THE GRUINARD PROJECT

Chapter One

October 23rd 2000.

Strangers, just two people who have never met, living in the world at the same time, maybe even the same city. Shopping at the same supermarket, walking the same streets, reading the same paper, stopping every morning at the same Starbucks for a coffee to take into work. Events conspiring to mean they never meet. The tube door closing leaving one passenger on the platform as the train departs. The lights changing, stopping one person from crossing the road with everybody else. Eleven items in a shopping basket meaning the express checkout is a no go area. Everyday events meaning just by a second or two strangers never meet.

Strangers, people living in the shadows on the edge of everyday life. People, who live, work and are alone. You know their faces and maybe even their names but not who they are, what they think, what makes them tick. They don't join in, they're not part of the work quiz or football team and at lunch they sit alone.

Some people are strangers not through choice but necessity. Needing to keep their distance put up a barrier to get the job done. Needing to protect themselves from heartache, pain, disillusionment and abandonment. Some people don't even exist not in the states eyes, no computer records and paper trails, nothing they weren't born so they cannot die, living behind fake identities and aliases.

They were strangers that day in October and were destined to remain strangers for the next ten years. Each living the life that the fates had mapped for them. Neither questioning the life that the fates chose, just accepting. Over the passing years fate determined their paths should cross briefly. They would meet, talk, share food, become lovers, but both knew the rules; they made them, lived by them, strangers they would remain until fate decreed otherwise.

The funeral car pulled silently away its expensive engine a well tuned hum. She sat in the centre of the soft leather seat, alone. Nobody accompanied her, she permitted nobody to share or ease the burden of her grief. The church had been packed, but they were there for him, not her. They mourned for themselves, for there loss, not the young woman who sat alone in the family pew. It is true they offered their condolences, words offered because polite society and convention dictated that they should be. Meaningless phrases uttered at every funeral people attended all over the world.

"Lovely Service."

"Much missed."

"A great man."

"He would be so proud."

"So proud." What of? The full church, the money he had made for the florist, the poetry and readings or her for not breaking down. Following the coffin into church alone, her back straight and her eyes facing forward just as he taught. She could take no credit for the service, he planned it, he had written down the instructions when he became ill and delivered them to the solicitor with the money to pay. Maybe the solicitor thought it was a "Lovely service" Maybe 'he' was proud of the firm for following his instructions to the letter.

The car moved slowly through the busy streets taking her to the funeral wake that he had arranged at his London club. She noted a fine tremor and a sudden chill; goose pimples appeared and her heart beat accelerated. Panic, as a doctor she knew the symptoms, as a person she acknowledged the cause. In his attempt to protect her from the emotions of planning and attending the funeral he had robbed her of being able to come to terms with his death. Exhaustion from nursing him through those last painful months had meant that she had not questioned his plans she had just accepted them. The closer her destination the car got the more the panic gripped her. The shaking got worse and bile rose up her throat.

The car pulled in at the curb and the driver spoke.

"We're here miss."

His words seemed distorted changed by the increasingly loud buzzing in her ears. She shook her head in an attempt to clear it but to no avail, if anything the noise got worse. A cold sweat broke out on her body.

While she could still think, she made her decision.

"Take me home. I can't do this. I don't want to do this."

The driver raised his eye brows his forehead creased in puzzlement.

"Take me home, then return here and give them my apologies. Explain I will not be joining them, that I thank them for coming but I need to be alone." She almost smiled at her last words she sounded like Greta Garbo.

The driver hesitated just for a second.

"Please," she whispered.

Seeing how serious she was he nodded briefly, waited for a break in the traffic, then turned the car around and headed away from its original destination.

She closed her eyes and tried to steady her breathing, slowly the panic subsided she didn't have to face anybody not today. The journey from the club to home did not take long, before she knew it they were at a standstill outside her drive. The driver opened the door letting a blast of cold air in. The October wind was harsh and cold just how the weather should be for a funeral.
The driver all courteous assisted her from the car.

"Will you be alright Miss Masters?" he enquired politely.

No, she thought, I am not sure I will ever be alright again.

Taking a deep breath she nodded, thanked him once more. Curtains flicked as noisy neighbours watched her return. She headed down the drive to the only home she had ever known. Fumbling with the keys as she unlocked the door, finally managing to push it open she stepped into the dim hall.

Her senses were overwhelmed by being home without him. Every room held a reminder, his chair and book in the lounge, his cup in the kitchen. The scent of his pipe was everywhere. The room where she nursed him and where he died. Memories and images haunted her mind. The shaking began again; she stumbled to her room, packed a bag. She had to run away, just for while. Go where nobody knew her face, she wanted the anonymity. No she needed the anonymity. She needed space away from all that was familiar, in a strange place. She threw her bag in the car and drove away.

