"Are you alright?" Jess asked quietly, letting her hand stroke her boyfriend's hair softly.
They were on the sofa. Jess was sitting curled into the corner, and Becker took up the rest of the space, lying with his head in her lap. They'd just got back from having Sunday lunch in the pub down the road, and had settled down to watch a movie. Jess should have known that there was something the matter because he hadn't objected to her choice of film. Becker liked classic James Bond films, and films where things blew up on a semi-regular basis. Jess had chosen What's Up, Doc?, a Barbra Streisand farce from the seventies.
Yet he'd just laid down, put his head in her lap and hadn't even sighed heavily or tutted at her choice. They were forty five minutes in, she'd lost track of the tartan holdalls and a Chinese dragon was now free-wheeling down the massive hill in San Francisco that was in every film set there and he hadn't complained once about the lack of heavy weapons fire.
"Is there something the matter?" she pressed. "You've been…different this week. Preoccupied."
Moody, is what she meant, but after six months of careful relationship building she knew better to throw that word at him. Elite members of the SAS, he told her once, frostily and inaccurately, do not get moody.
He shifted so he was looking directly up at her.
"Sorry," he said, sighing. "I suppose I am a bit."
Jess waited patiently. Getting Becker to talk about his emotions wasn't easy. He did it in his own time, or not at all. Now, after six months of practically (but not quite) living together, he was getting a bit better at verbalising his emotions, although she knew that he wasn't really comfortable with it.
"It's my sister," he said eventually, as she gently carded her fingers through his hair. "She's had another baby, and there's a family…gathering to celebrate."
"Hmm," Jess said, noncommittally.
Becker didn't talk about his family much. She knew that there was a grandmother, mother, father and two sisters, but that was about it. He hadn't gone to visit them at all during the last six months, and she hadn't even seen a picture of any of them. Conversely, Becker willingly went with her to every Sunday afternoon tea at her parents' house and had been there to witness the spectacle of her sister's wedding day where the groom's affairs with two of the bridesmaids had been revealed in front of the entire abbey. Her sister had ended up punching him over the altar rail, cancelling the wedding and getting very drunk in the reception hall.
Despite witnessing Jess' family at their most insane, Becker seemed to like them. Her father deigned to come out from behind his Sunday Times to talk to him, and her mother clearly saw him as Potential Husband Material and fawned all over him. Her brothers gave their approval as one military man to another, and the rest of the women in her family seemed to be in love with him. Her favourite niece, Izzie, had taken him to one side and told him solemnly that she was going to marry him when she grew up, if she hadn't built a time machine and gone exploring instead. (Doctor Who was a staple in Izzie's house on a Saturday night, and Izzie quite fancied being a Time Lord.) Becker had gravely thanked her for the advanced notice, and given her a replica sonic screwdriver from a toyshop that had her squealing with delight.
All that had been done in secret, of course; Jess wasn't supposed to know about it. But she had overheard Izzie's declaration, and had been amazed by the way Becker had handled it. She hadn't even realised that he'd already bought her niece the toy and had brought it with him, tucked into his jacket pocket.
Oh yes, he had a way of making Parker women go head over heels, alright. He seemed to enjoy her family more than she did, although Jess had been putting up with them for the last twenty years and the novelty was wearing thin now.
But his own family was a very different story, and unless she pressed him for details, he wasn't very forthcoming.
"Was it a girl or a boy?" she asked.
"What?" he said, blinking, dragged from his thoughts.
"The baby," Jess said patiently. "Is it a girl or a boy?"
"Oh, a boy," he said. "She's already got a girl. She's about three now."
He lapsed into brooding silence again, and Jess bit her tongue and kept playing with his hair. However, she had only so much patience.
"You've been invited to the christening?" she prompted him eventually.
"Yeah," he said gloomily. "And I thought maybe you could come with me?"
Jess' lips twitched. That wasn't exactly the ringing endorsement to their relationship that she had been looking for.
"I take it that you don't really want to introduce your girlfriend to your family," she said lightly.
He groaned and turned over, putting his face up close to her body and drawing his legs up into a foetal position. His arms wrapped around any part of her body he could reach.
"It's more that I don't want to introduce my family to my girlfriend," he admitted, his voice muffled by the way he was talking directly to her stomach. "They're strange."
Jess couldn't help it. She laughed.
"They can't be any stranger than my family!" she exclaimed. "Becker, the first time you met any of them was at my sister's wedding, and we all know what a disastrous day that was."
That prompted him to peer up at her.
"That was a brilliant day," he protested, a small smile playing on his lips. "Or have you forgotten what happened after it?"
Oh no, she hadn't forgotten. How could she? The manager of the hotel had switched the modest room she'd booked for the honeymoon suite that Jasper had already paid for but was no longer in need of. Before she could open the door, Becker had mischievously swept her up in his arms and plonked his regimental beret rakishly on her head.
She had been carried into the room, giggling, and had spent the next twenty four hours alternately laughing, drinking and making love. The naughty underwear she had packed for the occasion was modelled for about a minute and a half before he had whisked if off her body and onto the floor.
It had been a wonderfully debauched experience and she had loved every second of it.
"I haven't forgotten," she told him fondly. "How could I? Nobody had ever licked champagne out of my navel before."
"Glad to hear it," Becker said, tightening his grip on her.
She sighed as she felt his lips press slow kisses to her stomach through the cotton of her skirt.
"Oh no you don't," she said, tugging on his hair. "No distracting me with sex."
"I don't know what you mean," he said, his voice muffled as he began to inch her skirt up her thigh and kiss the skin revealed there.
"Hilary Becker," she said in her most commanding tone, and then spoiled the moment by moaning as he lightly scraped her inner thigh with his teeth. She shook her head. He was not going to distract her with sex.
She reached out a hand and pinched his nipple viciously. He yelped and retreated.
"Do you want me to come with you to your nephew's christening?" she demanded.
"Yes," he sighed. "But I'm scared that my family will scare you away."
Jess laughed. Really, seriously laughed. But Becker's face remained troubled.
"Jess, they're not like me. They're…odd. I don't want them to freak you out."
Jess took pity on the puppy dog eyes in front of her.
"I promise," she said solemnly, "to leave your nephew's christening just as much in love with you as I am right now. No matter how weird your family is, I promise that I won't let them change the way I see you."
The look on her face must have convinced him, because although he didn't really look any happier at the thought of Jess meeting his family, he looked more resigned to the prospect.
"Alright then," he sighed. "I suppose it had to happen sooner or later."
He looked up at the ceiling of the flat and sighed wearily. After a moment or two, Jess nudged him.
"Hey," she said, pointedly. "You were in the middle of something there, you know."
Jess left the topic alone after that; her newly developing girlfriend senses were sending out danger signals. So far, they were proving to have a very high rate of accuracy, so she trusted her instincts and put the subject to the back of her mind.
Work got busy, anyway, and that didn't leave them much time to do anything but round up rogue prehistoric creatures and close rips in time, the usual daily grind for ARC employees. They'd clock out when the night shift team came on duty, and then bicker amicably on the way home about who's turn it was to cook, and whether having to single-handedly take down a fully-grown triceratops with only an EMD rifle got you out of doing the washing up. Jess kept a few changes of clothes and more changes of shoes at Becker's flat, but as hers was bigger, and had a massive television, they usually ended up there.
It was on one of the nights they stayed at Becker's flat that the subject of the christening was raised again. He was flicking dismissively through his accumulation of mail when one piece of it made him sigh heavily and pull a half-full bottle of whiskey from a cupboard.
"What's the matter?" Jess asked, busy chopping up chicken. "You don't usually drink during the week."
"The invitation came," he said glumly, splashing a good measure into the glass, looking at the invitation again and pouring more in.
Jess rinsed her hands clean and picked the invitation up.
"You are invited to witness the naming celebration of the new soul, Tiger Fire, at midnight on the first day of the full moon," she read aloud. "Come and join us at Greenfields to welcome the newest member of our family of love."
She looked at Becker, who was knocking back the whiskey steadily.
"Tiger Fire?" she said eventually.
"Tiger Fire Edwards, if Lesley's registered him with his father's surname," Becker said, eying the bottle next to his hand. "Tiger Fire Becker if she's registered him with her legal name. But she may have used something completely different that makes sense to her."
"Your sister doesn't use her own name?" Jess asked, puzzled.
"My sister decided to choose her own name when she was thirteen," Becker said, looking a little green around the gills. "It was part of her womanhood ceremony. It was her right as a woman to choose how she wanted to name herself, so she decided that Lesley Becker was out and Rainbow Starborn was in."
"You're kidding me," Jess said, open-mouthed with shock.
"I wish I was," he said grimly.
"Are all your family…." She paused, looking for the right word. 'Hippies' seemed too dismissive. 'New agers' sounded silly. "…like this?" she finished lamely.
"My grandmother isn't, God bless her," Becker sighed, pouring himself another stiff drink. "But my mother and father are, and both my sisters, to an extent. Frances is a little less gung-ho about the whole thing, although she did rename herself Poplar after her Celtic astrological tree sign."
"Celtic astrology…" Jess said, still trying to take in the enormity of what was going on.
"Absolute nonsense," Becker growled. "All made up by some guy who misread some history and wrote a book that idiots thought was some kind of gospel."
Jess looked down at the invitation again.
"Where's Greenfields?" she asked.
"Greenfields is the name of the eco-commune that my parents started on the lawn of my grandmother's house," Becker told her. "It's gotten bigger over the years, and now they run all sorts of workshops and training days there. My grandmother leases the house to the commune to use for guests, and she lives in the old gatehouse on the estate. Mum and Dad oversee the workshops while Poppy – Poplar – runs the business end of things, keeps them all afloat financially."
"So, let me get this straight," Jess said, trying to wrap her brain around the bombshell that had just been dropped. "Your parents are both new age, hippy-type people who founded a commune. You were born in a commune. You have sisters called Rainbow Starborn and Poplar. Your grandmother is the only person in your family that doesn't live the commune, but she lives in a gatehouse. Becker, are your family posh hippies?"
He found another clean glass and poured her a generous measure.
"They prefer alternative lifestyle activists," he said with complete seriousness.
Jess swallowed her drink, and waved her empty glass at Becker. He dutifully poured her another.
"How does somebody who lived in a commune all his life grow up to join the army?" Jess asked him later, after they had finished eating and were on the sofa. "I would have thought that your parents wouldn't have been fond of anything establishment-y."
"Teenage rebellion," Becker said solemnly, which made Jess snort with laughter.
"I'm serious!" he protested. "When you grow up surrounded by people who give you very little in the way of rules or structure, it's hard to do anything that will get you into trouble because they're probably doing it as well."
"Most kids take up smoking, or get drunk on street corners," Jess pointed out. "Not join the SAS."
"I was helping to brew the community's wine and beer when I was seven," Becker told her. "There were no cigarettes around because at that time they were going through their 'no bought goods' phase, but one of the greenhouses grew some special plants, if you know what I mean. Nobody would have batted an eyelid if I'd lit up."
"Did you?" Jess asked, intrigued.
"No I bloody well didn't," Becker said firmly. "I may have been a child, but I saw exactly what happened when you started smoking their crop. It was so strong that people used to turn into giggling, tuned-out idiots straight away. Whole herds of them," he said in disgust. "Just sitting there, staring at each other and laughing. Besides," he finished, "My grandmother kept a pretty close eye on us kids, and would have found out straight away if any of us had tried anything we shouldn't."
"You smile when you talk about your grandmother," Jess said, shifting in his loose embrace to face him.
"She's amazing, Jess," he said honestly. "She lost her husband when my mother was only a baby, but she brought her up on her own. And when her only child decided to take up this completely alien lifestyle, she welcomed her and her weird friends into her home. Well, her garden, anyway. Whenever I got upset I could always go to her, and she'd give me spearmint imperials and let me work my anger out. She was the one who fought for me to go away to school instead of being educated at home, like my sisters."
"You didn't like the commune?" Jess asked softly.
