DISCLAIMER: I own nothing.
Dedication: another one for all my friends and all the dedicated B/G shippers out there. :)
The leaves turn to shades of bronze and gold and finally fall from the trees, and at some unidentifiable point in the natural transition of autumn to winter the utterly, ridiculously implausible happens. Neither of them sees it coming, neither of them expects it, but it happens. Somewhere in the dark, wounded days, they fall quietly but spectacularly in love. When it comes, the ultimate realisation is something of a shock for both of them, but the process… the process is as natural and inevitable as the increasing chill in the air and the shortening of the days. It's so gradual and so subtle that both of them are irretrievably lost long before they fully comprehend the enormity of what has happened between them.
Boyd surprises her. He's a little gruff, just as Grace would have predicted had she foreseen any of it, but he's remarkably philosophical, too, as if he has simply resigned himself to the whole situation. In fact, in some ways, he is perhaps more acquiescent than she is, and that also surprises her. But today, Grace thinks, today is not the sort of day to ask questions or to over-analyse anything, no matter how hard that may be for someone of her nature. Today is the sort of day just to accept and to enjoy. The sun is out, the air is cold and crisp, and they are walking along the cliffs looking at the sea and watching the swooping and scuffling of hardy, bad-tempered herring gulls.
She still tires easily even though the worst days of her treatment are finally behind her, but Grace has discovered an unexpected sort of patience in Boyd that enables her to rest without anxiety whenever she needs to, and it is while they are sitting on a bench high on the cliffs that she asks reflectively, "Did you ever imagine us spending time together like this?"
Boyd glances at her, the breeze ruffling his hair as he slowly shakes his head. "Honest answer? No, never."
"I did," she confesses, unconsciously looping her arm through his. "Just occasionally. Sometimes I used to wonder what it would be like."
"Does it live up to expectations?"
Grace can't help smiling. "Oh, yes. More than."
"Very laconic, Boyd," she teases him gently. "It's a bit late to try to convince me you're the strong, silent type. Getting on for ten years too late, in fact."
"Christ, is it really that long?"
"Mm. I've known you man and boy."
Boyd pushes his hands deeper into the pockets of his long, heavy winter coat. "Flattery will get you everywhere, Grace."
He smiles, and it's neither the artless, boyish smile that has never failed to cut effortlessly through anger, infuriation, disappointment or any other negative emotion he may have engendered in her, nor is it the wicked, sly grin that's always accompanied by a mischievous glint in his dark eyes. Instead it's a very gentle smile, even a touch shy in its own way; a little diffident, a little tentative, but very definitely sincere. For no particular reason, Grace squeezes his arm slightly and they return to gazing silently at the waves far below them.
Again, it is Grace who speaks. "It doesn't seem possible that it's nearly Christmas."
"I'm glad it is," Boyd says, surprising her. At her askance look he shrugs and continues, "It just seems to have been a very long and very rough year, that's all. Can't say I'll be sorry to see the back of it."
Wryly, she says, "I could take that the wrong way if I tried, you know."
"I'm sure you could. You know what I mean."
She does. Boyd is right, it has been a very difficult year for both of them for a wide variety of reasons, including her unexpected illness and the tragic death of a friend and colleague. Attempting to lighten the mood, she says, "We should talk about Christmas."
He groans. "Oh, God, do we really have to? You know what I do at Christmas, Grace? I go to bed with a decent bottle of Scotch late on Christmas Eve, and I don't get up again until after the Queen's Speech. Then I spend the evening threatening to arrest carol singers for vagrancy."
"Bah bloody humbug, that's my motto. Are you going to make me eat turkey?"
Grace smiles contentedly. "Oh yes. And Christmas cake. And if you really get on my nerves between then and now I'll buy you one of those hideous festive sweaters and make you wear it."
Sounding superbly nonchalant, he says, "I see, like that, is it?"
"'Fraid so," she tells him. Abruptly, she laughs, "God, listen to us. How on earth did this happen? You and me?"
"No bloody idea," Boyd says. "Come on, Gladys, let's walk. I'm freezing my bloody balls off here."
"You're so romantic."
As he stands up and offers her his hand, he says, "Sooner or later, Grace, you're going to succumb, and on that day I sincerely hope you'll be incredibly glad that they're still present and in full working order."
She can't help laughing at his easy, amiable audacity. As she lets him tug her gently to her feet, however, Grace feels a familiar trace of unease, a touch of insecurity at the remaining obstacle that still lies between them. They don't talk about it much, this last great divide, but she certainly feels its presence. It's natural, though, to lean against him, to solicit his embrace, and with her head firmly against his shoulder, she dares to say, "It bothers you, doesn't it? That we don't… that we haven't…"
The snort of amusement is so quiet that she feels it more than hears it. "I'm well on my way to sixty, not sixteen, Grace. It's not my overriding priority, believe it or not."
Instinct tells her not to push, but there's still a quiet unhappiness inside her that makes her say, "You want to, though, don't you?"
His grip on her tightens imperceptibly. "Seriously, how am I supposed to answer that? Of course I bloody want to. Christ, what a stupid question. You astound me sometimes, Grace, you really do."
The guilt and the unhappiness twist inside her again. Almost in a whisper, she says, "I'm sorry."
