'After you,' I said as I opened the kitchen door. Carmine smiled, stepped in front of me, and walked into the parlour. I heard the word "Aberdeen" and realised that Lavender had been discussing my job with her father.
'Lavender tells me that you're trying for a promotion,' Don Brown said.
'Yes,' I said. I sat on the sofa and settled myself next to Lavender, preparing myself for a long cross-examination. 'The interviews are next week.'
'Don't get too comfortable, Mark. We really must go,' Lavender told me firmly, before her father could ask anything else.
I glanced at the ornate painted bone-china clock on the wall. It was only a little after half-past seven in the evening. We had spent most of the day with her parents and, for me at least, the time had flown by. For some reason, however, Lavender suddenly seemed very eager to leave. I assumed that she was worried that her mother would bring out even more photograph albums for me to look at.
I looked out of the window towards the sea, towards the south. The grey-green waters were churning, and slivers of white foam slid shoreward. The clouds were rolling in with the tide, and the sun was no more than a grey-pink tinge on the western horizon. It would soon be dark, and the night would probably be stormy.
'Are you sure that you don't want a Firewhisky before you go?' asked Don, again.
He seemed determined to open the bottle of Bunnahabhain Fifteen-Year-Old, and to use me as the excuse. Lavender had bought a bottle of the expensive oak-aged Firewhisky for me for Christmas, and she'd bought the same for her father. I was beginning to wish that I'd never mentioned how much I'd enjoyed it.
'Thanks for the offer, Don, but no thanks. I wouldn't want to splinch myself. I find Apparating difficult enough when I'm sober,' I admitted. 'Next time, perhaps?' I turned to address Lavender's mother. 'Thank you so much for showing me those photographs, Carmine. Lavender was such a cute little girl, wasn't she?' I paused and looked carefully at Carmine. I'd discovered that she had a surprisingly mischievous sense of humour. 'Who would have thought that she spent so much time dressing up and pretending to be a princess?' I asked innocently. Carmine smiled.
Lavender moved her leg sideways and gently pressed a stiletto heel onto the side of my boot. It was a polite warning, and I heeded it.
'Thank you for helping me with the washing up, Mark. And for your help preparing afternoon tea, too,' said Carmine. 'I'm glad that you know your way around a kitchen, because Lavender is simply hopeless. I tried my best when she was younger, but she was simply…'
'Mother,' said Lavender firmly. 'I think that you've told Mark enough of my secrets for one day.'
'I think you have told him quite a few, too,' she said firmly, staring into her daughter's eyes. 'He certainly seems to know some things about you that we didn't.'
'Hmmm,' murmured Lavender evasively. She stood and smoothed down her skirt. 'Come along, Mark,' she ordered, so I, too, stood.
Carmine smiled at me. 'You must come again, Mark, next Sunday, perhaps?'
'He's busy,' Lavender said, before I'd even had a chance to calculate my shift pattern.
'Am I?' I asked, still puzzling through my shifts.
'Yes,' she told me firmly.
'Pity,' said Carmine. 'Oh, well. Call in any time, Mark, there's no need to wait for Lavender to bring you. Just knock on the door any time you're passing. Next time I'll show you the photographs of her tenth birthday.'
'Mother,' Lavender groaned and dragged me out into the hall. Her parents stood and followed.
'I live in Edinburgh, Carmine,' I reminded her, while helping Lavender into her trench coat. 'I'm not likely to be passing.'
'Good luck with the interview, lad,' Don said. 'If you need any advice…'
'Bye, Daddy,' Lavender pointedly kissed her father on the cheek. She was suddenly desperate to leave, so I hastily pulled on my duffle coat.
'Bye, Princess,' he said, hugging her.
'Goodbye, Mother,' Lavender gave Carmine a hug and a kiss.
'Bye, darling,' she said. She stared seriously into Lavender's face. 'Now, you be good, and be nice to your young man, my girl.'
'Yes, Mummy,' said Lavender, sighing.
Bye, Don, bye Carmine,' I said. Carmine looked up into my face and puckered expectantly, so I bent down and kissed her cheek.
