chance to touch her in any way that mattered. From the day they had met she had been terrified of losing him and had subconsciously held something of herself back so that she wouldn't be completely devastated when he tired of her, as inevitably he must. She had nothing to offer his daunting brilliance.
Now, shivering in the thin, cold breeze that smelt of the bonfires around which they had walked, she wondered, picking over the pain with a morbid fascination, when Sinclair had first become aware of the lack in their relationship. Seemingly assured and in control, his bouts of compulsive eating hadn't manifested themselves until they had been married for seven months.
She had shied away from conceding he could have been that vulnerable because it disturbed the comforting image with which she had been living: the amusing, adoring blonde, indulged by her brilliant - and rich - husband. She had never known what he had really wanted - except for children, of course - and had been afraid to ask, afraid she wouldn't measure up to his expectations. Sometimes it felt as if she had lived her entire life trying to live up to someone else's expectations. Even Richard's, although she hadn't recognised that until today.
Chilled, inside and out, she slid her arm around Sinclair's waist, enjoying his physical warmth and the small movements as he breathed and existed next to her. Only as he shifted slightly, away from her, did she realise how unwelcome her touch was to him. Her arm fell awkwardly to her side at the same time that he increased the gap between them.
"Richard's gone," she offered.
"He'll be back."
The lifeless voice was so unlike the rich, flexible warmth she was used to that it was a moment before Natalie realised who was speaking. A lump formed in her throat.
"No. It's really over. I'll make him accept that." She was appalled to realise how fickle she was; she would sacrifice Richard without a thought to save her marriage, their affair a madness for which she had no explanation - or interest in pursuing. It was over.
"Don't you believe me?" she added in a small voice, when he failed to respond.
Raising his head, he briefly acknowledged her with the courtesy which was second nature to him. "You say it's so. Of course I believe you." There was a razor blade under the silk of his voice, but turning inwards.
Her heart twisted. He looked as if he had been run over by a steam-roller; energy, emotion, even intellect seemed to have been pressed from him, leaving an empty husk to go through the motions of life.
"It is over, Sinclair," she repeated, a determined jut to her chin.
His gaze slid away from hers. "It has to be." He sounded as if even speech required more energy than he possessed.
"It is," she assured him feverishly. "I won't see Richard again."
"Richard?" He was squinting as if against the onset of a migraine. He was never ill. "I wasn't talking about Richard. I know why you married me, Nat. I always knew. I thought - hoped - more would grow from it. But it never did. I wonder why I thought it might? Vanity, I expect." He was patting the pockets of his jacket.
"What are you looking for?" She focussed on the mundane with gratitude.
"My car keys."
She clutched his arm. "Are you going after Richard?"
The muscles under her hand tightened. "No."
There was something different about him tonight; only then was she able to place what it was. Whatever the topic of conversation, no matter who he was with, Sinclair never excluded her. And if she declined to be drawn into some sparkling conversational thread then he would physically draw her in, holding her loosely in the circle of his arm, sharing a look, a half-smile, that excluded the rest of the world. She had always felt necessary to him, even if she didn't pretend to understand why that should be so. He could have had anyone. Anyone. But now that sense of intimacy was gone. He'd cut himself off from her; she had no sense of him at all and that gaping void terrified her.
Those expensive toys of which he claimed to be so inordinately proud hadn't owned him; she had, until she'd thrown his trust and his love back in his face.
The party. All their friends. Everyone must know.
She'd taken his life and crapped on it.
It had seemed impossible that Sinclair Bryant could be interested in dull, ordinary Natalie Matthews. But he had been. Only now, now when it was lost, did she appreciate how much it had meant to be loved by Sinclair.
"I did marry you for your money," she said jerkily. Determined to hold nothing back this time, but terrified of opening herself to him, she was too preoccupied to notice him flinch. "Or partly. But mainly for stability. Security. You make me feel safe. And I wanted someone of my own. I never had that. Not even with Richard. Although that's why he wanted me. We both wanted - more. Not that I could tell him that. We talked and talked and talked but... why is it so hard to communicate. Do you understand?"