The answer is unequivocal. "And you can pack that in, too. C'mon, let's walk."
Sometimes she needs his impatience, his impetuosity. It's a lesson Grace has learnt the hard way, but she has learnt it. He's intelligent and he's sharp, but Peter Boyd is not cerebral in the way she is. He doesn't over-analyse things, doesn't turn everything into an intellectual exercise, and nor does he get caught up in the whys and wherefores of things. Where she thinks, he acts, and though he is often far too reckless, she knows how instrumental his bullish impatience has been in her recovery. He's the one who has bullied and harried, the one who's allowed her no quarter whatsoever, the one who has shouted at her when she needed it, the one who has pushed her, stormed at her and forced her into facing things head on. His unorthodox approach to her illness hasn't won him any friends – but it's worked. Here she is, walking in the cold, clean air, her immediate future successfully secured.
As his car comes slowly back into sight, Grace says, "Unless you're set on going to Hastings, I know a really nice little pub just outside Seaford…"
"I'm not set on going anywhere," Boyd says with an easy shrug. "Just don't make me go to Eastbourne."
"God's waiting room?"
She grins at him. "Cheer up, Boyd; you'd easily be the youngest toy-boy on the prom."
"Well, that doesn't actually say much, does it?"
His tone contemplative, Boyd says, "I've no reason to disbelieve you. I'm sure it was a really nice place. Once."
The Coach and Horses public house sits before them, utterly derelict. Such windows that aren't boarded up are dirty and broken, and a great many tiles are missing from the roof. Grass is growing in tufts in the cracked surface of the car park. Plainly it hasn't been open for business in a very, very long time. Deflated, Grace stares at the ramshackle building through the car windscreen and says, "It used to do really good food."
"I'm sure it did. At some point in the late 'eighties," he replies, deeply sardonic.
"Fine," Grace says sharply, a surge of irritation getting the better of her. "Well, let's just go straight back to London, shall we? If you really put your foot down you might even be able to squeeze in a couple of hours at the office after you've dropped me home."
It should be a red rag to a bull. It should be the opening salvo in an argument that could drag on for hours, but to her surprise Boyd simply says mildly, "Alternatively, we could just find somewhere else to eat."
Before she can stop herself, Grace asks, "Are you feeling all right?"
Putting the car back into gear, he replies, "Push as much as you like, Grace; I'm not rising to it. Now, shall we find somewhere to eat, or would you like to waste even more time trying to needle me?"
She shakes her head slowly. "I think you're actually even more infuriating when you're being calm and patient than you are when you're having a tantrum."
"Good. Infuriating you is my raison d'être."
The spontaneous laughter that breaks through her annoyance is actually more unexpected than the sudden swell of very real affection. Unselfconsciously, Grace says simply, "God, I love you; do you know that?"
Boyd's answering tone is very definitely smug. "Oh yes."
Everywhere's closed. On the cold, empty seafront, everywhere is closed. Shops, cafes, amusement arcades, everything. Completely unnecessarily, Grace says, "Everywhere's closed."
Looking around, Boyd asks mildly, "And why do you think that might be, Doctor Foley?"
"Because it's December?"
He nods sagely. "Well done. We'll make a detective of you yet. Chip shop back there's open."
"I'm not sitting on a bench eating fish and chips in December," Grace protests.
"Because… Just because."
Gravely, Boyd says, "In that case, I take it back. An important part of being a detective is the capacity to eat any kind of fast food in any weather and under any circumstances. They won't take you in CID unless you have a proven ability to eat doughnuts whilst staring stoically at a decomposing corpse, you know."
"Thank you so much for that image," Grace says equally solemnly, adding, "I've always suspected that you and Spence navigate entirely by your stomachs."
He grins at her. "It's a police officer thing. We're conditioned from our very first moment on the beat to navigate by pubs, fast food vans and public toilets. Do you want chips, or are you going to starve in martyred silence while I enjoy every mouthful?"
"You really know how to show a girl a good time, don't you, Boyd?"
"You were the one who wanted to get out of London for the day."
So they sit together on a bench in a little wooden shelter eating steaming chips out of greasy paper as they watch the waves rolling in over the stony beach. It's cold, it's windy and it's so very close to perfect that Grace finds herself fighting the impulse to laugh aloud in simple, unmitigated joy. She says, "This is so stupid. Look at us, Boyd. We're far too old to be doing this kind of thing."
"What, eating chips?"
"Not just eating chips."
"You know what your trouble is," he says mildly, stretching out his long legs. "You're too clever by half. You spend too much time thinking about things."
"I'm a psychologist, Boyd. That's what we do."
"Right. And what does Doctor Foley the psychologist have to say about Grace Foley's preoccupation with trying to analyse everything?"
He nudges her gently with his shoulder. "Well, go on, then. Give me an answer."
Grace thinks about it for a moment, and then admits, "That she needs to understand things. That perhaps she finds it hard to accept things… some things… at face value."
"Bingo. Half the time you're looking far too hard for things that simply aren't there."
"That's a very simplistic statement, Boyd."
"Maybe. Maybe not."
Grace glances sideways at him, but all his attention seems to be on his food. Which doesn't altogether surprise her – for as long as she's known him he's had a voracious appetite. She asks, "What are you trying to say, Boyd?"