"No," he said, shaking his head. "As soon as I got old enough to realise that not everybody in the country lived in tents nine months out of twelve, or bathed outside, or did communal naked yoga, I hated it. We were all in the local junior school then – well, I was still in the infant school - but I used to get really upset when the other kids called us weird. When my sisters were eleven Mum and Dad decided to educate them at home. When I was eleven, I wanted to go away to school. They were against it, of course; any kind of educational institution was automatically suspect, in their eyes. They couldn't understand why I'd want to go, and I couldn't understand why they were so desperate to make me stay."
He put his head on her shoulder, and she started to stroke his hair comfortingly.
"But your Gran helped you, right?" she offered.
He nodded, relaxing slightly under her tender touch.
"She called them out for being hypocrites. They were always saying that we had to learn about personal responsibility, and they prided themselves on letting us make our own minds up about things, right from when we were little. She said that if they couldn't practice what they preached, they were no different from the people whose society they were shunning. It took a little while, but in the end they gave in. I went away to school and only came home for holidays. Then after university I went straight into the army. I'm not sure my dad has ever forgiven me."
He said it lightly, but she could hear the hurt lurking in his voice.
"I'm sure he has," Jess told him. "Dads always love their kids too much to hold grudges."
She picked up the invitation and read it again.
"When's the next full moon?" she asked, puzzled.
Becker pulled his phone out of his pocket and tapped the keys for a minute before Google delivered up the correct date.
"Friday," he said eventually.
"Wouldn't it have been easier for your sister to just put Friday on the card, then?" Jess asked.
"Lesley doesn't live her life according to the modern calendar," he said dismissively. "Why make life a little bit easier for yourself when you can complicate it instead?"
"Why do you call her Lesley?" Jess said, aware she was prodding at a sore point. "If she wants to be called Rainbow, why don't you call her that?"
"Because it's bloody stupid," Becker said with a finality to his voice that stopped Jess from going any further down that road.
"Right," she said soothingly, petting his hair again. "So, what are you going to buy your nephew as a christening gift?"
"It's not going to be a christening, Jess," he sighed. "You don't turn up to these things with a silver mug and eat sandwiches afterwards."
"Naming ceremony then," Jess amended. "Even if it's non-traditional, surely it's expected that you bring the baby a present."
"I suppose so," Becker allowed. "But Lesley doesn't like anything that's been mass produced, or isn't 'an unique expression of the artist's soul', direct quote."
"Not even a little stuffed tiger toy?" Jess said hopefully.
"She'd just be rude and condescending to you about it," Becker sighed. "And then I'd lose my temper with her. Maybe we shouldn't go."
"Don't be silly," Jess said firmly. "She invited you, so she obviously wants you to be there. There are four prime shopping days before Friday. I'll find something that not even your sister could object to."
He grumbled a little more, but more for the sake of form than anything else. As they lay together on the sofa, idly watching the news, Jess' mind started to buzz with ideas.
It didn't even take her a day to find the perfect gift; a quick browse of a few environmental charity websites brought up the name of a foundation that let you sponsor endangered animals. Smugly, Jess sent the link in an email to Becker, who was out supervising the round-up of a small herd of troublesome herbivores that were chomping their way through some of Kew Gardens' more exotic specimens.
When he got back he had an extra-large bar of chocolate with him, and he broke his own rule about inappropriate touching in the workplace as he swooped in to kiss her as he handed over his black box.
"I would never have thought of it," he said admiringly. "Practical, for a good cause and very appropriate. You're brilliant, Jess."
"It was nothing, really," Jess said, blushing.
"Enough of that," Lester called from the top of the stairs. "I don't pay you to kiss your girlfriend while you're on duty, Captain. Get back to work."
Jess blushed and spun her chair away, fully aware that all eyes in the hub were on her now. Becker flashed a grin at her before schooling his features, sending a mock salute to Lester and disappearing into the lift.
Now Jess had solved the problem of the gift for the baby, all she had to do was figure out what one wore to a midnight naming ceremony at a hippy commune in Surrey. And, more importantly, what shoes went with it.
Later that week Jess had narrowed down her options to four or five different ensembles, and was debating which to pack. Becker was late home from the ARC as he had stayed into the night shift to run some drills with the men on duty. Jess had taken the opportunity to break out the face packs and pedicure set, and get thoroughly girly without Becker being around to gently make fun of her.
One day, she promised herself as she pumiced her heels, she was going to tie Becker to the bed. And before anything more mutually enjoyable happened, she was going to paint his toenails with the brightest pink polish she owned.
She was still giggling at the mental image of ten perfectly pink toenails in heavy black combat boots when the door opened.
"I'm home!" he called from the kitchen. She could hear the fridge door open and shut, and the faint tinkle of a metal bottle cap hitting the granite surface of her kitchen island.
"I'm in here," she called. "Bring me one, would you?"
The fridge door obligingly opened and shut again before Becker appeared at the doorway to her bedroom with two bottles of beer in his hands.
"You're primping," he said delightedly, walking over to deliver her beer and kiss her hello. "You never do that when I'm here."
"You always laugh at my face packs," Jess pointed out, sipping at the cold liquid.
"That's because you look like an alien in them," Becker teased, pulling a bottle of polish out of the large makeup case that usually lived under the bed. "What colour are you using?"
"I haven't decided," she said, drinking more. "It depends on what outfit I'm going to wear on Friday night, and what shoes. If it's the pink dress, then I need the peep-toe sandals, so the colour has to match the dress. If it's the brown and cream linen trousers then it'll be the gold wedges which are also peep-toe, but I can't wear brown polish so I need something more neutral. But if I wear the blue skirt…"
"You'll probably be best in a pair of wellies," Becker said, shaking his head. "I doubt that this naming ceremony will be done in their yurt, they'll probably make everybody go into the forest at the bottom of the estate. You'll be ankle deep in mud and god knows what else, and your shoes will be ruined."
"Wellies?" Jess said in disgust. Then, "A yurt?"
"It's a big, circular tent," Becker explained, waving his hands in a vaguely circular fashion. "With a wood floor and a hole in the ceiling to let the smoke from the fire out."
"But what if it's raining?" Jess asked, horrified.
"Then they'll put some tarps up in the trees and keep going," Becker said, with the grimness of tone that suggested he had witnessed this before, and he wasn't impressed. "Seriously, Jess, it'll be best to pack jeans, a jumper and pair of wellies."
"But I don't have wellies," Jess said frantically. "And how am I supposed to make a good impression for your grandmother if I turn up to a chris…a naming ceremony wearing jeans?"
"I'll be wearing jeans," Becker said, hoping to fend of a clothing-related breakdown. "She won't mind."
"I'll mind," Jess said sharply. Her face paled, and she gripped his arm tightly.
"Will we be sleeping in a yurt?" she asked.
He laughed and leaned in to kiss her.
"No," he said fondly. I rang my grandmother a few days ago. She's putting us up in the gatehouse. It will be separate bedrooms though. She doesn't quite see things the way my parents do when it comes to sex."
"That's alright," Jess said. "This way I get to keep the duvet to myself for the whole night, without having to steal it from you."
"You liar!" Becker accused, almost losing the beer he had just sipped. "You're the duvet-stealer! And your feet are always freezing!"
"Dementia, in one so young," Jess said, her voice full of fake pity. "It's so sad."
An attack on the Becker honour like that could not go unpunished. Pausing only long enough to put the beer bottles somewhere safe, Becker immediately launched a tickle campaign that had Jess shrieking and writhing underneath him. This led, somewhat predictably, to shrieking and writhing of a completely different variety.
"Wear your green dress," he said eventually, rolling off her and lying at her side. "The one that makes you look like a spearmint imperial."
"Is that a compliment?" Jess asked, amused, reaching for her beer.
"They're my favourites," Becker said, leaning over to kiss along her ribs. "You look edible in it."
"Then I'll wear the green dress," she said, shivering slightly as his lips dragged along her sensitive skin. "Shouldn't be too hard to find green wellies."
Luckily, Thursday nights were late-night shopping nights because Jess really didn't own any footwear that practical. As soon as her relief showed up she practically ran out of the ARC to the nearest shopping centre. She returned home several hours later, laden with bags and boxes and a massive bouquet of flowers.
"I can understand the shoe boxes," Becker said, shaking his head, now used to the fact that whenever Jess went shopping, for anything, she usually came back with a pair of shoes as well. "I approve of the fact that you bought my grandmother flowers, mainly because I'm an idiot and forget, and the fact that you went to Agent Provocateur makes me want to kiss your feet. But Jess, what the hell are these?"
"These" were a pair of wellington boots, but instead of being plain Hunter green, or a sensible black, they were an eye-poppingly lurid combination of bright colours, all clashing happily with each other.
They were, in fact, the perfect boots for Jess.
"You said I needed wellies, so I bought some," she shrugged, unloading the Wagamama takeaway box and stealing one of the duck gyoza.
"These aren't wellies, Jess," Becker said doubtfully. "They're…"
"A fashion statement," Jess said firmly.
"If the statement is 'I'm colour blind'…" Becker started, but he was stopped by Jess' palm being raised in his face.
"Do I tell you how best to look after your guns?" she asked, her tone dangerously mild.
"No," he sighed.
"Do I tell you how to organise and train your men?" she asked.
"No," he repeated.
"Do I…" she started.
"No," he pre-empted her.
She smiled at him.
"So don't you tell me how to dress," she said, tugging on the belt loops of his jeans and raising her head slightly to kiss him gently on the lips.
"Message received and understood," he said, kissing her back.
"Excellent," she beamed, stepping away from him just as he was getting ready to deepen the kiss. "Now put your grandmother's flowers in water while I dish up. The nice man in the florist's shop said they'd keep well overnight until we drive down tomorrow."
Becker did as he was told, wincing slightly at the garish boots as he passed them.
Thankfully Friday was an anomaly-free day, and they were able to get away from the ARC fairly promptly. The motorway was as busy as it ever was during Friday rush-hour but Jess, ever one to think ahead, had loaded her iPod with audiobooks and podcasts so they at least had something relaxing to listen to. The slow pace of the traffic meant that Becker only needed one hand for the wheel, and he reached out and gripped her right hand with his left, keeping it on his thigh.
He was doing his best to hide his nerves, but Jess could feel the tension in his body. The closer they got to the Surrey countryside, the tighter his lips got, and the muscle in his thigh got firmer and firmer.
Something had to be done, or Becker would go straight into meeting his family full of badly concealed nervous energy. She'd never seen him like this before; he'd always been the epitome of the cool headed soldier, calm under pressure.
His family must really be upsetting him, she realised, feeling a wave of protectiveness wash through her. It was up to her to make the situation better.
They had exited the motorway now, and had left the A-roads behind too. They were driving carefully down small country roads, not really big enough to fit two cars on side-by-side.
"Are we far away from Greenfields?" Jess asked.
"About ten minutes," he said. "Not too late to turn back," he said weakly.
"Pull into that lay-by," she said, gesturing to a small area to the side of the road. It was surrounded by tall hedges and abundant brambles, and offered a little privacy. Enough for what she had in mind, anyway.
"Can't you hold on for another few minutes?" Becker asked, raising an eyebrow. "There's a pub up the road a bit, if you're desperate."
"Just pull over," she said, smiling and shaking her head. "I don't need to leave the car."
Obediently, Becker pulled into the lay-by and switched off the engine. He sighed loudly, and pulled a hand through his hair.
"Before we get there, I just want to say…" he began, but he was quietened by Jess, who laid one finger over his lips.
"Sssh," she whispered. "I don't want you to say anything, unless it's my name, okay?"
He looked at her, puzzled, and then his eyes widened when her fingers went to the buttons of her blouse and started to unfasten them slowly. He watched as each little blue pearl button slipped through the hold and revealed a little more of her creamy white skin.
With a delicate shrug of her shoulders the blouse slipped off, revealing one of the new bras she had treated herself to during last night's spending spree. A delicate blue, like her blouse, the shiny satin cups lifted her breasts slightly, and emphasised their fullness.
Her hands drifted down her body to the hemline of her skirt, which she slowly hiked up. Becker swallowed heavily as inch after inch of her thighs was exposed to him, and his hand instinctively went to his crotch to readjust himself as Jess continued in her slow striptease.