His pinched looking face was so pale that freckles stood out like bruises. "How could I? You've never talked with me. You talk at me and occasionally you talk to me but I stopped hoping you might want to talk with me a long time ago. Ironic, isn't it, thinking that being a good forecaster means I have any fucking control over anything."
The flare of passion faded as fast as it had arrived.
She swallowed. "Don't throw me out, Sinclair. I couldn't bear it if you threw me out."
"What?" The frown line gauged between his eyes deepened as he stared down at her. "Don't be silly, Nat. How could I do that? I'm the one who's leaving."
His restless gaze flicked around the conservatory, settling on an item only to move on to the next.
"Strange," he murmured, almost to himself. "I used to love this house, for all its faults and pretences. I suppose I just hoped you would come to feel the same way about me. I've always been crap at relationships."
Natalie stared at him in disbelief.
Bright, innovative, eternally interested in the world and everyone who occupied it, an idea could light Sinclair with a passion fierier than that he displayed for any woman. Yet he had chosen her. Out of all the women he could have had he had chosen her.
At a party, if you wanted to find Sinclair, you only had to look for the crowd of the happiest people. Sinclair would be at the heart of the group. If he was ever alone, it was by choice. People constantly sought him out, as if he was a fire at which they could warm their hands.
And he was going to leave.
It was only when she refocused that she discovered he was gone. Crying out his name, open panic in her voice, she raced back through the house. The idea that she might lose him was unendurable. She caught up with him by the open front door, grasping his arm, not caring whether she left bruises or not.
"Sinclair..." She was too breathless from terror to go on.
Dredging up the ghost of a smile, he patted her hand before sliding free.
"Don't worry, Nat. We'll be fine. You can have the house, the cars, money, all of it. That will give you all the security you need."
Numb with disbelief, she stared at him. "You're going to divorce me?" She began to shiver again, yet she felt hot and cold and there was a keening sound in her ears as if she might faint.
He frowned. "You should put on a sweater. Here." He settled his jacket around her. While it swamped her, it was warm from his body heat and it held the scent of him.
"Don't worry," he added awkwardly. "I'll make it as easy for you as I can. You didn't mean it to happen. I understand that. There won't be any scandal. During the separation Richard can keep you company here. No one would question that. Just... Make sure I never have to see or speak to him again, because if I do I'll kill him. Goodbye, Nat."
He made no attempt to kiss her, in fact he went to some pains to avoid any physical contact with her. It was that which she noticed most of all. Then he was gone.
An animal sound escaped her.
Her hand flew to her mouth to stifle the sound. Sinclair had left her.
Staring out into the dark, she began to shiver in earnest.
While all Sinclair's friends were polite they made their disapproval plain. It was obvious that while Sinclair had told them nothing beyond the fact they were to divorce, everyone knew where to place the blame. It was equally obvious that no one had seen or heard from him for weeks. All she knew for certain was that he hadn't gone to America, or returned to his old job in London. His lawyers wouldn't tell her a thing.
With every day that passed the ache to see him grew stronger. She stood it for nine interminable weeks, then she hired a private investigator. Once they found Sinclair, she would keep him.
By the time she arrived at the Manchester address the investigator had given her she was so nervous that her silk blouse clung sweatily to the small of her back despite the chill of the December day. Trying to compose herself outside his front door, she counted nervously to fifteen, then flattened the bell with the pad of her thumb and kept it there.
She willed Sinclair to be home - and alone. Skittish with fright at the thought he might have found someone else, she jumped as the door opened just as she had given up hope of his being there. Every plan she had made fled, forgotten, as she stared at him.
"Don't shut the door. Please. Sinclair, don't. I've been looking everywhere for you." Her voice held an ignominious wobble but she was beyond caring. "In the end I had to hire a private investigator. Can you imagine it? I wish I'd done it sooner. He located you in just over a week. I've made so many mistakes. Were you happy? Married to me?"
