Chapter Fifty Three

Chas opened her eyes and stood up quickly, throwing Carl's jacket away from her. Carl tried to grab her arm, saying "Chas, wait", but before he could react, she'd punched him in the face and he went flying back into the sofa.

Chas walked off quickly, "on second thoughts," she spat, "don't tell me anything, don't speak to me, either of you. I don't want to know".

Aaron and Carl looked at each other, bewildered and then both took off after her.

"Mum, wait a minute" Aaron called after her.

She stopped and turned at the door, wobbling slightly as she was still quite drunk. She stormed back towards Carl, going to hit him again, but Aaron held her back.

"All these years and you've never said?" she cried.

Carl was in shock, he hadn't ever expected to have to explain this to her. "How could I?" he asked her.

"How could you not?" Chas stopped struggling against Aaron's restraint and shrugged him off her. "Me and Eli were arrested. We were nearly charged with murder!"

"I got you off" Carl protested.

"I thought you'd fought so hard for me because you loved me, because you trusted I would never do that. But really, it's because it was you the whole time. And what if it hadn't worked out? What if Rosemary had got her way and I'd gone down for it?"

Carl hung his head in shame, "I wouldn't have let that happen" he said, "if anyone else had gotten the blame, I would've owned up. But you've got to believe me, I wasn't thinking straight. Not for ages after. I was panicking the whole time. That's why I was acting…"

"Like a complete prat?" Chas asked.

Carl nodded. He couldn't meet her eye.

Aaron was stood watching, listening, barely daring to breathe in case they noticed him.

"I gave you so much slack because I thought you were grieving. But all that time, you were just trying to cover your tracks…"

"No!" he interrupted, "I was devastated about what had happened. It felt like someone else had done it, and it was a weird nightmare. I wish I'd told you then, that you knew from the start. Because it's been hell having to keep it a secret all this time" he sobbed.

Chas sat back down on the sofa. She was quiet for a few minutes, trying to process everything.

"Who else knows?" she asked.

"Jimmy. Matthew knew. Carrie…"

"Lexi?" Chas asked.

Carl nodded. "Carrie told her. She used it to keep me with her. When she knew I really loved you, she sort of…blackmailed me with it. Made me think that if I left her she'd use it against me. But even then, I couldn't let you go. The day of my wedding, when we met up…I wanted you so much, I was ready to confess everything, to tell you why I'd ended up in that situation. Why I'd been pushing you away for so long. I wanted to make you understand how scared I was that everything was going to fall apart. If you hadn't turned me down, chosen Paddy…"

He couldn't carry on.

Aaron was surprised at what he was hearing. He didn't know they'd met up. He didn't know she'd turned him down. How many times had she turned him down before she'd given in? He knew that it had been because of him she'd refused to get back together, that she'd gone with Paddy instead. At the time, he'd thought he was doing the right thing by giving her such an ultimatum, but now he wondered if he'd just put everyone through unnecessary torture. If he'd just let them sort their own lives out before Chas and Paddy had got together, before Carl and Lexi had got married, how different would all their lives be?

Chas was thinking about all the times she'd been hurt by Carl without knowing where his hate had come from. So many things suddenly made sense now she knew what he'd been hiding. But how could she even think of forgiving him for this? And how could she forgive herself knowing it was her fault Tom King was dead?

She stood up. "I need time to think about this. I'm tired. I'm going home".

She walked towards the door, but stopped when Carl called her name.

"While you think about it, I beg you, please just remember that whatever's happened, I've never stopped loving you".

She didn't answer, just walked away up to the house, and waited by Diane's car while Aaron went into the house to tell her they were ready to go. They drove home in silence, Diane picking up on the atmosphere and not wanting to upset anyone further. When they got in, Diane went to check on the bar and Chas sat on the sofa as Aaron made them a brew. He joined her on the sofa, not sure how to go about talking to her.

"I'm sorry" he said simply.

Chas turned to look at him, saw the earnestness in his eyes, and couldn't stay angry at him.

"I don't know what it is about me that makes men think they can treat me like some sort of commodity" she said.

She yawned.

"I thought I was protecting you. I wanted to know that if you ever got back together, he wouldn't hurt you again"

"No one can make that sort of assurance kid. It's not possible. Every relationship is a gamble. But thanks"

"What are you going to do now you know?" Aaron asked.

She shrugged, "no idea. I'm sure you'll tell me to stay away" she said.

Aaron shook his head. "I don't know what to tell you. He's not who I thought he was."

"Join the club" she joked, then took a sip of her tea.

"No, I mean, we've more in common than I thought. He's angry, he's always been angry at himself. He did something terrible and has been living with it ever since, not being able to talk about it. No wonder he was such a muppet half the time. And I can kind of see why he's acted the way he has now – punishing himself for what he did, hurting you to hurt himself. It's not much different than me cutting."

"It's all my fault" Chas said, "if I'd have just stayed away from that wedding like I was supposed to…"

"No" Aaron said firmly, "don't start that. We both know there's no way you could have stopped this. You just need to decide what you do now."

Chas nodded. She had a lot to think about. She got up and gave Aaron a peck on the cheek "Night kiddo. Love you"

"And you" Aaron replied, watching his mum go up to bed, knowing neither of them would get much sleep that Christmas Eve.

Epilogue - Christmas Day 2013

Belle was having the best birthday ever. Fifteen years old and this was the first birthday she could remember without there being any dramas. She sat back, full of turkey and red cabbage, and surveyed all the people crowded around the table. Aaron and his new boyfriend, only introduced to the family a month ago, but already fitting right in. Marlon, Sam and Samson were arguing over a joke in the cracker. Cain and Debbie were fussing over Sarah, who had gone into complete remission since her bone marrow transplant and then managed to break her arm on a trampoline a week ago. Charity and Gennie were celebrating Christmas at the Sharmas' this year, but they would be seeing them later in the pub. Her mum was telling her dad off for eating too many sprouts – he would soon start smelling like her Uncle Shadrach used to. She missed him, but not his smell.

What made this year extra special however, was the couple sat next to her. They'd not stopped staring at each other all night, and Belle saw that they were holding hands under the table. When they'd got back together, there had been much eye rolling and teeth sucking around her family, comments like 'here we go again'. Cain and Charity had both protested. Aaron, strangely, had not. But after a couple of months, it was clear that there was something different about their relationship this time, something less desperate, more peaceful. Belle had always known Chas and Carl belonged together, she was glad they had worked things out.

And although they'd insisted they were taking things slowly, Belle's clever brain and inquisitive eyes had seen Carl's protective hand over Chas's stomach, noticed Chas's sudden taste for orange juice. She leant over and whispered to Chas, "I get to be chief babysitter".

Chas's eyes flashed with surprise, then mischief, as she winked at her little cousin, then whispered back, "I was going to offer that job to Cain, but go on then, you're booked". They shared a conspiratorial grin and went back to enjoying a Dingle family Christmas.

Well that's it, only took about a year, but it's finally finished. Hope you all enjoyed it, whoever my readers may be. If you'd like to leave a final review, feel free, I'd be interested to hear what you think. Thanks to those who have reviewed throughout. Lots of love x x x