Eventually stocking tops were revealed, held in place by a blue suspender belt, and a matching pair of knickers, just scraps of silk held together by two blue bows, one on either hip.
He reached out a hand to touch her, which she pushed playfully away.
"No," she reprimanded him. "You get to watch. Push your seat back as far as it will go."
He obeyed immediately, knowing a good thing when it started to take its clothes off in front of him. Jess reached over and deftly unbuttoned and unzipped his jeans, carefully pulling out his semi-erection. He gasped at the touch of her hand, and he looked around wildly.
"What…what if someone sees?" he managed as she began to lazily stroke him to full hardness.
"They'll think, who's that handsome bastard, and why does he get all the luck?" Jess said, smiling evilly. "Now, hush. Just my name, remember?"
She played with him a little longer, rolling his sac in her hand and using just enough pressure to get him moaning and throwing his head back against the headrest. His neck was exposed, and she was very tempted to suck a red mark into the skin there, to mark him out as hers before they entered the strange territory of the commune.
Not this time, she decided. Not when there would be grandmothers present.
Instead she shifted in her seat, knelt a bit precariously over the gear stick, and sucked the head of his shaft into her mouth. The position was too awkward for her to be able to do much more than that, and even in more usual surroundings she was never able to fit much of him in her mouth anyway.
He certainly had no complaints, either then or now, especially when she braced herself against the driver's side door with one hand and used the other in a firm, regular motion around the base of him. She peered up at his face, and was delighted to see it screwed up in a peculiar sort of agonised bliss. She pulled out all the stops, licking into the slit, massaging the bundle of nerves on the underside of the head, humming as she took him as deep as she could.
He had a hand on her back, stroking the skin he could reach as he panted out her name. The other was in her hair, not pushing on her head but just letting the weight of it sit there. She liked that, and it had taken him a little while to understand why. While pushing or trying to control her movements was a no-no, the feeling of his hands there gave her a connection to him that she loved. Becker, grateful that she was willing to do this at all, had no problems with it whatsoever, although he was keen to point out that she seemed to have no problem with grabbing his hair and yanking his head into place when he returned the favour.
Her argument that it was such 'lovely hair', combined with a fluttering of her eyelashes was usually enough to win him over. He really didn't mind that much to begin with, but it was always fun to watch Jess try to be coquettish.
There was nothing of the innocent flirt about her now as she stepped up her movements, dragging him inexorably closer to the peak of his pleasure. He tried to warn her, but she had pretty much robbed him of his power of speech by this point and a quick mischievous flash in her blue eyes had told him that she knew exactly was about to happen anyway.
He groaned out her name as he came, trying not to make too much of a mess of her. He slumped back in his seat as Jess produced a packet of tissues from God only knew where, cleaned him up and tucked him back inside his jeans. By the time he got his breath back enough to pull her over into his lap and kiss her soundly, she had pulled her skirt back down, re-buttoned her blouse and was sucking on a spearmint imperial.
"You'll be the death of me, Jessica Parker," he said in admiration.
"Ah, but what a way to go," she teased, tilting the rear view mirror so she could see her hair in it. Whipping a small brush from her handbag she quickly repaired the damage to her hairstyle, and after a quick dab of lipstick she looked every inch the immaculate young lady again.
"Come on then," she said imperiously, sliding back into her seat. "Your grandmother's expecting us in time for dinner."
"What? Oh, right," Becker said, fiddling with his seat until he was back in position again
He pulled back onto the road with a hint of a smile on his face, and the hand that held hers was loose and relaxed. His whole body, in fact, lacked the terrible rigidity that had been developing all the way down the motorway.
Jess sighed happily. That was the first hurdle successfully cleared, anyway.
"Wow," Jess said, her jaw dropping as she stared at the mansion in front of them. "Is that really your grandmother's house?"
"Yes," Becker said, negotiating the corners of the gravel drive. "But she leases it to the commune. She lives in the gatehouse, over there."
The gatehouse turned out to be a charming three storey house, immaculately presented with Georgian bay windows and masses of flowers growing in window boxes on every sill. The woodwork was painted a glossy white, and the front door was pillar-box red. More flowers grew in hanging baskets near the door, and in large stone planters either side of the entrance way.
"Oh, it's so pretty," Jess breathed, staring at the gorgeous house.
"She's a keen gardener," Becker told her, parking the car. "She'll love the flowers you chose."
As soon as the car came to a halt, the red door of the house was thrown open and an older woman came bustling out. She had white hair, twisted back and secured with some very dependable looking pins, and was wearing a neat pair of black trousers with a dusky pink twin set of light pullover and cardigan. Jess' inner shopper immediately noted the fine cashmere blend of the pink pullover, and the elegant cut and drape of the trousers. She'd lay money on the fact that the older woman's shoes were Ferragamos.
Jeans and a jumper, with wellies. Thank God she hadn't listened to a word Becker had said about clothing. Never trust a man who dresses in black all day for fashion advice, she told herself wryly.
She opened her car door as Becker wrapped his arms around his grandmother for a very affectionate hug, and busied herself with taking the luggage out of the boot of the car as they embraced.
"Jess, I'll get that," he scolded, letting go of his grandmother.
"My arms won't fall off if I lift my own suitcase," she sighed. She had only been trying to give them a little time together to catch up.
"They might, you've packed a lot of clothes for a weekend visit," he teased, putting an arm around her shoulders and guiding her towards his grandmother.
"Gran, this is my girlfriend, Jessica Parker. Jess, this is my grandmother, Rosemary Becker."
"I'm very pleased to meet you, Mrs Becker," Jess said, as the older lady swooped down to peck her on the cheek.
"Not as much as I am to meet you!" she exclaimed. "I've been nagging Hilary for an age about bringing you down to see me, but he always seems to have some excuse."
"Well, our job keeps us very busy," Jess hedged, glancing sideways at Becker. "Getting away isn't always easy."
"Well you're here now, and I'm glad of it," Rosemary declared. "You must call me Rosemary, my dear. Hilary, be a good boy and take Jessica's bags up to the pretty pink bedroom. You're in your old room at the far end of the hall."
Becker obediently picked up the suitcases and entered the house and clattered up the stairs to deposit the bags.
"Oh, I nearly forgot," Jess said, reaching into the car. "These are for you, as a thank-you for letting me stay this weekend."
"You shouldn't have," Rosemary said delightedly, examining the bouquet. "Oh, smell that gardenia. That's just beautiful. Come with me and I'll put them in some water."
Jess followed her inside the house and into a large sitting room, high-ceilinged and airy. Rosemary gestured to the sofa and Jess sat while Rosemary fussed about with a crystal vase and a jug of water. On the table in front of her was a delicate china tea service, and a small cake stand with a delicious looking sponge on it. Jess' stomach growled and she blushed.
"I'm sorry," she said, "it's been a while since lunch."
"All the more reason why you should have cake, then," Rosemary said, placing the vase on a small occasional table in the bay window. "We won't be eating for a few hours. Hilary's parents are in the middle of delivering a class up at the big house, and Poppy's having a devil of a time with the computer there, so she's rung to say that she'll be late too."
"Did you make it yourself?" Becker asked, coming into the room and dropping down on the sofa next to Jess.
"Don't be ridiculous, dear, you know I can't work an oven to save my life," Rosemary replied, joining them in a nearby armchair. "I bought it from the farm shop along the road. Here, tuck in."
She cut them generous slices of cake, and poured the tea.
"I must say, those are smashing shoes, Jessica," Rosemary said admiringly, looking at Jess' electric blue wedges.
"Thank you, I was thinking the same about yours," Jess said truthfully. "Are they Ferragamos?"
"They are!" Rosemary said, looking impressed. "A few years old now, though."
"Vintage, then," Jess said. "Very fashionable at the moment."
"Oh lord, please don't say that you're going to be talking about shoes all weekend," Becker groaned. "Gran, Jess has about a hundred pairs of shoes, and they're all as…eclectic as these are."
"Sounds wonderful!" Rosemary said cheerfully.
"Sounds like a waste to me," said a voice from the doorway. It was not a pleasant voice; it held a distinct tone of superiority and disgust with the world in general. It belonged to a woman of average height, with long dark hair pulled back in a braid. She wore a baggy, shapeless skirt and a jumper that was obviously handmade. The knitting was neat and of even tension, but the bland beige colour of the wool drained the woman's face, making it appear sallow. She held a small child of indeterminate gender by the hand, and had a baby wrapped in a sling around her chest.
"Rainbow," Rosemary said, "Oh good, you brought the children with you. Hello Artemis! Come and have some of Granny's cake!"
The small child at Rainbow's side darted forward, but her mother grabbed her hand and held her back.
"Is it organic?" Rainbow demanded suspiciously? "Where do they source their sugar from?"
"From Tate and Lyle, the same as everybody else," Becker said tightly. "For God's sake, let the kid have a slice of cake."
"If people cared more about the air miles their food travelled, and the huge affect that had on its carbon footprint…" Rainbow began, and Jess could see Becker just switch off mentally.
"The cake's been made now," Jess said diplomatically. "Surely it would be a waste of food just to let it sit there and go stale."
Anger flashed on Rainbow's face as Becker smirked unpleasantly next to Jess. Internally she rolled her eyes and wished that she hadn't somehow waded into what was obviously a fractured relationship between brother and sister.
Rainbow sniffed disparagingly, but she let go of Artemis' hand, and she immediately flew to her great-grandmother's side. Hoisting the child onto her lap, Rosemary cut her a small slice of cake and watched in delight as the child proceeded to shovel it into her mouth.
"The amount of food this country wastes every day is criminal," Rainbow said, watching with narrowed eyes as Artemis finished her cake and batted her eyes at her obliging grandmother, who gave her another slice.
"Hi," said Jess, extending her hand. "I'm Jess Parker. I'm Hilary's girlfriend."
"I'm Rainbow," the other woman said, ignoring Jess' hand as she unhooked the sling around her neck and brought out the baby.
"What a gorgeous baby," Jess lied.
Poor Tiger Fire wasn't the most attractive of newborns. He had a head roughly the shape of a potato, and hadn't yet lost the Winston Churchill look that most new babies had soon after their birth. What little dark hair he had stuck straight up from the top of his head, giving him the impression of a disgruntled toilet brush.
But all babies are, in their mother's eyes at least, the most beautiful creatures in the world.
"Thank you," Rainbow said grudgingly.
"And such an original name," Jess ploughed on, determined to be on good terms with all of Becker's family. "You must have put a lot of thought into it."
"His father spent a lot of time communing with his animal totem before his name was revealed to us," Rainbow said. "But as soon as he was born, we knew we had the right name. He looks like a Tiger, doesn't he?"
"Actually," Becker began, but Jess kicked him sharply in the ankle with her shoe, and he settled down into the sofa again without provoking World War Three.
Tiger picked this moment to start to cry, the high and piercing wail of the newborn that had an empty stomach and wants to know exactly what the world was prepared to do about rectifying the situation. Rainbow immediately shifted her grip on him, whipped up her jumper, unhooked her bra and attached the child, who began suckling eagerly.
"I'm just going to..go. Outside," Becker said, clearly uncomfortable with the sight of his sister's breast.
"It's a perfectly natural process," Rainbow sniffed as he pulled himself out of the sofa.
"So's going to the toilet, but I don't particularly want to see you doing that, either," he said firmly.
He squeezed Jess' shoulder in apology and hurried from the room.
Rosemary coughed delicately.
"It wouldn't have killed you to go into the other room, dear. Or covered yourself with a scarf."
"Hilary's always been unnaturally repressed," Rainbow said scornfully. "It's no wonder he's become an instrument of the right wing fascist elite."
"You have a beautiful home, Rosemary," Jess said quickly. "How long have you lived here?"
"Thank you Jessica," Rosemary said, ignoring Rainbow and the noisy slurping noises coming from Tiger. "I've been here in the gatehouse for about ten years. Before that I used to live in the big house. The house belonged to my husband's family, and after he died when my daughter, Caroline, was little, we stayed there, rattling around like two peas in an enormous pod. Then, when she was older, she and her husband Derek founded Greenfields on the back lawn. Eventually it made sense to lease the house to the commune so they could make use of the space inside to hold their classes and retreats. The money I make from it goes towards the maintenance of the house."