Off-balance and obviously only half-awake, Sinclair squinted at her, ill-prepared for this meeting. "Happy?" Incredulity coloured his voice.
Her chin quivered before it steadied again. "I didn't mean to ruin your life. I just... I was so scared you'd get tired of me that I never... If I didn't let myself love you it wouldn't hurt so much when you left. Only it didn't work out that way. It hurt like hell. It still does. I'm sorry. So sorry. You have to believe that. It's taken me so long to find you."
"It didn't occur to me you might want to." There was no bitterness in his voice, just a bleak honesty.
Natalie battled on, fighting the tears which burned the backs of her eyes. He was unnervingly quiet and what little she could see of him was thin, so thin. But what hurt most was that he should be so wary of her, as if he expected her deliberately to hurt him.
"No one knew where you went, Sinclair. No one. You can't go through this alone. You need people."
He gave a peculiar grimace. "You have no idea what I need. How did you find me?"
It was clear he hadn't heard a word she had said. "I hired a private investigator. May I come in?" She placed her fingertips against the door half-closed against her but exerted no pressure, that came from her pleading eyes.
"Private - " He exhaled audibly. "If you want." He drew the door with him as he stepped back.
At first all she saw was a vast, empty space streaming with light. It was extremely hot and so devoid of possessions that it reminded her of those paintings Sinclair liked that she had pretended to understand. Turning back to where he still stood by the closed front door, she froze.
Propped against the wall for support, the sunlight mercilessly lit his gaunt face. He looked terrible, new lines embedded around his eyes and mouth, accentuated by his sharp loss of weight.
"Don't send me away," she begged feverishly. "These last few weeks without you... I didn't know it was possible to miss anyone so much." When he flinched, she rushed on, knowing she was making things worse but unable to find a way out of the maze. Speech poured from her; reminiscences, news from her office, not least of her partnership, which he had avoided acknowledging. She understood what lay behind that avoidance now; he had recognised that her ambition would drive another wedge between them, even if she hadn't.
Eventually she wound down into silence.
His hands were tucked in the pockets of the baggy trousers he wore over an even baggier sweatshirt and his feet were bare. He had the faintly bemused look of a man just emerging from a thick fog.
"Are you here because you're pregnant?" he asked with care.
"Because if you are and if you want to keep the child, I'll acknowledge it as mine if it will help. Richard can't, I know. Don't worry. It's fine. I'll speak to my solicitors."
"I'm not pregnant. Why would you assume I only come to you when I want something?"
His expression supplied the answer.
"Well thanks the fuck for nothing! It's lucky I wouldn't have kids when you wanted them, isn't it. I mean, it's rotten for children to only have one parent. You'd make a fantastic dad, only I never gave you the chance, did I. I forgot there were two of us involved." Her mouth twisted. "I never did anything except make you unhappy. I shouldn't have come here, you've made it plain you don't want to see me, but I missed you so much and I hoped...that is I thought maybe you might... But it's too late, I see that now and..."
Then she was crying. Not quietly, with discretion, but ugly racking sobs that ripped up from her belly and her empty womb. Bent double with the pain of it, her eyes and nose running, her face was splotched pink and smeared with mucus as the terrible sobs racked the muscles of her diaphragm. Then came the miracle of his velvety voice and his arms slowly wrapping her in security. She clutched to him like a drowning woman to a spar of wood, only to feel him flinch.
Shocked, her breath still hitching, she released him only to start patting him with her fingertips, exploring his face, chest, belly, groin, arms and thighs.
"I hurt you just now. God, Sinclair. What's happened to you? You look terrible. And so thin. And your hair. Why's it so short on this side?"
"It doesn't matter," he dismissed tiredly.
Savage with him, her fingers locked over his sweatshirt as she shook him. "It matters. It matters so much it terrifies me." In contrast to the violence in her emotion-charged voice her touch was gentle as she flattened an errant wing of hair sticking out over his right ear, before she stroked a greying sideburn with her thumb.