Those last six months together they had been strangers, hardly speaking, and when they did it was just to hurl accusations and insults at each other. Intent on inflicting as much pain as possible. Why is it he wondered, that the wounds that words cause, are so much slower to heal, then those caused by physical injury?

Why had something so perfect, so right, gone so spectacularly wrong? His conscience reminded him of course it had not been perfect. The whole dream was built on a foundation of lies and like a house built on sand at the first sign of trouble it collapsed.

The letter lay unopened on the breakfast bar. It taunted him. No matter where he moved his eyes were drawn to it, checking it was still there, hoping it might just disappear. Of course it never did. Open it, his conscience crowed, his mind refused to give in, emphatically saying no. He needed no written prove of how screwed up his life was, he needed no written reminders of all he had lost. Reminders were everywhere, every second of every day. Even this flat so sterile and empty no personal belongings, no keepsakes, no photos nothing that had been theirs. How could a place that her presence had never touched, be such a constant reminder of her.

He prowled from room to room unable to settle, always returning to the kitchen and the letter. It was official, in a buff coloured envelope with a cellophane window, through which his address could be read. Franked at the place it was sent from, no stamp. The return address printed on the back; of course it had been delivered, so that address would not be needed. He went to look at the post mark October 18th five days ago.

He had been away when it was delivered, the irony of that was not lost on him. His work had always been the problem so it was only fitting that the solution should arrive while he was working. How she had come to resent his job, the trips away at short notice. Oh to begin with it had been alright and she had certainly enjoyed their passionate reunions, sometimes barely making it home before the need for quick hard sex became overwhelming. Such pleasures soon grow old though. Suspicions about where he was and what he was doing, soon filled her mind, compounded by his refusal to tell her, only saying it was business. She had screamed at him called him a liar, accused him of being with some whore. That had been the beginning of the end. If only he could have told her the truth about who he was, what he was, but the time for truth was long past. Tell a Russian citizen who he was, Harry would never allow it.

Harry, a scowl crossed his face at the thought of his boss, his mentor. Did he blame Harry for his screwed up life? Or was it an occupational hazard? If Harry's screwed up life was anything to go by it was. Maybe he should have stayed living with his mum like Malcolm. It certainly would be less complicated.

For want of something to do he put the kettle on, even this simple everyday act reminded him of her, she had never mastered the art of making a decent cuppa. Open the letter, his conscience whispered get it over with. He turned and there it was, fool thinking he could will it away. Fool for letting what he had slip through his fingers like grains of sand.

Taking a deep breath he picked up the letter this the first time he had handled it since arriving back. He slowly undid it, cautiously as if it might bite. His eyes instantly drawn to the letters at the top.

DECREE ABSOLUTE.

His hands shook slightly, the reaction surprised him, he had known what the letter contained. Incredible he had been divorced five whole days his body and mind went numb, she had gone through with it. He had always believed that at the end she would change her mind and come back. He felt himself emotionally shut down; the flat was suddenly too small he had to get away. Taking only a few minutes to grab a bag and his tooth brush, before he left. He slammed the door shut, leaving his tea cold and not drunk on the kitchen counter.

She sat alone on the sea wall, staring blindly out to sea. The biting cold wind cutting through her causing her to shiver involuntarily. She didn't care hoping the cold would penetrate her body and slice through the numbness, allowing her to feel something. She glanced along the almost deserted sea front. The once proud seaside town a dreary despondent shadow of its former self. The Victorian hotels stood in various states of disrepair, victims of a more affluent society which could afford holidays in warmer climates. Most of the tacky shops and obligatory amusement arcades were shut up for the winter. The whole sad depressed air of the place matched her mood perfectly. She shivered again. How long she sat there she wasn't certain lost in her own thoughts. Not registering the advancing sea and increasing wind.

He sat in the bar of the hotel optimistically called "The Grand", looking at the other hotels along the front he supposed it was grand in comparison and almost certainly at some time in its history it would have been majestic. The waiter brought his shot of Vodka. He intended to knock it back in one, wanting to taste its harsh roughness in his mouth feel, its warmth burn his throat and spread down to his stomach. He raised his glass to his lips and that was when he saw her. She was sat unmoving looking out to sea seemingly oblivious to her surroundings. The waiter followed his gaze.

"She's been out there all afternoon must be bloody frozen." he commented.

He swallowed his drink and ordered another, his eyes not moving from the young women, rain began to fall but still she didn't move. Spray from the sea was visible as the waves crashed into the beach. She should move before she was drenched or worse pulled in by one of the rolling waves. He didn't want to care about what ever plight made her sit there, but deep down, despite appearances he was an honourable man. Knowing he had no choice he stood. Leaving his glass on the table he pulled his coat on telling the waiter he would be back, he headed out across the road to where the woman sat.