"Mum changed her name to Athena," Rainbow snapped. "And you know Dad's never actually married her. We don't believe in the patriarchal ownership of women at Greenfields," she said to Jess. "You can't equate the love between two souls to a legal contract."
"So, you're not married then?" Jess asked Rainbow.
She shook her head smugly.
"Wolf would never try and cage me in something as suffocating as marriage."
"My sister was almost married," Jess said cheerfully, trying desperately to lighten the mood in the room. "I was a bridesmaid."
"Almost, dear?" Rosemary said, wiping Artemis' mouth.
"She changed her mind at the last minute, thank goodness," Jess said, sipping her tea. "At the altar, actually."
"Gosh, that sounds dramatic!" Rosemary replied, smiling broadly.
"Very," Jess said, smiling back. "One of the other bridesmaids tried to halt the wedding by revealing that Jasper had been cheating on Anna with her and one of the other bridesmaids. Then some, er, other revelations were made and Anna ended up punching him over the altar rail."
She laughed, remembering the wonderful moment when Anna vaulted the rail to get a few more shots at Jasper before she was pulled away.
"It was the first time that, er, Hilary met my family," she said, unused to saying his name with other people around to hear it. "I was a bit worried that it would scare him off."
"Oh, he's made of a lot sterner stuff than that," Rosemary said dismissively. "Please say that he made himself useful on the day."
"He was amazing," Jess said, gushing with praise. "He helped my brothers get rid of all the wedding guests, which wasn't an easy job. Then he looked after my grandmother and great aunts until we could find transportation for everybody back home. He was wonderful."
"Such a good boy," Rosemary said, obviously pleased. "Your poor mother, dear, she must have appreciated the help."
Jess cast her mind back to the eventful day. All she could really remember about her mother was the amount of vodka she'd managed to consume both before and after the disastrous wedding service.
"She was definitely affected by what happened," Jess said truthfully. "It's all a bit of a blur to her now."
It was all a blur to her then, as well, but the number of Screwdrivers she had consumed was a direct result of the amount of stress she was under as the mother of a bride who quite clearly wanted to be anywhere but at the abbey, marrying Jasper. Jess couldn't blame her; the thought of Jasper as a member of the family was such that alcohol really was the only solution.
There was a popping noise as Tiger released his mother's nipple, a belch as he was winded, and then he fell asleep.
"Such a waste of money," Rainbow said, scowling. "Special dresses that cost a fortune and flowers that have been ripped from the earth to wither and die for the sake of decoration. I don't see why anybody bothers with the whole thing."
"That's not very tolerant of you, dear," Rosemary said blithely.
Jess blinked. She had been thinking the exact same thing, but hadn't dared say it. She didn't want Becker's sister to hate her immediately. Jess got the impression that she and Rainbow were never going to see eye to eye, but she did want to get on with the woman, just to make Becker's life easier.
"Everybody does things differently. Isn't that the ethos of Greenfields? Respecting the diversity of each other?"
The older woman's eyes twinkled as she discouraged Artemis from grabbing her gold necklace with sticky fingers. Rainbow scowled and said nothing. Jess smothered a laugh. Clearly Rosemary derived some pleasure from needling her granddaughter when she got to be a little too holier-than-thou.
Luckily, the tense scene was interrupted by the front door opening.
"Gran?" a female voice called. "Is that Hilary's car outside?"
Another woman came into the room. Jess could see the family resemblance immediately; she had Becker's eyes, and dark colouring. She was tall too, taller than Rainbow and dressed in a colourful scarlet linen tunic over black linen cut-off trousers. She wore a rope of tiny, colourful beads as a necklace, and more at her wrists.
"Poppy!" Rosemary said, pleased. "Poppy, this is Jessica, Hilary's girlfriend. Jessica, this is Poplar, whom we call Poppy. She'd Hilary's eldest sister."
Poplar, unlike, Rainbow, seemed to have no problems with smiling. Jess stood up to shake her hand, but instead was pulled into a big hug.
"So nice to meet you!" Poplar said, squeezing Jess tight. "Hilary never brings his girlfriends home, you must be really special to him."
"Thank you," Jess said, after being released from her hug. "I'm very glad to be here."
"I would have been here to welcome you with Gran," Poplar said, sitting next to Jess on the sofa. Unlike her sister, she didn't seem to have a problem with the cake, helping herself to a slice. "But the computer up in the big house has decided to break down. I don't know what's the matter with it."
She sighed, obviously frustrated.
"We've got a large party booked in for tomorrow, and it's going to be very difficult to house and feed them properly if I can't get access to their details."
"I could take a look at it for you if you like," Jess offered. "I'm pretty good with computers."
"I'd take her up on it if I were you," a voice said from the doorway. "Jess is brilliant with computers."
"Hilary!" Poplar was up from her seat in a moment to swamp her brother with a hug. "You're looking…relaxed, actually."
"That's all down to Jess too," Becker said, catching Jess' eye and winking. "She's a very relaxing travelling companion."
"Well, if you're not too tired," Poplar began, looking at Jess imploringly.
"Not at all," Jess said, putting down her cup. "I'd be happy to."
"I'll bring her back as soon as I can," Poplar promised, whisking Jess out of the door. "See you later!"
They headed out of the house and up the gravel drive towards the large house. It was beautiful, a very well preserved example of Georgian architecture.
"Do you live in the house?" Jess asked, staring up at the imposing structure.
"Not me personally," Poplar explained as they entered the wide double doors and walked across the black and white tiled floor of the lobby towards a large desk. "We have a lot of classes and workshops going on in here and in the grounds, and guests are welcome to stay either in here or outside in one of the yurts. I prefer to stay outside, closer to the elements, but we understand that not everybody feels the same way. Our dining hall is in the house, where we all share our meals, and we also have a small shop selling some of the commune's extra produce."
"It's very…" Jess paused, searching for a word that wasn't going to offend Poplar.
"Organised?" she offered, laughing.
"Yes," Jess said gratefully. "When Hilary said that you lived in a commune, I didn't quite expect this."
"Oh, when we were growing up, this wasn't in operation," Poplar explained. "Back then Greenfields was a commune in a more traditional sense, people rejecting a modern lifestyle and trying to live in a more harmonious way with nature. It took a while, and we made our mistakes, but eventually the community was settled enough for us to consider sharing our knowledge and experience with others. The money we make gets put back into the commune – improving our crops, paying for vet bills when our animals get sick, that sort of thing."
"It sounds really nice," Jess said truthfully.
"Well, we think so," Poplar said. "And growing up here made me see both the good and bad sides of it, so I took some college courses in business skills and money management, and helped organise us. Hence the computer, which is currently not cooperating."
She led Jess behind the empty reception desk to a small office. In there was the oldest computer Jess had ever seen.
"Wow," she said, taking in the make and model. "I didn't realise they made these anymore."
"They probably don't," Poplar sighed. "But at the start, this was all we could afford, and since it was working, I didn't see the point in spending money on a newer model when the irrigation system Dad was working on needed to be funded. But now…"
"I think that you'd benefit from something that was made in this century, not the last one," Jess said, sitting at the keyboard. "It doesn't have to be state of the art, but it will be more reliable than this."
She started her diagnostic on the computer. Polar excused herself to talk to some members of the commune who had knocked on the window and requested her help getting some goats out of the runner bean canes.
It took some work, but Jess was able to coax the computer back into life. She wasn't sure that it would survive for very much longer, so she hooked it up to the equally ancient printer and made a hard copy of the information it stored about bookings for the commune for the next few weeks.
"I think that the next time you switch it off, it may not boot back up again," she warned Poplar, who had returned looking slightly the worse for wear after her goat adventure. "If I were you I'd leave it on until you're able to secure a new computer."
"It's really that bad?" Poplar asked, chewing on a thumbnail nervously. "I don't really feel comfortable wasting electricity like that. We're on solar panels here, but…"
"It's that bad," Jess said plainly. "If you want to shut it down, you can, but I'm not sure that I could rescue it again."
"We'll have to do it then," Poplar sighed. "I'll bring the matter up at the next communal meeting and we'll vote on what to do."
"You need to vote about replacing office equipment?" Jess asked, puzzled.
Poplar laughed. "It's clear you've never lived anywhere like this. We discuss and vote on everything. Everything is open, there are no secrets here."
Jess smiled and nodded, and thought about Becker as a young child here. He must really have been uncomfortable with the lifestyle to choose boarding school and the army over it.
"Come on, let's get back to Gran's. Leave Rainbow and Hilary alone for too long and they'll be at each others' throats."
"I got the feeling that they didn't get on," Jess said hesitantly.
"They fought like cat and dog when they were children," Polar said. "They're far too alike for their own goods."
"Alike?" Jess said in disbelief.
"Oh, I know, Rainbow seems to be the very worst type of pious hippy, and Hilary joined the SAS, in the name of all that's holy. But if look past their lifestyle choices, you'll find that they're both very determined, very strong-willed people who like to be in charge of things. Neither of them take criticism very well. I'm like that too, of course, but my partner has managed to control my excesses a bit."
Poplar's face changed, and a look of dreamy bliss crossed it.
"Danny's with the older kids now. We've got enough here to have our own school, and Danny's our resident teacher," Poplar explained. "Yurt and board in exchange for teaching the kids to pass external exams. They don't have to have them if they want to stay working on the commune, but if they want to leave they'll need some formal qualifications."
"Do many people leave?" Jess asked.
"We've had maybe six like Hilary, who left and established lives elsewhere," Poplar said. "They come back to visit occasionally, but communal life isn't for them. There are some that dip in and out, but most people here have joined because our lifestyle is something that they believe in. We have about fifty adults living here, and twelve children of different ages. Plus guests, of course, that come for our workshops."
"I didn't realise that there were that many people here," Jess admitted.
"You'll meet everyone later at the naming ceremony," Poplar told her.
She looked down at Jess' shoes.
"Er, I don't want to be rude or anything, but you might want to change your shoes for the ceremony," Poppy said kindly. "It's not going to rain tonight, but it has been wet for the last few nights, and the ground's a bit muddy. They look expensive, and I wouldn't want you to ruin them."
"Oh, I've been warned, thank you," Jess said, laughing. "I've bought myself some wellies especially for the occasion."
"Oh good," Poplar said, opening the front door to her grandmother's house. "Because they're really quite something."
She eyed the electric blue strappy wedges with the look of someone who lived happily in Birkenstock sandals most of the year around.
"Shoes are my biggest weakness," Jess admitted as they joined the crowd of people now in the sitting room.
"There's nothing wrong with that," Rosemary said genially. She was now holding the sleeping Tiger. "Shoes maketh the woman, and all that."
"Jess!" Becker said, looking relieved. "I'd like you to meet my parents."
His lips twitched a little and he looked a little strained as he said, "This is my mother, Athena, and my father, Grey Owl. Mum, Dad, this is Jess Parker."
Jess looked at the people in front of her. Athena, nee Caroline, could pull off Athena, she judged. She had perfect posture, a natural air of command and leadership and heartbreaking beauty. Grey Owl, however, seemed like a natural Derek, and no amount of faux-Native American names would ever shake loose the innate Derek-ness of him.
"So pleased to meet you," Jess said, extending her hand.
"We don't shake hands here! We hug!" Grey Owl said warmly, enveloping her in a warm embrace. Athena followed moments later.
"Oh," she said, when releasing Jess. "Oh, you poor dear. How long ago was it?"
"How long ago was what?" Jess asked, a little unsure.
"Your traumatic incident," Athena said, studying the area around the top of Jess' head intently. "Your aura is still infected."
She started making pecking motions around Jess' hair, as if she were a monkey grooming another for lice.
"I'm surprised you didn't say anything, Rainbow," she scolded her younger daughter. "You must have seen the state of Jess' aura when she came in, you could have started cleansing her immediately!"
Jess looked to Becker for help.
"Some people think that cleansing the aura of a stranger is a bit off-putting Mum," he sighed, drawing Jess closer to him and out of the reach of his mother. He slipped a reassuring arm around Jess' waist, and the weight of it was comforting.