Then, because she couldn't help herself, she leant up and kissed his unsteady mouth, coaxing his cold lips to part for her, then deliberately setting out to ravish his senses. She was desperate for the scent and the taste and the sight of him, hungry for his warmth and laughter and the look which invited her into their own private world.
He suffered her embrace for what seemed like forever before she felt him harden against her belly.
"Sinclair, please..." Only as she smeared away the moisture impeding her vision did she realise she was crying again.
Then his hands, those wonderful hands which could possess her so effortlessly, cupped her face. Unsteady thumbs delicately wiped the moisture from beneath her eyes before his arms locked around her hard enough to bruise. She simply hugged him back, actively helping out as he eased her to the floor.
There was no time for the niceties. Shoes off, tights wrenched down, Natalie kicked her knickers free, hoicking up her too tight skirt as Sinclair unzipped. He offered nothing beyond his need.
Having satiated himself in her, he remained pillowed against her even after he had withdrawn, with only a little of his weight taken by one knee and shoulder.
Lethargic and content, despite the difficulty in breathing, she tangled her fingers in the untamed wildness of the hair on the unshaved side of his head, fingertips lightly massaging behind his ear and the back of his neck. When, finally, he stirred, she began to strip the clothing from him, impatient with the restrictions. He did little to help, but nothing to hinder her either, rolling from her to lie on his back at her side.
Studying his nakedness, her eyes widened with horror as she traced the raw scars on his body with unsteady fingers.
"When did this happen?"
"A few weeks ago."
"When, exactly, Sinclair?"
"The morning after the party," he said, avoiding her gaze. "It wasn't intentional. No one else was hurt, thank God. Though there's a tree on the bypass which will never be the same again."
For a moment she could almost believe she had the old Sinclair back.
"You nearly died," she protested.
"It looks worse because of the tarmac burns." He looked puzzled when a warm, wet droplet splashed onto his cheek. "Nat?"
"I should have been with you," she choked, stroking back his hair and smothering him with tear-wet kisses and a trail of saliva.
He eased free. "Why? So I can enjoy the crumbs Richard doesn't need?" Trying to rise too fast to his feet his leg gave way. He would have fallen but for her support. For a little while they remained in a frozen tableau until gradually the pain eased and he was able to prop himself against the wall.
"Lean on me. I can take it. I can," she insisted fiercely. "I'm not a child who needs cosseting and protecting. I'm your wife."
He slid down the wall to sit on the floor, his legs stretched out in front of him, sweat beading his temples and upper lip. But instead of turning to her for comfort he turned in on himself, closing her out again. It was obvious he was in pain.
Natalie went into the kitchen and found it empty of everything but the most basic crockery and cutlery. The fridge didn't look as if it had ever been used and there were no groceries in the cupboards. Pouring him a glass of water, she investigated the other rooms. There was a mattress on the floor of another vast room, with a duvet. Nothing more. Except a glass of water and bottle of pills. Reading the label, she shook out two and took them through to him, with the water.
No need to ask why he hadn't attempted to make the place more comfortable, he looked as if he should still be in hospital.
"Here, take these," she urged gently, crouching beside him, one hand rubbing his shoulder. The scars on his upper arm told her how close he must have come to losing it.
When he took them without protest she knew how ill he must be feeling.
"You should be in a hotel. With food and room service, not sleeping on the floor. Sinclair, you can't stay here alone. Not yet. What if you were taken ill?"
"Not now, Nat."
Disappearing again, she came back with the duvet, placing it gently over him, before settling down beside him and easing him down until his head was pillowed in her lap.
"Ssh. Just close your eyes," she murmured, gently rubbing behind his ear. "Will you take me back?"
Staring up at her in silence, Sinclair finally took her cold hand in his own even colder grasp and kissed her knuckles.
"You know I will," he said. But there was no joy in his voice or his eyes, only a vast wariness, and the expectation of hurt.