"I already said it – sometimes you spend too much time thinking about things."
"As opposed to you, who doesn't spend enough time thinking about things?" Grace challenges.
"See, I knew you were going to say that," Boyd says smugly.
"Oh, well," Grace says with a small sigh. She stares at the sea for a long, long moment. "I suppose they do say that opposites attract."
Still eating with considerable purpose, he says, "You want some advice from someone completely unqualified to give it?"
Grace raises her eyebrows at him. "Go on. This I really can't wait to hear."
"Stop trying to understand the reasons, Grace, and just accept it for what it is."
"You mean us?"
"I mean us," he confirms.
"Is that what you've done?"
Boyd glances at her. "If I hadn't, d'you think I'd be sitting here on a freezing cold bench trying really hard to at least appear to have some empathy? I could be at home in the warm with my feet up, watching the rugby."
Grace says, "I'm genuinely touched, Peter."
"So you bloody should be."
"Cold?" Boyd asks, frowning slightly as he looks at her.
"Frozen," Grace admits. As the sun drops lower in the sky, so the temperature is dropping, and even though they are walking not stationary, and even though she is wearing thick winter gloves, her fingers are completely numb. She gives him a rueful smile, "Maybe coming to the seaside in December wasn't such a good idea after all."
"I rather like it," he says. "It's quiet. And very bracing."
"Definitely very bracing."
It doesn't altogether surprise her that Boyd stops walking and gathers her against him. Too tempted, she fumbles with the buttons on his coat, tries to burrow her way inside it, and with a slight, deep chuckle, he lets her. He's blessedly warm Grace discovers, far warmer than she is, and she instinctively forces herself close, relishing the momentary relief from the afternoon's bitter chill. He sounds more concerned than startled as he says, "God, you really are cold. For fuck's sake, Grace, you do remember that you're supposed to be convalescing? Why didn't you say something?"
He even smells warm, she thinks. Comfortingly so. Into his chest she says, "I was enjoying the walk. I love the sea."
"Jesus Christ," he mutters, but he pulls her even tighter against him. "Better?"
"Mm," she says, and his physical warmth is only part of it. She likes the security of the embrace, too, and the calm dependability of his understated strength. Solidly reassuring. In fact, she really doesn't want to let go of him, and that makes her smile. It's so new, this right to such close physical contact, and so very addictive. She turns her head slightly against his chest, deliberately listening to his steady, muffled heartbeat. Without thinking, she says, "My house is so cold at this time of year I could do with you as a hot water…"
Her words trail off into silence as she stumbles over their implication.
"…bottle?" Boyd finishes for her, his tone wry. "There's a fundamental flaw in that plan, Grace."
She winces and doesn't dare look up. "I know."
He's silent, as if he's waiting for her to say something more, and when she doesn't, he says, "What are you frightened of?"
"Nothing," she tells him, but she's certain he won't believe her. When there's no response, she says, "You wouldn't understand, Boyd."
For a moment she's tempted, but she hears her own voice say, "Forget it… it was just a flippant remark."
He's not going to leave it alone. She sighs, still refuses to look up at him. "What?"
He really isn't going to leave it alone. Grace knows just how stubborn he can be when the mood takes him. With a rush of irritation she pushes away from him a little and glares up at him. "What?"
There's something uncomfortably hypnotic about his dark gaze. Something compelling about it. Grace is locked into it instantly, staring straight into the depths of his eyes as he leans towards her. She knows he's going to kiss her, and he does, gently enough, but very deliberately. It doesn't occur to her to resist, not for a moment. In fact, resistance is the very furthest thing from her mind as she responds to the warm caress of his mouth on hers. For a moment nothing else matters, for a moment Grace forgets everything about her illness, her insecurity, her unwanted but very real fears. For a moment she just follows his advice and accepts things for what they are.
When they eventually draw apart, his gaze is still just as compelling, just as heated. His voice, though, is remarkably soft as he says, "It's not an issue, Grace. I'm not trying to push you. It just… concerns me… that there's a problem that you're not prepared to discuss."
She's so used to him being headstrong and obtuse that she sometimes forgets how perceptive he can be. For the second time that day, she's tempted to open up to him, to share her fears with him, but again, something stops her. She says, "Sex isn't everything."
Boyd looks faintly stung. "Which is exactly what I've been saying. But surely as a psychologist you'd agree that it has a place in an… intimate… relationship?"
"Touché, Boyd," Grace says, disentangling herself from him and stepping way. She's cold immediately, and she shivers.
"So?" Boyd demands with a frown.
"Do we really have to discuss this now?"
He stares at her for a moment, eventually shakes his head. "No. Come on, let's get back to the damned car before you freeze to death."
They walk in silence, enduring the bitter wind blowing in off the sea.
The silence doesn't really relent, even in the car, yet the few words that they do share are quiet and civil, perfectly ordinary. Grace sits in the passenger seat looking out into the gathering darkness trying to make sense of her thoughts and feelings. She suspects her companion is more hurt than angry, more confused than antagonistic, and she can't help feeling guilty – more so because Boyd is quite clearly going to extraordinary lengths to remain calm and patient. She thinks she knows what it's costing him to restrain his quick, impulsive temper, and she certainly knows that it's her refusal to discuss the matter that's getting under his skin.