"We'll do a thorough session tomorrow," Athena said briskly, still staring at the space above Jess' head. "Until then, wear this, Jess."
She reached behind her neck and undid the clasp of one of her necklaces. It was a finely worked silver chain, with a simple cage of twisted silver wire that held a blue stone.
"It's blue lace agate," Athena said helpfully. "It helps to focus on the inner love within you, and helps transform and heal wounds."
"Thank you," Jess said, taking the necklace from the older woman. She ignored Becker's huff of displeasure as she asked him to fasten the clasp. She didn't believe for a minute that the lump of rock could do what Athena claimed it could, but if it made her boyfriend's mother happy, then she'd go along with it. Besides, she thought, it matched her blouse beautifully, and wouldn't look out of place with her outfit for the naming ceremony.
Seats were found for the two newcomers, more tea was poured and conversation started up again. Athena and Grey Owl asked her questions about her job and family, and Jess answered as honestly as she could, given the strictures of the Official Secrets Act. They seemed pleased to meet her, and Jess relaxed slightly. Poplar sang her praises about coaxing the old computer back to life, and Becker told them all how good she was with the systems at work. Wolf, Rainbow's partner, said very little but played with Artemis, keeping her amused and relatively quiet. He had incredibly long blond hair and smelled vaguely of patchouli oil and appeared to be very laid back and relaxed.
Rainbow, in contrast, seemed very tightly-wound and made several comments that Jess thought were veiled insults. When Poplar said that Jess recommended buying a new computer, Rainbow spoke disparagingly about conspicuous consumption. When Athena pressed Jess about her traumatic incident and Jess reluctantly said that she'd suffered a severe allergy attack, Rainbow spoke at length about the uselessness of modern medicine, and how allergies were simply a result of people living in disharmony with the natural environment.
Jess itched to defend herself, but refused to rise to Rainbow's bait. She wanted to make a good impression on Becker's family, especially considering the fact that her family were about ready to adopt him and her nieces were lining up to replace her in his affections.
Becker, however, had no such compunctions about being rude to his sister.
"That's bollocks, Rainbow. You don't have the first clue about the situation. Jess almost died because of her allergy. If she hadn't got that epi-pen in time…"
Jess grabbed hold of his hand; Becker had half-risen out of his seat and his tone was so menacing that Freyja started to whimper.
"But I did," Jess said firmly, pulling him back down. "You got me the medicine I needed, and you saved my life," she said. She looked around at his family. "I can't tell you the whole story," she said apologetically. "But Hilary put himself into a potentially lethal situation to get me the adrenaline I needed. Without him I'd be dead."
"Well done, son," Grey Owl said, from the other side of the room. "Saving someone's life is an amazing thing."
"Thanks, Dad," Becker said, not quite meeting the older man's gaze.
"Good karma," his father went on. "You'll need that, after all that killing in Afghanistan."
As she was still holding his hand, Jess could feel the muscles in his arm tighten, and a fierce look came into his eyes. Luckily, before he could say another word, Rosemary stepped in.
"It was a long drive from London," she said briskly. "And you'll both want to freshen up a little before dinner, I expect. Hilary, why don't you show Jessica to her room?"
"Certainly," Becker said through clenched teeth, and towed Jess from the room and up the stairs.
He led her down the corridor to a room at the far end and threw open the door to reveal a charming guest room decorated in a very pale pink. Pink wallpaper lined the walls, with white painted woodwork. A darker pink carpet was laid on the floor, and the bedspread matched it in colour.
Becker threw himself on the bed and pulled a pillow over his face. Jess sighed and clambered up there with him. She tucked herself into his side and waited for him to come out from under the pillow.
"I had a good chat with Poplar," Jess said when he emerged a few minutes later. "She's very nice. And your mother and grandmother are just lovely. It was very kind of your mother to let me wear her necklace."
Becker sighed heavily.
"She tried to clean your aura, Jess," he said, putting his face into her shoulder. "The first girlfriend I ever bring home to meet her, and the first thing she does, before even saying hello, is to trot out that mystical mumbo-jumbo."
"Well," Jess said reasonably. "I have suffered a traumatic event. I take it that she didn't know about it beforehand?"
Becker shook his head.
"I don't believe in this sort of thing," Jess said, lifting up the pendant to look at it. "But it's harmless, and if wearing a pretty necklace makes her happy, then I'll wear it. And it is a bit weird how she knew I'd almost died."
Becker muttered something unintelligible into her shoulder. She reached up and stroked his hair.
"I take it you and your dad don't see eye to eye about the army thing, then," she said eventually.
"He was the one that took it the hardest," Becker admitted. "He's really anti-war, Jess. He goes on marches about it. He banned us from having toy guns when we were little. He hates violence of any kind. So when I said I wanted to join the army, he didn't see it as me wanting to protect people. He saw it as me wanting to kill, and that was a slap in the face."
"It's a pity that you can't say anything about what you do now," Jess commiserated. "Or tell him that you don't use conventional weapons."
Becker shook his head.
"He'll never forgive me for joining up," he said, with some finality. "I could resign my commission, move back down here and spend the rest of my life working in the greenhouses and eating a vegan diet and he'd never forgive me for the fact that I've had to kill people."
This was something that they had never talked about; Becker's life before joining the ARC was laid out in his personnel file, but they'd never discussed his time served abroad, or what he had done to earn the medals he kept locked away in a small safe in his flat along with his hand gun.
"Have you forgiven yourself?" Jess asked.
Beside her, Becker stiffened slightly. She continued to stroke his hair rhythmically until his muscles lost their tension again.
"It's not something you ever forget," he said softly. "I remember the face of every man I've killed Jess, and their faces will stay with me until the day I die. I only ever killed when there was no other option, when the risk to the men under my command was too great, or they were about to do something awful to innocent people. But killing even one man is one man too many, and I've killed more than once. I'm not sure you can ever forgive yourself for that."
Jess had nothing to say to that; what could she, Jess Parker, owner of a hundred pairs of silly shoes, say? Nothing in her life experience matched his. She could never understand fully the burden he carried around with him each day.
All she could do was hold him as tight as she could, and love him as hard as she could, and whisper words of quiet devotion in his ear.
"For what it's worth," she said gently, "I forgive you. Without you I would have died; because of what you do for the ARC every day, people in this country are alive. The lives you save outnumber the lives you've taken, and that has to count for something."
"I hope so," he whispered. "I really do."
Dinner was a noisy affair, taken up in the big house with the rest of the residents of the commune. Most of the ingredients were grown in the grounds, Athena told Jess proudly, using organic methods. Poplar told Jess about the struggle to get official organic certification for their produce. Now they had it, they could sell their excess at nearby farmer's markets and in their shop that contained other things that commune members made to raise money for their home.
The food was delicious. Vegetarian, naturally, with options for vegans and others with limited diets, but by far the best that Jess had ever tasted.
"Abby would love it here," she told Becker quietly. "Veggie food, room for Sid and Nancy to go free range…"
"Yeah, she'd fit right in," he said, smiling. "Can't see Connor taking to life in a yurt though."
"It'd be luxury compared to what they put up with," Jess reminded him, careful not to say too much.
"No wi-fi, no Sky tv, no Xbox," Becker said, shaking his head. "He'd never willingly do that again."
"True," Jess said, laughing. For the first week after moving into her flat, Connor had camped in front of the television watching hour after hour of programs he had missed. When he found out Jess had all of the Doctor Who episodes he'd not seen stored on her Sky box he'd actually broken down in tears and hugged her. Abby had missed all this, as she'd moved into the bathroom and was in the middle of a torrid affair with Jess's hot water supply.
Dessert was a vegan carrot cake that Jess would happily have eaten her body weight in, and frozen yoghurt that was far superior to the stuff she bought from the supermarket. She made the mistake of saying so to Rainbow, who started in on a huge tirade about the danger of over reliance on supermarkets, and how they were slowly taking over the world by forcing small businesses out of the marketplace
Jess actually thought that a lot of what Rainbow said was right; it was just unfortunate that Rainbow's tone was one of snide moral superiority, and that particular tone made Jess want to punch her in the nose.
She decided that it was better if she didn't, though. Not on the first visit to Becker's family, anyway.
"You're right, Rainbow," she said brightly, as Rainbow paused for breath. "I really wish that I could shop at individual stores more often than I do. It is worrying how much of a share in the marketplace chains like Tesco have. But then, there's another reason why doing all your food shopping in one place has developed, hasn't it?"
"There is?" Rainbow said, a little puzzled at Jess interrupting her so politely.
"Changes in the number of women who worked full-time jobs in the last half of the twentieth century were immense," Jess said, remembering a sociology lecture from university. "Also, more women continued their education to university level in far higher numbers than in pre-war Britain. As such, women, who were and still are the primary shoppers for a household, had to change their shopping patterns. You can't take the time to visit a butcher, a baker and a greengrocer, often in separate streets, when you work nine to five, or worse, more irregular shift patterns."
Jess smiled sweetly at Rainbow, who looked at her with the confusion a cat gets when the mice turn up to the game armed with a cannon and a lit match.
"In short, Rainbow, the release of women from menial drudgery in the home into a world where they can extend their educational and aspirational horizons has changed the way the world works. It's affected many things, and food shopping is just one of them. I dislike Tesco as much as the next person, but if the choice is either having time to shop in eight different stores, or having the education I need to do the job I love, I think I'd choose Tesco every time. Oh, is there more frozen yoghurt left? Can you pass the bowl, please?"
Wordlessly, Rainbow handed the bowl of strawberry flavoured frozen yoghurt over.
"This is so good," Jess marvelled scooping some out. "Do you grow the strawberries yourself too?"
Athena took over the conversation then, and started talking about the many varieties of fruits and vegetables that the commune grew.
"I thought I loved you before," Becker whispered into her ear. "But I was wrong. Nothing can top what I'm feeling for you now. You're a goddess."
"Oh shush," Jess whispered back, feeling a little embarrassed. "I wasn't rude, was I?"
"No," Becker said, grinning. "You weren't! That's the amazing thing, you really weren't. If I had said anything I would have been in the middle of a huge argument right now, but you were polite. And it still worked! You shut her up by using feminism! The persecution of women and the role of supermarkets in the global economy are her two main pressure points. And you just used one to explain the other!"
Becker looked far more cheerful that he had since they'd arrived, a fact that hadn't escaped Poplar, who smiled and winked at Jess. Her partner, Danny, had arrived just as the meal started and had spent the meal alternately eating and staring adoringly at Poplar.
"Poplar seems smitten," Jess said quietly to Becker. "She hasn't taken her eyes off her girlfriend since she arrived."
"Danny's really nice," Becker replied, stealing a spoonful of Jess' frozen yoghurt. "She's good for Poppy. Poppy's really determined, really strong willed, and Danny helps her to calm down a bit."
Jess started to laugh.
"That's just how she described you!" she said, laying a hand on his arm. "You and Rainbow both, actually. She's right, too."
Becker sighed. "Poppy usually is. Apparently that's the role of the eldest sister, to be right about everything all of the time."
"Us little ones will have to stick together then," she told him, winking.
"Watch who you're calling little," he growled, pretending to be affronted.
Underneath the tablecloth, Jess let the hand that had been resting on her leg creep over and inch up his thigh.
"Jess!" he hissed, a spot of colour coming into his cheeks. His eyes darted around the large, busy room, but nobody seemed to be paying any particular attention to them.
"Hmm," Jess said, squeezing experimentally. "Not so little after all!"
"Jessica," Becker hissed, caught between arousal and mortification.
"I think you should show me around the house," Jess mused, keeping her fingers exactly where they were. "A place as old as this, and as big as this…there must be some quiet corners tucked away. Private places."
"Yeah," he said, his eyes a little glazed.
"Good," she said, pleased.
Around them plates and cutlery were being collected by the people who had drawn dishwashing duty for the evening. Families and friends were getting up and leaving the room to get ready for the naming ceremony later that night. Jess started to rise from her seat, but Becker quickly grabbed hold of her arm and urged her back into her seat.
"Not yet," he said, clearly embarrassed. "Er…give me a few minutes."