'Goodbye, Mark,' she said as she patted my shoulder and kissed my cheek in return.
Don held out a hand, which I took with some trepidation. His handshake was firm but, this time, not life-threatening. As we shook hands he clapped his left hand on my shoulder.
'Bye, son,' he said. 'It's been a pleasure to meet you.'
'It has indeed,' confirmed Carmine.
Lavender opened the door and dragged me outside. Her parents stood at the door, arms around each other, and waved us off.
'They're very nice, aren't they?' I asked. Lavender merely grunted, and we retraced our steps past the church. Lavender didn't speak until, after one final wave, we turned the corner and were finally out of sight of her parents and their house.
'I hate you,' she said venomously.
'What?' I said, as my world began to crumble.
'How did you do that?' she asked. 'It only took you about ten minutes to win Mum round. She thinks that you're wonderful, perfect. Bloody hell, Mark, you even helped her to wash and dry the dishes! What in Merlin's name were you talking about in there?'
'You,' I admitted. She groaned.
'What did she say?' she asked.
'That you're a good girl, really,' I said.
Lavender snorted and tossed her head scornfully.
'Even Dad likes you, and he hasn't liked any of my boyfriends, except Seamus. It's just not fair,' she said petulantly.
I pulled her to a halt, turned to face her, and grabbed her upper arms, forcing her to remain facing me. She wasn't really angry, I realised. She wasn't the spitting, clawing she-cat she could be. She was merely annoyed, and annoyed was easy to deal with.
'I'm really very sorry that your parents seem to like me, Lavender,' I said apologetically. 'I obviously misunderstood your intentions. I thought that's why you took me there to … to introduce me to them. What did you really want; did you expect them to murder me, or ban you from ever seeing me again?'
'They tried that, with Cormac,' she said. 'Mum and Dad ran into us in Diagon Alley. Dad hated him, told me never to see him again, because…'
'Actually, that's one of the things your mum told me in the kitchen,' I said. 'I really can't believe that you went out with McLaggen, Lavender. But I ran into him at school, and I can believe that he was stupid enough to try to give your dad advice about his fishing business, despite knowing nothing about fishing.'
'And Dad's spent his life at sea,' said Lavender. 'But that didn't stop Cormac, the expert on everything. I refused, of course. I didn't listen to my parents. Cormac "talked a good fight", as Dad would say, but that's all. He claimed to be good at everything, but he was all talk. He wasn't even very good in…' she stopped mid-sentence.
'I'm not sure that your dad likes me,' I said, trying to ignore the implications of Lavender's abrupt silence. 'I think that he's just decided to give me the benefit of the doubt, for the moment. He seemed a bit scary at first, but after what your mum told me about Cormac and Declan, I can understand his reaction when I arrived unannounced. He means well, and your mum is really lovely.'
I looked down into Lavender's face; her attempt to make herself angry had failed. She was now working on retaining a sullen, silent annoyance. What had she expected me to do?
'If you'd wanted them to hate me, Lavender, you should have told me!' I said seriously. 'I could have belched and farted and picked my nose and swore and been generally obnoxious.'
She looked up at me, and burst out laughing.
'No you couldn't, Mark,' she told me firmly. 'It's simply not in your nature. You are what you are. No deceit, no hidden agenda.' I released her arms and she ducked inside my hands and hugged me, slipped her arms around my waist and resting her cheek on my sternum.
'You're wrong, Lavender, I've always had a hidden agenda,' I confessed. 'You know what it was.' I gently touched the end of her nose with my forefinger.
'You think that was hidden?' she asked, tutting. 'Oh, my poor innocent, Marky. You asked me out, remember? You might have agreed to "just friends" at the time, but I knew you didn't mean it. No bloke ever does.'
I shrugged, and decided not to pursue that point to its logical conclusion.
'Don't be annoyed with your parents, please,' I said. 'They've been worried about you. Your mum told me, when I was drying the dishes. They worried when you were injured in the battle. They worried when you were bitten, and then, when you finished with Seamus and started … partying … your mum called it, they didn't know what to do.'