She's afraid. Admitting it, even to herself, is hard.
Don't think too much, Grace tells herself firmly. Staring straight ahead, she says into the silence, "I had a lumpectomy, Boyd."
There's only a single beat before he replies quietly, "I know that."
"Something like that… it has consequences. Psychological consequences."
"I'm quite sure it does."
Struggling with the words, Grace says, "It's hard… to try to feel good about yourself afterwards. At any age, let alone when you're… older."
"Christ," he says abruptly, and out of the corner of her eye, she sees the sharp look Boyd gives her. "Please tell me that's not what all this is actually about…? Oh, come on…"
She's grateful for the darkness, hopes it will hide the flush rising steadily in her cheeks. "I knew you wouldn't understand."
"No," Boyd says, and suddenly he's slowing the car down. "Don't throw that at me – I'm not saying I don't understand. I just… Oh, for God's sake, Grace…"
He brings the car to a smooth halt against the kerb and turns in his seat to stare at her. Grace doesn't look at him. She looks at the quiet town street instead; at the small supermarket that's still open, and the two teenagers standing talking by the bus stop. She says, "It's all right, Boyd. I don't expect you to understand. You're a man and – "
"What's that got to do with it?" Boyd interrupts her. "Don't try to tell me you think men are immune to feelings of insecurity as they got older, because quite frankly, I won't believe you for a moment. You're a psychologist, for heaven's sake – you know that's complete bollocks."
"I've never noticed you being insecure about anything."
Sounding incredulous, he asks, "You think I like the fact that I'm a lot closer to sixty than fifty? You think it doesn't bother me that my knees are shot to bits, my back's well and truly buggered and if I had to seriously chase down a suspect I'd probably have a coronary?"
Stubbornly, Grace says, "It's not the same."
"Grace…" Boyd starts, then breaks off. He runs his fingers through his hair, a gesture that betrays his gathering impatience, but when he continues to speak his tone is calm and level. "We're not Romeo and bloody Juliet. We're a couple of battered old survivors who've both been through all sorts of shit, but who've been friends for years. This… this may all be new territory, but surely to God we know each other well enough to sort out any problems? This isn't like you – normally I can't get a word in edgeways, but this is like trying to get blood out of a stone."
"I'm frightened, Boyd," Grace snaps at him. "You were right. I'm frightened. Happy now?"
"I know you're bloody frightened; I can see you're bloody frightened. What I'm trying to find out is exactly what it is you're frightened of."
She speaks without thinking. "You."
Even in the dark, she can see that Boyd looks stunned. "Me? What the hell are you frightened of me for? You knew my bark was far worse than my bite within about five seconds of first meeting me. Christ, I'd walk over hot coals for you, and you know it."
"I'm frightened of losing you," Grace says. The vulnerability exposed, she simply gazes at the street ahead and waits.
He's walking back down the street towards her, a tall, imposing figure in his long dark coat, and Grace watches him with a considerable degree of uncertainty. It hadn't surprised her when he'd got out of the car, nor when he'd paced up and down on the pavement for a few minutes, but when he'd tapped on the passenger window and told her to wait she'd been surprised. More so when he simply walked the length of the street and stopped outside the bank. From his actions she'd guessed he was withdrawing money from the ATM, but the reasons remain obscure to her. Now he's on his way back to the car, a solitary figure on the cold, evening street.
Boyd opens the car door and gets in, bringing the chill with him. He says quietly, "We're going to sort this out. Tonight. Not tomorrow or next week. Tonight."
"Just like that?" Grace says, not sure if she's mocking him or not.
"Just like that," Boyd confirms. He produces his wallet and extracts several notes from it. "Here. Get out of the car, go into the shop and buy whatever essentials you need for a night away."
Not what she was expecting. Shocked, Grace retorts, "Oh, for God's sake, Boyd. Surely even you're not that insensitive? We spend the night together in a cheap hotel somewhere and suddenly everything's rosy? I don't think so."
The answer is brusque. "This isn't about sex, it's about trust."
"You think I'm naïve enough to fall for that?"
"What sort of man do you take me for, Grace? If all I was interested in was getting laid – "
" – you'd choose an easier target?" Grace snaps at him.
"Actually, yes," he throws back at her. "Yes, I would. As you're so very fond of pointing out, I don't usually have any trouble in that department. But I'm not tucked up in bed with some long-legged blonde young enough to be my daughter, am I? I'm sitting in the middle of bloody nowhere in the freezing cold trying to convince you that I'm not the total bastard you seem to think I am. I thought you knew me better, Grace, I really did."
Grace can see – very clearly – where this could end up. Just as she can see that his patience is finally beginning to fray, and at some speed, too. She's too tired to fight with him. More, she doesn't want to fight with him. Making a deliberate effort to sound less confrontational, she says, "What am I supposed to think, Boyd? Seriously? One minute I'm trying to tell you how I feel, and the next you're attempting to drag me off to a hotel room for the night."
"All I'm asking is for you to trust me. You either do or you don't. Which is it?"