Grinning evilly, Jess sat back in her seat and started to describe, in detail, the new pair of shoes she had her eye on in her favourite boutique in the city.
"Not helping," he ground out through clenched teeth.
She kept grinning, knowing full well the effect that a pair of shoes on her otherwise naked body had on him.
"I know," she purred, and the look of satisfaction on her face was enough to make him smile back.
"Quickly," he muttered, and jumped up out of his seat.
"Just going to give Jess a tour of the house before the naming ceremony later," he announced to his parents and grandmother. He positioned Jess strategically in front of him, blocking his midsection from view, and kept her there as they made their way from the room.
He directed her away from the noisy hall and down the corridor, then up a flight of stairs. Jess quickly got lost in a maze of corridors and stairwells, each a little less well-kept and dustier than the last. They climbed up into the top of the house, until Jess thought they must be in the attic.
Becker led her into a small corridor that had clearly been unused for some time, if the creaking of the door and the thick layer of dust on the floor was any indication. There were three windows set into one wall, large panes of glass that showed wonderful views of the quiet countryside around them.
"I used to come here when I was younger," Becker told Jess. "When I'd argued with my mum and dad, or didn't want to do my jobs from the list."
He pulled a dustsheet off an old chaise longue that had seen better days and settled them both on it.
"It used to be the servant quarters up here," he told her. "But the days of country houses and live in servants are well over. They're all just storage rooms now, full of junk. We used to play dress-up in the clothes in the wardrobes."
"Clothes?" Jess said, sitting up eagerly. "How old?"
"Too old," Becker said firmly, guiding her back down onto the chaise again, and rolling on top of her. "I'm more interested in more modern clothes."
She laughed as his hands tugged at the hem of her skirt, pulling it upwards.
"For example," he said, dropping little kisses along the side of her neck, "these knickers you're wearing seem to be most unusual."
His nimble fingers found one satin bow on a hip, and then another.
"Just one little pull on these ribbons, and they just fall off," he marvelled, "See? Whoosh. Straight off."
He plucked the flimsy scraps of silk off Jess and threw them away over his shoulder.
"Much better than those old fashioned bloomers," he said cheerfully. "Progress, Jess."
"I'm glad you like them," she said, a little breathless as he moved his fingers carefully between her folds.
"I prefer you with them off," he told her, shifting down the chaise until his head was level with her thighs, and then the talking stopped.
He must have been sure that they were going to be left alone up here because he didn't hush her or urge her to be quiet once as he very, very slowly covered every inch of Jess' exposed skin with kisses. His hot breath blew over the most sensitive part of her and she screamed and clutched at his (lovely) hair when he stopped teasing her with gentle caresses and started to suck and lick in earnest. When he combined that with the sudden insertion of one then two fingers, Jess' body surrendered to the pleasure that had been building up low in her stomach. She rode the waves of her orgasm , closing her eyes and dropping her head back, exposing her neck to more of Becker's delicious kisses. His hands drifted up her body, cupping her breasts though the thin material of her blouse and pinching her nipples with just enough force to hurt in that really delicious way that made her moan and beg him to do it again.
She writhed underneath him, her eyes still shut, and he pulled away from her long enough for the familiar noise of a condom wrapper being ripped open to be heard over the rushing of her blood in her ears. There was some shifting of material, and then his hands were back on her, urging her legs up higher as his thick length slid slowly into her wetness.
It was his turn to moan as he seated himself fully inside her, and he moaned even louder when Jess deliberately clenched down hard around him. That earned her a swift thrust of his hips, and then they began their usual teasing round of lovemaking, each determined to get the other to gasp, moan and scream first.
Jess demanded, and received, a punishing pace; Becker's hips snapped back and forth with no little degree of force as she taunted him to go harder, and faster. Unfortunately, the ancient chaise longue just couldn't keep up with the demands of its occupants and just as Jess could feel her second orgasm of the evening begin to curl deliciously around in her stomach, two of the supporting legs snapped.
She gave a yell of surprise as her end of the chaise suddenly tilted backwards; Becker's eyes widened and he swore loudly as he was thrown forwards unexpectedly over Jess. However, no true SAS man would be thrown off his stride by something as commonplace as furniture breakage; there was a reason that their motto was 'who dares wins".
He swiftly braced his hands against the floor and stopped himself from head-butting his girlfriend, who had started to laugh now the shock of the moment was over. He urged Jess to reposition her legs and carried on, the new angle pleasing both of them. She came first and he followed soon after, lowering himself on top of her carefully.
"We're going to get into so much trouble!" Jess giggled.
"I can't believe this thing actually broke!" Becker gasped, laughing. "We used to jump up and down on it all the time when we were kids."
"It's probably an antique," Jess said, turning her head to look at the wreckage behind her.
"I'm pretty sure nobody remembers it's here," Becker said comfortingly.
They separated and clambered to their feet, got redressed and surveyed the damage.
"I can't believe we came to visit your family and broke furniture by having sex on it," Jess said, mortified.
"Best visit ever!" Becker said gleefully.
She swatted him in the chest and shook her head, but she was secretly glad to see a genuine smile back on his face. Clearly, any visits to his family were going to have to include a lot of private moments between them just to keep him from getting too stressed out.
Being a girlfriend, she reflected, was a lot of hard work. Luckily, she enjoyed every minute of it.
He propped the chaise back up on its broken legs and recovered it with the dust sheet. Jess wrapped the used condom up in layer after layer of tissues from the pack in her handbag, and wrinkled up her nose as the small package.
"I don't suppose this is recyclable," she joked, stashing it in her handbag until she could get rid of it.
"Don't say that to anybody here, they'll try and find a way to do it," he warned her, only half-joking. "Come on, let's go back to Gran's. I think we could both do with a shower."
Jess nodded. She was hot and sticky, definitely flushed and no doubt her clothes were wrinkled beyond repair. She hoped they didn't run into anybody on their way back to the gatehouse, because it would be pretty obvious what they'd been doing.
Thankfully, she was able to slip right up into her room without being spotted by any of Becker's family. The guest room had the world's smallest en suite bathroom attached to it, and Jess took the opportunity to wash the adventures of the day away.
It was getting dark now; normally at this time on a Friday night (barring any unforeseen anomalies) the team would be gathered for pizza and beers at one of the flats. They'd talk about their week, decompress a little and try to remember that they had lives outside of the ARC. Sometimes they'd watch a movie, some 'classic' that neither Matt nor Emily had seen, then would spend longer than the length of the film explaining it to them to their confused, time-travelling friends.
It was strange to miss the get-together; it wasn't as if they didn't see each other at work anyway. But as Jess put on the green dress that Becker liked so much, styled her hair and put on her make-up, she wondered what the others were doing, if they'd bothered to meet up that night or not.
A knock at the door interrupted her thoughts, and Rosemary popped her head around it, smiling at her.
"Oh Jessica, you look lovely."
"Thank you," Jess said, tugging on her wellingtons. "I was worried that I'd be a little over-dressed."
"Well, you probably will be," Rosemary sighed. "But then, so will I."
She stepped into the room to reveal an elegant navy blue dress that fell at calf length, worn with what was obviously a very expensive rope of pearls.
"If you can't dress up for a christening, what can you dress up for, that's what I say," Rosemary went on. "Oh, I know, it's a naming ceremony," she said, peeking in Jess' mirror and adjusting her hair slightly. "But the meaning is the same."
"Well, you look very elegant," Jess told her. "It's only a pity that we have to wear wellington boots!"
"Oh my dear, I know!" Rosemary exclaimed. "I have the most lovely navy shoes that I usually wear with this dress – kitten heel, peep toe – and it just kills me to leave them in their box."
"It's better than ruining them in the mud," Jess said, wrinkling her nose at the prospect. "But I have to admit, shopping for these was the least amount of fun I've ever had in a shoe shop."
"Jess, did you happen to put my shaving kit in…"
Becker walked into the bedroom without knocking, and stopped sharply when he saw his grandmother talking animatedly with his girlfriend.
"Oh, I forgot to tell you, there wasn't room in your bag for it, so I put it in my suitcase," Jess said, fishing about for it in the case. "Sorry."
"No problem," he said, taking in her appearance. "The dress looks beautiful, but those wellies…"
"Are very glamorous," Rosemary said firmly. "Now go and shave, young man."
"Yes, Gran," he said obediently, collected his shaving kit and disappeared.
"He looks so much better," Rosemary said suddenly. "And I know we have you to thank for that, Jessica."
"I'm not sure I have much to do with that," Jess demurred, but Rosemary wasn't to be put off by Jess' modesty.
"He rings me, you know," Rosemary told her. "Not every week, but often enough. He tried to hide it, but he always sounded so weary on the telephone. And when he did make it down here for a visit, or I escaped up to London for a spot of shopping and visited him, he looked…tight. Like he was locking everything up inside him."
Tight was a good word, Jess reflected. When she had first met Becker, he had been incredibly tightly-wound. He had loosened up a little with the others on the team – she couldn't imagine Becker of two years ago willingly attending Friday night pizza – and with her, in private, he was a completely different man. But she hadn't realised that others had seen that change too.
"But then he changed," Rosemary said, smiling at Jess. "It took me a little while, but he eventually admitted that he was seeing someone. I'm so very glad you came into his life, Jessica, because I really think you've changed it, for the better."
Jess tried to blink back the tears that were forming.
"I hope so," she managed. "I love him very much."
Rosemary hugged her, and the smell of Chanel No.5 enveloped Jess subtly.
"I'm very glad of it," she said sincerely. "And I hope that this is just the first visit you make here to Greenfields. Perhaps before long I'll be able to give you the same room?"
Winking, Rosemary picked up Jess' left hand and looked at it critically.
"That finger looks a little empty to me," she teased.
Jess laughed, embarrassed.
"We've only been going out for six months," she protested. "I think it's a little early to think about getting engaged."
"I don't," Rosemary said, with a jovial finality that made Jess feel a little sorry for Becker. Clearly, any conversation he had with his grandmother in the future was going to centre around how long he was going to take to propose to Jess.
The thought made her smile a little, and a little curl of excitement flared inside her. She tried to tamp it down; marriage was a huge commitment, and not something to rush into lightly. But the idea of Becker wearing a simple gold band, proclaiming himself to the world at large as taken, by her, was incredibly seductive.
Idly, Jess wondered when the next leap year was; it was traditional for women to propose in a leap year, wasn't it? Not that they had to get married, of course; there were plenty of happy and harmonious partnerships here at the commune that showed that. But in some ways Jess was a traditional girl, and this appeared to be one of them.
Lights bobbing up and down in the dark night outside caught her attention. People were walking with lighted torches, heading away from the house down towards a forested area.
"Looks like it's getting started," Rosemary observed. "We'd best get a wriggle on. Do you have a warm enough coat, dear?"
"Oh yes," Jess assured her, pulling out a green half-cape coat from the wardrobe that matched her dress perfectly.
"I had a coat just like that once!" Rosemary marvelled, taking in the swing of the coat as Jess pulled it on. "It wasn't such a lovely colour, but I did so adore the cut."
"They're very fashionable at the moment," Jess told her. "You should come up to London some time, and we'll go shopping."
"I'd love that," Rosemary said, looking excited. "You'll be able to show me all the young shops. I do so hate dressing like an old woman."
They went downstairs, where Becker was waiting patiently with boots for his grandmother, and then they too made their way to the forest. Becker walked with a woman on each arm, and looked stoically resigned as Rosemary and Jess began to organise a date that they could take the shops of London by storm on. He knew that he'd have to go with them; she was his grandmother, after all, and he would win some serious brownie points with both of them if he was willing to open doors and carry bags.
He just couldn't let Matt or Connor find out, otherwise he'd be the butt of their jokes for weeks.
The lights ahead had stopped moving, and when they caught up with the rest of the group they found that the lighted torches had been planted firmly in the ground, and the members of the commune were busy building a large bonfire. There were people going around with some cups of what turned out to be very strong home made wine, and various musical instruments were being twanged, strummed and beaten, creating an unusual but not unpleasant musical accompaniment.
Rosemary went to talk to her daughter, leaving Becker and Jess to sip at their cups.
"This is quite nice," Jess said, taking a large swallow.