She didn't hear him approach or register his presence at her side, lost in her own private world. She jumped at his touch on her shoulder and swung round at the intrusion. Before she could speak he pulled her roughly back towards the road, just before a large wave crashed over the wall where she had been sitting. She was frozen and trembling violently and when he sat her down her knees seemed to give way. Cursing the fates that had landed her here, he picked her up and carried her back to the hotel.

The bar had a wood burner stove with a comfy couch in front of it, so he sat her down near its warmth. Removing her damp coat he called for the waiter to bring a pot of tea. Her trembling worried him. Was she hypothermic? He pulled her into his arms to try and get some heat into her frozen limbs. He reached under the cable knit sweater and rubbed his hands over her back to generate some warmth. Under the jumper she was so slight, so tiny fragile almost.

Gradually her shivering became less intense although she still felt chilled. He removed his coat and covered her small form. He poured the tea and pushed a cup into her hands.

"Here drink this it will warm you up," he said.

"My feet hurt," she whispered.

He glanced down, her shoes and socks were soaked. Kneeling he removed them placing them by the fire to dry. Then he took each small foot in his hands gently rubbing and massaged the feeling back.

She sipped her tea. Who was this man, this stranger? Why was he doing this?

"Better?" he enquired.

She nodded and sighed.

"Do you want to call anybody," he sat back down on the sofa and looked at her.

Her soft brown eyes filled with pain.

"No there is nobody. Have you ever just run away from life? That's what I did today. Ran to this place where nobody knows me. Sorry you must think I am a fool."

A kindred spirit more like he thought.

"What are you running from?" he asked.

"Death, my Grandfather died, today was the funeral. He is the only parental figure I have ever know. It was always just me and him and now it's just me. I just felt lost. I needed to get away from the looks and rehearsed speeches from his friends." she stopped and really looked at him for the first time, realising how out of place he looked.

"What about you? You don't strike me as a simple holiday maker or local." she asked.

"No you're right. I am running away too, not from death though, divorce, her choice not mine." He reached for his vodka and knocked it back hoping the fiery liquid would help anaesthetise his pain.

The waiter approached and informed them that food was being served if they were interested.

"Would you like some food? We could pass the evening together, no questions just two strangers?" His voice was deep and smooth.

She felt a frisson of excitement pass over her, something about this man made her think, food was not all he was suggesting. The sense of danger attached to him was incredibly attractive. She, who had never done anything remotely daring in her life, found her self agreeing to his plan.

They did eat in the hotel dining room and the food was surprisingly good. When the meal ended he suggested a night cap in the bar. She agreed, wanting to prolong the evening, wondering if she had miss read the signs earlier.

He stood at the bar

"Vodka and …………" He turned to ask what she wanted. He was surprised by her request.

"Whisky single malt if they have it," she smiled at the surprise in his eyes.

"Who introduced you to single malt whisky?" he asked sitting down.

"My grandfather he was a connoisseur. What about you and Vodka, is there a story there?" she asked.

"My ex wife is Russian she introduced me to it I was a real ale man before that."

The waiter brought their drinks again across and they drifted into silence.

He watched her bring her glass to her lips as she sipped the amber spirit. She closed her eyes as if enjoying that first fiery kick moistened her lips after she had savoured the flavour of the liquid. His breath caught in his throat. She was not at all the kind of woman he was usually drawn to; he liked his woman taller, curvier with long hair, as a rule. This woman was petite with a short tousled hair cut. As she took another sip and murmured that it was very good, he realised he wanted her badly. Not surprising really he had not had sex for several months since before him and Elizaveta had separated, and stupidly believing she would come back he had abstained since as well. So although she was a stranger he found himself imagining being buried deep inside her.

"Are you alright you have gone awfully quiet on me?" she asked.

He nodded that he was fine and knocked back his Vodka fighting to get his libido in check.

"Yeah I'm fine. Do you want another he nodded at her glass?"

She looked at him, could she be this daring? Could she ask this man, this stranger to take her to bed? To break through this shield she had erected, to make her feel again.

"No that's not what I want," she whispered.

"Let's go upstairs then." His voice was quiet as well.

"I don't have a room," she said shyly hoping he would make the next move.

"I do and I am not expecting us to spend the night apart." He stood and held out his hand.