It's a wonderful stereotype of a place. An old-fashioned, slightly bedraggled guest house at the unfashionable end of the seafront. The stout, elderly landlady – also extremely stereotypical – regards them with some suspicion, which Grace assumes has everything to do with the strictly limited amount of luggage they've assembled between them – Boyd's battered holdall that lives semi-permanently in the back of his car, and a cheap supermarket carrier bag. It doesn't look particularly good. Then again, perhaps their age counts for them, and perhaps that's the only reason that the suspicious woman finally allows Boyd to sign them in as paying guests.
"Boyd," the landlady says, reading the register upside-down. "Scottish?"
The answer only seems to increase her suspicion. "Irish?"
Boyd shakes his head. "No."
"Breakfast is at eight-thirty on a Sunday. All rooms to be vacated by ten. Follow me."
"See?" Boyd says, sounding more than a little triumphant. "It's hardly the ideal sort of venue for an elegant seduction, is it?"
"This is a deliberate ploy? And I thought you were just being cheap."
"Oh, you wound me, Grace."
To be fair, it's actually quite a nice room. Hardly up to the standards of a luxury hotel, but it's clean and comfortable and some effort has gone into making it feel like a seaside sort of place. Allegedly, there's a sea view, but they will have to wait until the morning to confirm or deny that particular claim. Boyd is exploring and Grace can't help smiling at the snort of derision that comes from the small en suite bathroom. Aloud, she says, "What?"
The answer that floats back is rather obscure. "How tall would you say I am?"
"What? Oh, I don't know. Six foot, maybe?"
"That's what I thought. But according to the fixtures and fittings in here I'm officially a giant."
Grace knows what he's doing, and she can't help loving him even more for it. Humour is a potent antidote to anxiety. She's surprised to hear her own voice say, "Interesting. Is everything in proportion?"
Silence. Then, "It would appear so. Despite how long we've spent out in the cold today."
"That's all right then."
"Want me to show you?"
"Maybe later," Grace says, deliberately vague. She sits down on the edge of the double bed and wonders what on earth she's doing in a seaside guest house on a Saturday night in December. More, she wonders what on earth any seaside guest house is doing taking in guests on a Saturday night in December.
Boyd re-emerges from the bathroom. "Against my better judgement I'm going to risk a shower. Are you going to open that wine you've smuggled in, or not?"
"How did you know I'd bought wine?"
"I just know you. C'mon, Grace, you're the only woman I know who's got one of those complicated little knives with all the gadgets permanently stashed in her bag just in case of a dire bottle-opening emergency."
"You make me sound like a lush," Grace complains. "You want a glass… mug… whatever?"
"Yeah. Won't be long."
"Brace yourself," Boyd's voice says from the bathroom, a while and a considerable amount of splashing noise later. "I'm coming back out, and I'm wearing considerably less clothing."
"Wait," Grace says, enjoying playing along. "Define 'considerably less'…"
"Not helpful, Boyd."
"I've got my shorts on. So you can forget any thoughts of laughing like a hyena."
"All right," Grace says. "I'm suitably braced."
He pads back into the room, and initially it's actually his grin that draws most of her attention. That sly, engaging oh-so mischievous grin that makes him look years younger and also incorrigibly wicked. But somehow her attention wanders very quickly away from the grin and seems to settle in the vicinity of his bare chest. His tone is superbly arch. "Are you staring, Doctor Foley?"
"Yes," Grace says simply, doing exactly that. She's about to add a flippant comment when her gaze focuses itself spontaneously on his abdomen. It's not the gentle curve of his stomach that catches and holds her attention, nor is it the inviting trail of still-dark hairs that begins just beneath his navel and disappears enticingly beneath the waistband of his shorts. No, it's the pale, deeply furrowed scarring that shows vividly against the unmarked flesh, both left and right side, that holds her attention. In a split second she's thrown back years in time, is sitting in front of a monitor screen watching a terrible, dark drama unfolding before her horrified eyes.
Boyd evidently realises because he says quietly, "I told you. We're a couple of battered old survivors."
"Reece Dickson," she says, the half-forgotten name barely a whisper.
"I don't think he liked me much," Boyd says evenly. "We all carry scars, Grace. One way or another."
She thinks about the newest of her own. A life-saving scar, no doubt, but a painful, ugly thing to bear. She says nothing; can think of nothing to say. Boyd steps forward, puts his foot up on the bed next to her, giving her a clear view of his calf. "Gunshot wound. Entry wound… exit wound. Not pretty, is it? Bullet ripped straight through the muscle. Twenty odd years ago, and sometimes at night it still hurts like a bastard. So, maybe, just maybe, I understand what's going on in your head better than you think, hm?"
Grace closes her eyes for a moment. When she opens them, she says, "I'm supposed to know all there is to know about the psychology behind this sort of thing. Body image, self-esteem… All those problems and issues."
Boyd regards her for a moment before finally settling himself on the bed. "You're too hard on yourself. Look at what you've been through. Cancer… abduction… surgery, treatment. Tough times, Grace. Tough times. Just for once, stop trying to look after everyone else and let someone look after you."
"Easier said than done."
"Can I point out that you picked entirely the wrong person to butt heads with over this?"
She smiles tiredly. "Oh, I know that, Boyd. You take stubborn to a whole new level."