"Careful," cautioned Becker. "It's really strong, Jess. It'll get you drunk very quickly."
"What's in it?" Jess asked, ignoring him and taking another large gulp.
"God only knows," Becker said, grimacing. "But seriously, take it slowly or you'll be suffering tomorrow. Trust me, I know what this stuff can do."
"Oh yes?" Jess asked, intrigued.
Thanks to the light of a nearby torch, Jess could see Becker blush ever so slightly. She immediately found it adorable.
"I lost my virginity after drinking a lot of this stuff," he told her quietly, his eyes darting around to make sure nobody else could hear him. "I was fifteen, home for the holidays from school and there was a big bash to celebrate the summer solstice. I got pissed on the homebrew. I woke up the next morning, stark naked in one of the guest yurts, clutching a pair of knickers. I was too embarrassed to ask around and find out what happened."
"Oh my God!" Jess laughed, clutching onto his arm. "Did you ever find out?"
"No!" he hissed. "It could have been any one of six or seven girls my age, and none of them ever said anything to me about that night afterwards."
Jess couldn't help herself.
"Maybe it wasn't a girl your age," she said, smirking. "Maybe an older woman couldn't help herself and decided she had to be the one to break you in."
The look on his face was a mixture of revulsion, fear and the very slightest hint of wonder.
"After all," Jess went on, emboldened by the wine, "You are a stunningly handsome man now, so you must have been a beautiful teenager."
"You're getting drunk," he said, shaking his head.
"Beautiful," Jess insisted, shaking her head and finishing her cup.
"It's time for the ceremony to start!" somebody called.
The crowd of people gathered into a loose circle. Jess stood between Becker and Poplar. Athena moved into the centre of the circle, near the bonfire, and stood on a small bench that somebody had brought with them.
"Friends!" she called. "We are gathered here today to welcome a new soul into our family of love! Hold hands with your neighbour, and let's create a circle of positive energy for our ceremony. "
There were bursts of applause and cheers, and Athena waited patiently for them to stop with a happy smile on her face. The crowd joined hands.
"My beautiful daughter Rainbow, and her partner Wolf, have been blessed with a son who they have decided to name Tiger Fire," Athena told the crowd.
In the light of the torches, Jess could see Becker wince. As Athena started to talk about the significance of the child's name, Jess' mind began to wander. She imagined the scene, a few years in the future, when she and Becker came to visit with their child. Would Artemis and Tiger Fire feel sorry for a cousin called Eleanor, or Alexander? She snorted as quietly as she could. Poor hypothetical Baby Becker. He or she would have cousins called Bliss, Unique, Artemis and Tiger. Giving him or her a traditional name would make them the odd one out. Jess shook her head. Izzie, darling little Izzie. She had a normal name, and she'd look out for her cousin and stop the weird named kids from beating them up.
"What's up?" Becker asked her quietly.
"Izzie is going to have to be back up for our future baby," Jess hissed at him. "Otherwise he or she is going to get picked on for not having a weird name."
Becker shook his head, amused.
"I think you've had too much of that home made wine," he told her.
"I'm being serious!" Jess whispered. "Children can be mean."
"I'm sure that Izzie will be adequate backup," Becker said solemnly. "She'll be utterly terrifying in a few years time. Takes after her aunt."
Jess' indignant gasp was lost in another round of cheers and applause from the crowd as Athena finished her speech. The music started back up as baby Tiger was passed from person to person around the large circle. Wolf and Rainbow followed his journey around the circle, accepting hugs, kisses, good wishes and presents from their friends and family. When he arrived at Becker, he held him securely in the crook of his arm as he shook Wolf's hand firmly, then kissed Rainbow on the cheek.
"Well done, Rainbow," Becker told her, looking down at his nephew. "He's got the Becker hair."
"Mum says he's the spitting image of you when you were born," Rainbow said, her tone light hearted. Maybe it was the wine, or maybe it was the excitement of the ceremony, but the sanctimonious Rainbow of earlier had disappeared, and a new Rainbow was in front of them.
Becker passed Tiger onto Jess as he handed over the envelope he'd had tucked into his back pocket.
"It's an adoption certificate," Becker told his sister. "I've adopted a tiger in India in his name. The money goes to a wildlife reserve that are trying to increase the number of tigers in the wild."
Tears started to form in Rainbow's eyes.
"That's so sweet of you," she said, impulsively hugging him. The move clearly took Becker by surprise, but he gingerly put his arms around her and hugged her back. "I thought you'd buy him a toy tank or something."
"He's not old enough," Becker said, his tone light and cheerful. "Wait until he's five or six."
Rainbow slapped him on the arm, but her heart wasn't really in it.
"Thanks for coming," she told him, then surprised Jess by including her in a quick hug. "Both of you."
Then she moved down the circle, and Jess passed the sleeping baby to Poplar, who was already crying unashamedly.
It took a long time for the newest member of the Greenfields commune to make his rounds. The other children were getting tired, and some were already asleep in their parents' arms. Jess found herself leaning against Becker, who let go of her hand to put his arm around her shoulder.
"Won't be long now," he told her. "Just got to have the blessing from Dad and put the fire out, then we can go."
The blessing turned out to be a strange mix of ideas and traditions, and Jess didn't recognise half of the names that Grey Owl invited to show good favour to the commune, but it was much shorter than a sermon would be in church, and for that she was grateful.
People started to drift away, back to their yurts and cabins. Some stayed to put the fire out, but Becker escorted his grandmother and Jess back up to the gatehouse. They left their muddy boots in the mud room just inside the back door, and said their goodnights at the top of the stairs. Becker kissed his grandmother chastely on the cheek, and Jess firmly on the lips, then shut the door to his room firmly behind him.
In her room, Jess caught the scent of woodsmoke in her hair and frowned. If she went to bed like this, it would make the lovely linens on the bed smell too. Leaving her clothes in an untidy pile on the floor, she took a quick shower to wash her hair again. The lateness of the hour and the strength of the wine took her a little by surprise; she found herself wobbling slightly as she got out of the shower and towelled herself off.
As she went back into the bedroom she stopped suddenly and had to hold the wall for support.
"What are you doing here?" she hissed. "Your grandmother…"
"Is very old fashioned," Becker finished. "And a sound sleeper. Get into bed, it's cold."
Jess dropped the towel on the floor and joined him in bed. He protested at the coldness of her feet, but Jess kissed him until he stopped trying to talk and kissed her back. They were slow, sleepy kisses, not designed to arouse but to communicate.
"Love you," Jess told him. "Told you your weird family wouldn't scare me away."
"You're a bit drunk," he said fondly. "Tell me that tomorrow."
"I won't change my mind," Jess yawned.
"Sssh," he said. "Go to sleep."
Jess woke late the next day. Sunlight was streaming in through the gap in the curtains, and she could hear the buzz of voices from outside her window. Becker's half of the bed was empty, and the sheets were cool.
A knock at the door sounded just as Jess was pulling her nightgown over her head. Rosemary entered the room carrying a tray with a small pot of tea, a glass of orange juice and a large plate piled with toast, oozing with butter.
"I thought you might be coming too about now," Rosemary said brightly.
"What time is it?" Jess asked, yawning and hoping her hair wasn't as bad as it usually was in the morning.
"Half past ten," Rosemary said, depositing the tray on the bed and briskly opening the curtains.
Jess' eyes widened in surprise.
"I don't usually sleep this late," she said, embarrassed. "You must think I'm very lazy."
"Nonsense," Rosemary laughed. "It's that home made wine that Nathan makes. It's lethal. We're all just used to it, that's all. Plenty of fluid, and lots of toast, that's the cure. You eat up, and bring the tray down when you're dressed."
"Where's Hilary?" Jess asked, picking up a small pot of raspberry jam and slathering the first slice of toast with it.
"He said that he noticed that one of the water filters on the irrigation system wasn't working yesterday when he went for his walk. He was going to see if he could fix it."
"He knows how to do that?" Jess asked, around the toast and the heavenly jam.
"Oh yes," Rosemary said. "Everybody here has a trade or three. Hilary was always good with his hands."
Jess flashed back to yesterday's adventure on the chaise longue, and choked a little on her toast.
"Went down the wrong way," Jess squeaked, clearing her throat. "Lovely jam. Do you make it yourself?"
"Rainbow does," Rosemary said. "You should try the blackcurrant, it's even better. I'll give you some jars to go home with. Eat up, now, and I'll see you later."
Six slices of toast, two cups of tea and a shower later, Jess felt ready to face the world again. She brought the tray downstairs and washed up her plates, because she already felt bad about having breakfast in bed. Then she put her wellingtons on over her purple footless tights, adjusted her longline cardigan so it fell correctly over her denim miniskirt and headed out to track down her boyfriend.
Lots of people stopped to say hello to her as she wandered through the commune. Many of them were busy at work, and Jess watched as the span wool, threw pots, carved wood and made delicate jewellery. Everyone had a purpose here, she realised. There was a job for everyone, and she felt out of place as she meandered through the long lawns at the back of the big house.
She heard someone calling her name, and turned around to find Athena bearing down on her.
"Morning!" she said cheerfully. "Did you enjoy the ceremony last night?"
"Yes," Jess said truthfully. "But I think that wine should come with a warning label."
"It is very strong," Athena said, smiling. "But that blue lace agate should help. Speaking of it, do you have time for that aura cleansing now?"
"Sure," Jess said. "I was trying to find Hilary, but he can wait."
"Good girl," Athena said, taking her by the arm. "This way."
Athena took her back to her own personal yurt that she shared with Grey Owl. Jess hadn't known what to expect when she entered, but she was surprised by the warmth and brightness inside the circular structure. She toed off her muddy boots at the entrance, and walked in her stockinged feet over the gleaming wooden floor. The space was big enough for chairs, tables, storage units and a very large bed, made up with very ordinary-looking pillows and blankets.
A large dream catcher hung over the bed. Small collections of coloured crystals were piled in small heaps on different surfaces in the yurt. In the middle of the room was a circular firepit. A banked fire warmed the yurt, and smoke was drawn up through a hole in the roof.
"Please, have a seat," Athena said, gesturing to a very comfortable looking beanbag that was close to the fire.
Jess sat in it and immediately slouched into a reclining position.
"Perfect," Athena said happily. "Now, just shut your eyes and relax."
Jess did as she was told, and she felt Athena's fingers on her temples. She started a soothing circular motion, and Jess relaxed even further as her boyfriend's mother started the most blissful head massage she'd ever had.
"The blue agate has helped," she said eventually. "There are far fewer dark spots in your aura today."
"Thanks," Jess said dreamily. "It's a lovely necklace."
"You keep it," Athena said happily. "It will work better when you've been wearing it for a week or two."
"Thank you," Jess said again. "It's very generous of you."
"Nonsense," Athena said, making the same plucking gestures around Jess' head that she had the day before. "If anything I should be thanking you. Hilary's aura is the lightest I've seen it since he was a child."
"That's good then, is it?" Jess asked.
"Oh yes," Athena nodded. "In very general terms, the lighter the aura, the more content and happier the person is, physically, emotionally and spiritually."
She sighed, and Jess could hear the pain in her voice.
"Hilary didn't feel comfortable here, when he was growing up. I'm sure he's told you."
"Recently," Jess said carefully. "When he got the invitation to the naming ceremony, he told me a little about you all then."
Athena shook her head. "His father and I were so desperate to keep him here, with us, that we didn't listen to what he was trying to tell us. He was always so different to my other two children. His choosing to go away to school was very hard on all of us."
She was silent for a while, and continued her plucking motions.
"In the last few years, when he'd come to visit us, he'd been darker and darker. I was very concerned for him two years ago. He was in real emotional pain."
Jess nodded. That was when she had met him, after the deaths of so many of his friends.
"I can't say much about that," Jess said eventually. "I wish I could, because it would explain so much and there are so many amazing things he's done…" She broke off, and shook her head.
"All I can say is that he is very important to all of us, where we work. He protects us, and keeps us all safe. He's saved my life on more than one occasion, and the lives of so many others."
Athena sniffed, and dabbed at her eye with her sleeve.