Desperate as he was to taste her he waited until they were in the lift before he claimed her mouth. He could taste the whiskey on her lips and her mouth. He lifted her up and trapped her against the lift wall plundering her mouth. Pinned as she was against the wall and his hard body pressing against her she had to be aware of the size of his erection. The lift bell and door had them reluctantly parting. His room was only just down the corridor and within seconds they were in his room.

The room was in darkness but he moved expertly to the lamp its low light casting a soft glow over the room. He reached for her pulling her gently to the bed. Knowing it would cost him if she said no he asked anyway.

"Are you Ok with this? I mean we don't have to if you are not sure," he asked in a low tone.

Relieved that he was a gentleman not a pervert. "Take me now it's all either of us wants," she whispered as she stood and pulled her jumper over her head.

He watched as she undressed. Tiny she might be but she was perfectly formed. She moved to undo her bra but his words stopped her.

"Leave your underwear on." The plain white cotton with its tiny flowers was turning him on big time.

"Just lay on the bed," he told her.

She moved towards it "Does everybody always obey you?" She asked.

"Yes most of the time." He began to remove his own clothing.

God the man was fit his abs and pecs. in peak condition. She could make out his rigid shaft beneath his boxers and waited in anticipation as he lowered them slowly revealing his cock. Involuntarily she licked her lips at the impressive sight. He lowered him self to the mattress and took her mouth with his. They kissed for several minutes their hands roaming over each others bodies. He moved slightly and caressed her breast through the soft cotton, his thumbs sliding across her taunt nipple. The friction of the cotton was exquisite torture leaving her aching and wanting more. He deftly removed her bra and began stroking her now naked breast. She squirmed and lifted her hips silently begging him to take her in in his mouth. Reading her mind he drew the puckered tip into his mouth and cupped her breast, her moans coming louder as he pressed his mouth around her taunt peak and sucked. His erection seemed to get harder as she raised her hips pushing her body closer to him. The sensation of his mouth on her nipples was making her wet with need, her panties she was certain must be drenched. His hands moved down her flat stomach and he caressed through the damp cotton, she was so wet it took all his control not to rip them off her and ram his cock deep inside her. He pulled the cotton tight and using her own juices as lubrication moved the cotton over her crevice. Her moans grew louder and she raised her hips towards him. Her tremors told him, she was about to come so he increased the pressure on her nipple and at her core sending her over the edge.

He barely let her catch her breath before he continued their love making. His hand stroked and caressed her abdomen and legs for an age before they touched the part of her body that was longing for his touch. He removed her panties and stroked and teased her molten core seeking his gentle massaging causing her to purr and stretch. She moaned aloud as he placed two fingers in her most secret passage and slowly moved them mimicking the act of intercourse. A second orgasm shook her and he groaned as her muscles clamped around his finger, how would that feel against his cock?

"Please," she begged when she could speak. "I want you inside me now."

Taking time to sheath himself in a condom he slowly enter her. God she was so tight and wet; he moved slowly at first withdrawing almost completely before slowly inch by inch moving deeper in. He tortured them both with this slow movement for several minutes ignoring her pleas to move faster. When she could stand it no more she grabbed his buttocks and clenched her muscles drawing him further in. The pressure of her muscles against his cock caused him to shudder and moan.

"Again please do that again," he was begging now.

She repeated the action again and again until he was breathless and moaning with need. His thrusts became faster and she lifted her hips to meet them, using her muscles to draw him. He felt and heard her climax around him before his own orgasm claimed him it seemed to last for ever, he had never come like this before the intensity was amazing. He collapsed on her damp body kissing her face and hair.

They loved many times during the night sleeping in each others arms in between waking to find the need for each other had not diminished.

The following day they explored the seaside town had lunch in a quiet restaurant exploring each others minds as thoroughly as they had their bodies. It had delighted him that this young woman was bright and sassy. Gorgeous as she was he had always been drawn to intelligent women.

They were cocooned in the hotel bar reading a poetry book disagreeing over Blake and Browning he went to the bar to get the drinks telling her to read the Blake poem again. She watched him as he waited to be served who was this man. She wondered about the divorce what had his wife wanted maybe he was just too intelligent and charismatic.

Their love making that night was every bit as intense as the evening before. Taking each other hard and fast and then long and slow. He joined her in the shower and had taken her against the shower wall with the hot spray pounding down on them.

She was lay curled in his arms when his phone which he had left on vibrated rang. He sighed knowing the call could be from only one person.

"Harry," he spoke quietly so as not to wake her.

"Romanov is on the move you need to be there to seal the deal. Your travel arrangements are made your flight is at 10pm. I will meet you at the Albert at 2pm" Harry Pearce was economical as ever with his words.

"Fine I will be there." he hung up.

Knowing it was better if he just left he gathered his stuff. He left a one line note on the dressing table.

I will always remember.