"Precisely. Now go and do whatever it is you need to do, woman; it's bedtime. There's a clean shirt in my bag you can have."
More than slightly mischievous herself, Grace walks out of the bathroom and asks, "So what do you think?"
Boyd is under the bedcovers, shoulders propped on pillows, hands behind his head. He doesn't make any attempt to disguise the way his eyes travel up and down her body, nor does he bother to conceal the speculative look which dawns in his eyes. "Erotic. Definitely erotic."
She has to agree with him, if for slightly different reasons. The shirt is clean and crisp, but even if it doesn't hold the scent of him, there is still something erotic about knowing that it's his. Knowing, in fact, that she's probably seen him wearing it in the office on many, many occasions. With a slight chuckle, she says, "I have to say, I never expected to find myself wearing a borrowed shirt again. Not at my age."
"And there she goes again," he says with a sigh. "Face it, Grace, it looks a damned sight better on you than it does on me."
"Actually, that's a matter of opinion. Or of perspective."
"Yeah. You're a good clothes horse and you know it. Any wine left?"
"Hop in and join the party."
Switching the room's main light off, Grace joins him cautiously in the double bed. The total absurdity of the situation easily overwhelms any lingering traces of unease, and she laughs softly as Boyd solemnly pours the wine into the chunky ceramic mug she holds out. "I'm not sure a Merlot was exactly the right choice for the occasion."
"I'll take your word for it."
"Well," Grace says after a sip or two of wine and a few moments of contemplation. "It's been… an original… sort of day, one way and another. I can't say when I got in the car this morning I expected to end up sitting in bed with you drinking wine out of a couple of tea mugs."
"Didn't exactly cross my mind, either."
"So what happens now?"
"Now," he says, "I try extremely hard to remember that I'm a gentleman. Trust, not sex, remember?"
"Listen to that wind picking up," Grace says into the darkness.
"It's wild out there."
"Play your cards right, Grace, and it could get pretty wild in here, too."
No reply. Just the sound of Boyd breathing, and of the coastal wind gusting outside the window. Grace finds the darkness oddly comforting, and it encourages her to curl herself closer against him. The feel of his skin, smooth and warm, is remarkably addictive. With all the lights off she can't see very much at all, but she can feel how sleek he is, can feel the prominent, hard lines of muscle and bone under the softer flesh. One hand wanders unconsciously, exploring the newly-discovered contours of his torso, and she's slightly startled when she feels the distinct contraction of his stomach muscles and hears the corresponding sharp intake of breath. Embarrassed, she stills her hand and says, "Sorry."
"It's fine," he says, sounding only a little strained. "Just… do me a favour and stay north of the equator, will you?"
Grace chuckles despite herself. "Why?"
"Why do you bloody think? If you're going to tease, you can stay on your own side of the damned bed."
"Ah, ha," she says, amused. "That's more like the Peter Boyd we know and love. No more Mr Sensitivity, eh?"
"You're really pushing your luck. Right, that's it. Keep your hands to yourself."
"But it's so much fun…"
The reply is bad-tempered. "Yeah, for you I'm sure it's bloody hilarious. Hands off."
"Boyd?" Grace says, barely containing her laughter.
"Are you, by any chance, getting the tiniest bit grumpy?"
"Piss off, Grace," he says, and rolls abruptly onto his side, back firmly to her. "Just go to sleep and leave me and my hard-on to suffer alone together in silence. God, the things I do for you."
"Have I ever told you that there's something about the back of your neck that's incredibly sexy?"
The answer is a disapproving mutter. "For fuck's sake…"
"My patience is wearing very thin, Grace."
She presses up against his back, kisses the nape of his neck softly. "Incredibly sexy."
"I'm warning you…"
"I'm suitably terrified."
Boyd moves a lot faster than she expects, and the result is a swift and rather exciting tussle which ends, inevitably, with him pinning her easily to the other side of the bed. His voice is a low growl in the dark, but Grace knows full well the gruffness is entirely feigned as he says, "Let me introduce you to your side of the bed. Please make sure you remain on it for the duration."
Grace laughs up at him, amused, happy and not remotely intimidated. "You really do have a hard-on, don't you?"
"Manifestly. Are you going to behave yourself?"
She pretends to think about it. "I can't guarantee it."
Boyd collapses back onto the other side of the mattress. "Great. Just great."
She tries, but Grace can't sleep. Apparently, her bedmate has no such problem – he's lying on his side again, snoring softly. Perhaps it should grate on her nerves, but it doesn't. Instead, she finds the way he is so completely relaxed faintly endearing. She's rarely known him so still, so quiet. Her thoughts wander idly, but inevitably they return to the man asleep next to her. Some kind of elemental truth is beginning to dawn for Grace; the knowledge, perhaps, that despite her fears there's no indication at all that Peter Boyd wants to be anywhere else but with her. So many years, she thinks. So many years of friendship and laughter, tears and tantrums, so many years of disagreements and misunderstandings; so many years of flirtation, banter and companionship. She thinks they've grown into each other as the years have rolled by. He's mellowed just a little; she's not as fiercely critical.