"He's happy," she said. "You see it when he looks at you. His whole body language is different. His aura is practically shining. You're very good for him, Jess. And I want you to know that you're always welcome here. Maybe now he's happier, you'll be able to persuade him to come back more often?"
Athena's voice sounded hopeful. Jess' heart went out to her.
"I'll certainly try," she said firmly. "This is a lovely place. Our jobs don't always keep a strict schedule, but we can certainly make an effort to get here more often."
"Good," Athena said, and got back to the business of cleaning Jess' aura.
Aura cleansed, Jess wandered back out into the lawns of the big house in search of Becker. A couple of teenage girls told her that he was in the old stable block, which functioned as a home for the machinery the community used to farm.
They escorted her there and unabashedly plied her with questions about him. Jess decided to tease him about his fan club later, and then realised with a grin that until fairly recently she would have qualified as one of the club.
She found him with a group of other men, all standing around the open engine of some kind of machine. Jess wasn't up on her farmyard equipment, but it looked a little like a tractor with some kind of strange attachment on the back. Becker was leaning over the engine, his jeans stretched tautly over his backside. His sweater was draped over a chair and he'd stripped down to just his white t-shirt. Jess could see smears of engine oil over his forearms, and his hair was ever so slightly tousled from where he'd obviously run his hands through it.
The whole scene was oddly arousing, and Jess wondered if she could make him do things with her car engine at home, just so she could take some pictures.
"Sleeping Beauty woke up," he teased, noticing her arrival.
"Sleeping Beauty should have listened to you about the wine," she replied, pecking him on the cheek that didn't have oil smudged on it. "What are you doing?"
"Cleaning up the engine of this old cultivator," he said, wiping his hands on a rag. "Alright Charlie, try turning it over now."
One of the men hopped up into the cab of the tractor and turned the engine over. It caught straight away, and Becker nodded, looking pleased.
"Just a clogged fuel line and new sparkplugs," he told another man, shutting the bonnet lid. "You know how to deal with that now?"
"All in here," the man replied, tapping his forehead. "Thanks, Hilary."
Jess followed Becker to a small room with an old, chipped sink. He scooped a big handful of some lemon-scented yellow gunk from a big tub and started to scrub his hands with it.
"Did you fix the water filter as well?" Jess asked, twisting one of the taps and letting water splash down into the sink.
"I patched it up," he told her. "It'll work for a while, long enough for Dad to get the parts he needs to build a new one."
"I never knew you could do all this," Jess said, waving her hand. "Fix engines, repair machines…"
"I learnt it all here," Becker told her. "Everyone has a trade or three in a commune. You learn by watching others and helping out. I was pretty awful as a potter, but I liked working with machines. When I joined the army it became one of my specialties. If your unit breaks down in the desert, you'd better have somebody around who knows how to get you moving again."
"I'm very impressed," Jess told him. "It's very sexy."
"You think everything I do is sexy," Becker teased.
"Yes, but this is super-sexy," Jess informed him. "I think you need to poke around in my engine when we get home."
"If you hadn't been drunk last night I could have poked around in…" Becker began, but he was interrupted by his father coming into the doorway.
"Thanks for taking a look at the water filter," he said, a little gruffly. "You've got it working, then."
"For now," Becker said, wiping his hands on his jeans. "But it won't last forever, you're going to have to buy a new valve, and the hose is looking a bit worn."
Grey Owl nodded, looked as if he was going to say something, then stopped. Becker watched him warily, opened his mouth, gave a little sigh, and turned back to the sink.
Jess couldn't help it. Her organisational instincts kicked in.
"We passed a little DIY shop in the last town we came through," she said brightly. "Why don't you take your dad there and get what you need now?"
"I wouldn't want to bother Hilary with that," Grey Owl said, stepping back.
"It's no bother, Dad," Becker said.
"Poplar said that there were a few things she had to do in town today," Jess went on ruthlessly. "You two could go and do them for her, give her a bit of a break. She works very hard, you know."
She put on her best pleading face and aimed it at Becker, who caved under its intensity, as he always did. She then aimed it at his father, adding a small smile. He too soon collapsed under the gentle pressure of Jess' interference.
"It would save petrol if we made one trip," Grey Owl said apologetically to Becker.
"You could stop off at that pub for lunch and have a drink," Jess went on.
"Don't push it," Becker warned her, dropping a brief kiss on her lips as he left the stable block with his father.
She walked with them to the big house where Poplar looked incredibly grateful as she handed over a list of things that had to be done in town. Together they waved them off as Becker pointed his car back in the direction of the nearest big town to Greenfields.
"I'm beginning to think you're a miracle worker," Poplar said as they headed back inside. "I don't remember the last time Dad and Hilary did something like that."
"That's a shame," Jess said, frowning. "It hurts Hilary that he doesn't have a better relationship with his father."
"Dad's pretty cut up about it too," Poplar confided. "When Hilary was deployed overseas, Dad used to cycle into town everyday to read the newspapers at the library, trying to keep track of where he was and what was going on. He was frightened that he'd get hurt out there. Or worse."
"Why can't they just talk about it?" Jess asked, sighing. "I would have thought that your dad would have been a bit better at talking about his feelings than most men."
"You would have thought that, but not when it comes to Hilary," Poplar sighed. "I don't know how you managed to get him to go with Hilary, in a car no less, but whatever you did, we're grateful for it."
"They may just argue," Jess pointed out.
"Oh, they'll spend most of their time arguing," Poplar agreed. "But sometimes you have to really let all your primal rage out before healing can begin. Have you ever been part of a primal rage workshop, Jess?"
"No," Jess said, smiling. "But I have been on the M25 at rush hour."
"Not quite the same thing," Poplar said. "I'll give you some brochures about the courses we run."
She handed Jess a stack of them, and then went off cheerfully to help Danny and the older children fix the fencing around the goat pen that the mischievous creatures had eaten through the day before. Jess found a lovely hand-carved wooden bench under a tree and read through the brochures.
She was surprised by the variety of experiences the community offered. There were practical courses about living in an ecologically balanced way, animal husbandry, bee keeping, natural sustainability – things that she knew that Abby would really be interested in. Then there were the courses and workshops of a slightly more esoteric nature. There was an astrophysicist that led courses on The Wonder of Being, a psychotherapist that taught a week-long course on Humanising The Workplace and an ex-Royal Ballet choreographer that ran a course called Sacred Dance Teacher Training.
There were leaflets for yoga classes, meditation sessions, pottery classes and even on sacred sexuality. Jess opened that leaflet then blanched and shut it again when she saw a happily naked Athena and Grey Owl contorted into a bizarre position inside it.
There were some things that you were just not meant to see, and your boyfriends' parents displaying the Elephant Rising position for a group of trainees was one of them. Another quick look confirmed that some of Becker's…features were definitely genetic, then Jess hurriedly shuffled the leaflet to the bottom of the stack.
Conscious of the environmentally friendly atmosphere of Greenfields, Jess put the brochures back on the pile on the reception desk on her way into lunch. She sat with Poplar and Danny again and began to quiz Poplar about the commune's website. Shocked to discover that they didn't have one, Jess immediately began to sell Poplar on the importance of having a web presence. Her iPhone still had a signal, so after a quick Google search she brought up the websites of some other communities that were similar to Greenfields.
Poplar's eyes narrowed as she scanned through the sites, and she immediately began to scribble notes on a small pad that she whipped out of the pocket of the long, orange skirt she was wearing.
"How do you make a website?" she demanded of Jess.
Jess shrugged. "I could manage something fairly simple," she told her. "But if you want something as glossy as these, you'd have to pay a professional to do it. They're not cheap, but if you make more bookings because of the site, it should soon pay for itself. And your broadband connection, of course."
The rest of the delicious lunch was taken up with discussions about websites, and the realisation by Poplar that she'd have to upgrade the community's computer. Jess gave her some suggestions about makes and models and they discussed the merits of cheaper, second hand computers against buying a new machine that would be insured.
Danny left them to return with the kids to the goat pen, happy that Poplar had a project to sink her teeth into. Jess and Poplar went back to the office to hash out plans and designs for the website, and it was there that Becker found them, a few hours later.
"Come for a walk?" he asked, and Jess could see the strain in his eyes and the rigid set of his shoulders.
"Show her the river," Poplar said, staring at her brother and frowning slightly at his obvious agitation. "Nice and quiet down there."
Jess went with Becker, who draped a heavy arm over her shoulder as they walked, in silence, away from the house and the community buildings. They followed a footpath into the calm, cool forested area, and in the distance Jess could hear the faint noise of flowing water.
They walked onwards, through the trees, and the noise of the water got louder. The path twisted and turned, and then suddenly emerged from the darkened forest into the bright sunlight and Jess was on the bank of a small river. The water moved fairy quickly, and she could see small flashes of silver as fish darted through it. Bright wildflowers grew along the riverbank, and there was a set of mossy green stepping-stones for anyone who wished to cross the water.
Becker led her to a big rock that sat perched at the water's edge, and helped her to climb up on it. They sat there together for a while, enjoying the silence, until Becker suddenly leant over and kissed her deeply. Jess fell into it immediately, and clutched at his jumper with one hand to keep him firmly in place.
"That bad, eh?" she asked, once they'd parted.
He let out a deep, heartfelt sigh that told her everything she needed to know.
"That was the longest I've spent alone with him in years," he admitted. "And we argued for every second of it."
Jess winced. "I'm sorry," she said. "I shouldn't have suggested you go off together."
"No," he said, shaking his head. "It wasn't that bad, actually. I got to say some stuff I'd been wanting to say for a while. So did he."
"Are you two alright?" she asked, still worried that she'd forced Becker to damage the relationship with his father permanently.
"We're…better than we've been before," he said, after thinking about it for a while. "So that's something."
He pulled her in for a hug and kissed her on the forehead.
"Don't worry about it," he told her.
They sat in silence for a while, watching the fish dart in the river and bees buzz about the wildflowers. Birds darted from branch to branch. It was gloriously peaceful, and quite the most beautiful place Jess had seen for a long time.
"Your family is lovely," she said after a while. "And this place is beautiful. But I've got to have a sausage sandwich soon or I'll cry."
Becker laughed, and kissed her again.
"I know a place nearby," he said. "Come on, I'm buying."
They hurried back through the forest and up the footpath to the gatehouse, and Becker's car. Just before he turned the engine over, he leaned over and kissed her again.
"What was that for?" she asked, smiling and touching his cheek.
"For having your aura cleansed, and talking about computers with Poppy, and wearing that silly necklace and not smacking Rainbow and talking about shoes with my grandmother," he said. "Thanks, Jess. It means…well, it means a lot that you came."
"I'd go anywhere for you, you silly boy," she told him. "And it's really nice here. But I swear, if there isn't a sausage sandwich on the horizon soon, I'm going to go mental."
"Orders received and understood," he said, kissing her again briefly, before putting the car in gear. "So, what have you been doing with yourself today?"
"I've been reading about some of the courses the community offers," she said slyly, watching his reaction.
"Oh, the bee keeping and the pottery stuff?" he asked.
"And the sacred dance teacher training, and the humanising the work place course," she told him. "I'm thinking about signing Lester up for that one."
"I can just see him sitting on a yoga mat and getting to grips with opening his third eye," Becker snorted.
"And there's the sacred sensuality one," Jess said, running her hand along Becker's thigh.
"That's a new one, but I like the sound of it," he said, raising it to his lips and dropping a kiss on the back of it.
"Ask your mother about it later," she said with a straight face.
He did, at dinner. Athena was all too eager to go into excruciating detail. The look on his face was an absolute picture, which Jess knew for a fact because she snapped it with her iPhone and refused to delete it. His dark look in her direction promised retribution, but as both Poplar and Rainbow joined in the laughing with Jess, she didn't mind. Even Grey Owl smiled at his son's reaction.
It was worth it to make everyone smile.
And as Becker snuck into her pretty pink guest room later that night and took his retribution out on her willing body, Jess thought it was totally worth it, even if she did have to be careful not to wake his grandmother up with her screams of pleasure.
Oh yes, she thought, as she collapsed into a sweaty heap on top of a snoring boyfriend. Totally worth it.