Grace doesn't doubt he loves her, nor does she doubt the tenacity of his devotion to her. She wonders, though, what will happen when she returns to the CCU fulltime, whether they will really be able to maintain the professional detachment required of them both. Boyd is obstinate, fiery and thoroughly dedicated to his job; he works too many hours, commits far too much of himself to the unit, and she wonders what will happen if they encounter a clear conflict of interest between their personal and professional lives. She suspects he would chastise her for such thoughts, but it's in her nature to think, just as it is in his to act.
It's irrelevant, Grace realises abruptly. Completely irrelevant. Doubtless there will be problems – Boyd is not, after all, the easiest of men to have any kind of relationship with, regardless of any work-related issues – but the proverbial die is cast for them now. They're already on the road, wherever it ends up leading. He loves her and she… she loves him. She thinks about that for several minutes in the quiet darkness, takes time to examine the concept carefully and to painstakingly reflect on everything she feels for him.
The moment of perfect clarity comes when he stirs slightly in his sleep and rolls onto his back, inadvertently bringing the length of their bodies into close contact. He's warm and solid, utterly real. No dream phantom, no wishful fantasy. Just a real man who loves and laughs as easily as he storms and rages. Real in his flaws and foibles, real in his affections and desires. He is real and he is hers. And she wants him.
It is not a new revelation, but it's the first time she's confronted it without fear.
Deliberately, Grace allows herself to act on instinct, propping herself up on her elbow and placing her free hand on his stomach, fingers splayed. In the darkness she feels far more than she sees, but somehow that only encourages the rising heat of her blood. Leaning over him, she presses a kiss to his chest, gratified when he stirs almost immediately. His voice is rough with sleep, and it holds a note of genuine bemusement as he says, "Grace? You all right?"
"Yes," she murmurs against him. "Very definitely."
He clears his throat. "What time is it?"
"No idea," Grace tells him, concentrating on brushing light kisses against his skin.
The plaintive tone of his voice makes her smile. "What?"
"What are you doing?"
"Incredibly naïve question, Peter."
"Let me put it another way," his voice says in the darkness. "Why are you doing what you're doing?"
"Why do you think?" Grace asks him, and very deliberately moves her hand lower. The palpable hardness she encounters beneath the thin cotton of his shorts only surprises her in its dimensions. Archly, she says, "I was right."
There's a moment of silence as he evidently tries to interpret the statement. Followed by a deeply reluctant, "About what?"
"I always suspected you were a big lad."
He groans, and it is not a groan of pleasure in any shape or form. "What are you trying to do to me, Grace?"
She kisses the hollow beneath his Adam's apple, says simply, "Seduce you…"
Faced with laughing or crying – both from the sheer emotional release of the whole thing – Grace ultimately opts for laughing, but the balance is assuredly tipped by the stupefied, tranquil state of the great, gentle bear she finds herself left with in the serene aftermath. Not once in all the years has she ever seen Boyd so docile, so malleable, so utterly compliant. She thinks – rightly – that at that moment he would accede to anything, give her anything, promise her anything. Yet, even dazed and sated there's a core of strength in him that denies any suggestion of weakness – tractable, yes; ineffectual, no.
She curls into him more comfortably, kisses his shoulder. "Worth the wait?"
The answer is a deep, lazy sort of growl. "God, yes."
Absurdly happy, Grace smiles. "Good."
There's a subtle sort of pause followed by an oddly subdued, "So much for everything I said about this being about trust not sex."
The need to reassure him is a powerful one. Close to his ear, she murmurs, "I think you're forgetting who jumped on who."
"Even so," he says into the darkness. "I'm not feeling particularly proud of myself, Grace."
Again, she kisses his shoulder. "You should."
"Don't," Boyd says, and the edge to his voice is real. "This whole thing suddenly feels horribly contrived. I wasn't trying to… Oh, God. I'm no good at this sort of thing. My intentions were good, okay? They really were."
Grace shakes her head slightly. "Sometimes you're unbelievable. Is there anything you can't make yourself feel guilty about if you try hard enough?"
"What do you mean?"
"Just that you try to assume responsibility for everything. You're not omnipotent, Boyd. You're not responsible for everything that happens in the world, and when things go wrong, it's not always your fault. And before you say a word, no, I'm not implying that things have gone wrong here. For heaven's sake… You accuse me of trying to look after everyone else, but you're just as bad."
"Well that's bollocks."
"No it's not. Have you ever heard of Jungian archetypes?"
Boyd groans. "Please, Grace. Not now, not in the middle of the bloody night."
"Well stop being such an idiot, then."
Grace waits, mentally counting the seconds, and smiles to herself when his voice says, "Good, though, wasn't it?"
There's another pause. "Want to do it again?"
His tone is sly. "Might be able to rise to the occasion. Given enough encouragement."
Deadpan, she says, "I'm impressed."
"Plenty of life left in the old dog yet, you know."
Grace smirks. "I'm glad about that. But I really think some sleep might be in order first…"
The cold grey light of a winter dawn isn't terribly flattering, but somehow it doesn't seem to matter. Not in the warmth of the affection, or in the heat of the passion. The way Boyd erases all her doubts and insecurities is effortless, and she adores him for it. He lays her bare beneath him, and Grace basks in it, accepting it all for what it is without fear or anxiety, giving and taking in equal measure. Such thoughts as she has are very far from analytical, intellectual. It astonishes her, the things she finds in him – all the things she expects, and all the things she doesn't. The gentleness of him, the arrogance of him; the sensitivity of him, the power of him. Everything he is, everything she wants him to be. And when it is done, when they are again comfortably stunned and sated, she knows without question that their future is set, whatever obstacles may appear before them.
Half-sitting, her back against the bed's slightly threadbare headboard, Grace cradles his head in her lap, strokes his hair as she stares wordlessly down at him. He looks back at her, dark eyes unfathomable, and the silence between them is a tender, affectionate thing. Finally he says, "Marry me."
Grace shakes her head. "Not if you were the last man alive."
His answering expression, bemused, slightly hurt and intensely curious, is a picture. "Why not?"
"Some things just aren't meant to be bound. Some things – some people – are meant to remain free."
Boyd snorts. "Bloody hippy talk."
"Maybe," Grace admits. "But true. A wolf that sleeps by a hunter's fire is still a wolf. A wolf that sleeps by a hunter's fire with a collar round its neck is a dog."
Sounding disgusted, he says, "Oh, please…"
"Think what you like," Grace says, smiling despite herself. "But I'm still not marrying you."
"I won't ask again."
Complacently, she says, "You will. One day."
"You sound very sure of that."
"I am," Grace tells him simply.
Boyd frowns up at her. "Why?"
Still smiling, she says, "Because at heart, Peter, wolf or not, you're far more conventional and conformist than I am."
"What is this?" Boyd asks, glancing across the table at her.
Grace tries hard to restrain the urge to laugh. Mildly, she says, "I think it's breakfast, Boyd."
"Are you quite sure about that?"
"Call it an educated guess. Just eat it. I don't think the dragon lady likes us very much as it is, without you complaining about the standard of her food."
On cue, the stout, stereotypical landlady appears. Her expression is on the arctic side of frosty, and it's Grace she addresses. "Everything all right, Mrs Boyd?"
"Foley," Boyd says easily before Grace can say a single word. "I'm Boyd, she's Foley."
He may be on the other side of the table, but Grace still manages to land a swift, sharp kick to his shin. It's too late. The frosty expression has become even more glacial. "I see."
"Don't blame me," Boyd says, giving a good impression of a thoroughly subjugated man. "Apparently she wouldn't marry me if I was the last man alive."
Grace glares and simultaneously kicks him again. Hard. To the landlady, she says, "Do you think we could possibly have some more toast?"
"More toast," the landlady echoes, as if such a request is a completely alien concept. The temperature in the small, painfully flowery dining room is threatening to reach absolute zero.
To Grace's complete disgust, Boyd gives the elderly landlady the full benefit of his most angelic, most heart-stopping smile. "Would that be all right?"
"Of course," the landlady says quickly, apparently suddenly very flustered. "I'll get some for you right away."
"I hate you," Grace mouths silently at him. But Boyd just smiles. Incorrigibly.
They are on the beach when Boyd's phone starts to shrill. The sea is dark and uninviting, and the wind is bitterly cold, and Grace is just beginning to pine slightly for London. Boyd locates his phone, glances at the display and says, "Spence."
Grace raises her eyebrows. "At this time on a Sunday morning?"
"My office line's on divert to his mobile."
"Oh, that's cruel, Boyd. Does he know?"
"He does now," Boyd says placidly, thumbing the answer button. "Yeah…?"
She watches the cold grey sea and the circling gulls. There's no-one in sight in either direction and Grace has a momentary fancy that they are entirely alone in the world. Boyd is prowling, head down against the wind, and the snatches of conversation that reach her don't surprise her at all. Eventually he stashes the phone back in his coat pocket and walks back towards her. She knows immediately that their day is over.
"Let me guess," she says. "Mummified corpse found in someone's attic?"
"Better," Boyd tells her. "Dismembered, desiccated body parts in a suitcase at Victoria Station."
"Oh, that's so clichéd."
"Thought you'd like it. Transport Police won't touch it with a bargepole, and CID told them to get lost."
Dryly, she says, "Let's hear it for the CCU."
"We go where angels fear to tread. Or, at least, we go where no-one else can be arsed to go."
"Eve's on the scene, and the DAC wants to know if we're taking it."
"And are we?"
He shrugs. "Oh, I think so, don't you? When was the last time we dealt with a really good dismemberment? I know how much you like them."
"Lovely," Grace says without enthusiasm. "Are we going straight back to London, then?"
Boyd shakes his head. "I'm trying to master the art of delegation."
Startled, she stares at him. "Seriously?"
"Don't give me a chance to think twice about it, Grace, for God's sake."
Hands deep in his coat pockets, he gazes steadily at her, not saying a word. He doesn't need to. She understands. As long as she allows him to choose, he will do his best to compromise. It's far more than she ever thought he would give her.
Into the winter chill, she says, "Let's walk."
So they do. They walk along the chilly December beach, her arm linked firmly through his, the only figures to be seen anywhere, and if there had been anyone to notice them, the only thing about them that might appear in any way remarkable would be the open, happy expression on her face and the wry, indulgent rejoinder in his dark eyes.
- the end -