Lavender smiled ruefully.
'Your parents really love you, Lavender,' I said. 'And they aren't the only ones. I…'
'You should not have told them about the Muggle nightclubs I used to go to,' she said fiercely, and I knew that I'd gone too far. I'd managed to annoy her again. Not for the first time, she let me know that she did not want to hear the words I wanted to say.
'Sorry. I didn't know that they didn't know,' I said. 'I assumed that they knew what I knew, that you'd told them…' I lapsed into silence, uncertain what to say next. I had been surprised to discover that, in some matters, I was the only person Lavender had confided in. 'I've had a really nice day, thank you for taking me to meet them. If you didn't want them to like me, and you didn't want me to be rude to them, why did you take me?'
Lavender was silent for a moment, deciding whether to stay annoyed. She decided against it.
'I wanted to know what they would think of you,' she told me. 'And I … never mind, I'll tell you later.'
I knew that there was no point in pressing her. 'When will I see you again?' I asked.
'Again?' Lavender asked, suddenly playful. 'The night isn't over yet, Mark.' She looked across to the horizon, and up onto the mournful gloom of the dusk. 'In fact, the night hasn't even started. What time do you start work tomorrow?'
'It's my shift switch-over,' I reminded her. 'I start working nights tomorrow. I'm not due into the office for another twenty-four hours.'
'Good,' she said. She smiled wickedly. 'You aren't going home yet, Mark. You don't escape your punishment that easily. Come on.'
Lavender again lapsed into silence, and once again, I began to worry. She didn't speak again until she'd led me through the garage court to the safe Apparition point where we'd arrived.
'Hold tight,' she ordered.
I did as I was told, and an instant later I found myself standing on the doorstep of her cottage in Appledore.
'Oh,' I said nervously.
She dragged me inside, shrugged off her coat, and pulled mine off, too. She said nothing; she simply hung up the coats, grabbed my hand, walked straight past the door to her lounge, and led me upstairs to her bedroom.
'Lavender…' I began as she opened the door. I got no further. She gently placed a forefinger on my lips, silencing me.
She led me into her flouncy, pastel-shaded bedroom and across to her lace bestrewn four poster bed. 'Sit,' she said. I obeyed.
She knelt down in front of me.
'I…' I began.
The look she gave me was enough. I was not to say another word, until she allowed me to. Looking down at my feet, she unfastened my shoes, loosened the laces, and removed my shoes and socks. Grabbing my knees, she pulled my legs apart and used them to push herself back up onto her feet. She stepped between my thighs, grabbed my head and pulled it into her breasts, turning it so that my right ear was pressed against her heart. As I rested my suddenly spinning head on that soft cushion, she finally spoke. Her words tumbled out, disjointed and confused.
'I know that you're nervous, Mark,' she said. 'I could tell last night. You've seen my scars… You've seen me naked … literally naked … but you've seen me naked in other ways, too. You're the only person who has spent a night with the wolf. You're the only person who has been prepared to spend a night with the wolf. It's been six months Mark. I know you, and you know me… You're worried about what might happen if we… When we… I need to tell you something… I'm worried, too. In fact, I'm terrified. I took you to see my parents, because… Really, I don't know why I took you… Perhaps I hoped that they would hate you… Perhaps I hoped that they would finally approve of something I'd done…'
The hammering of her heartbeat in my ear told me that she was not lying. My hands were on my legs, I wasn't even touching her, but her honest anxiety was calling to me. I lifted my hands. The left I slid up her back, pulling myself even more tightly into her chest. The right I slid around her hips, to finally cradle her right buttock. Her hands were holding my head so tightly that it hurt; her fingernails were digging into my scalp.
We were pressed against each other and she was overwhelming my senses: all I could feel was her body; all I could hear was her halting, confused voice; all I could smell was her perfume; all I could see was her sweater stretched over the curve of her right breast.
'I might not…' I began to tell her.
She hissed me into silence.
'I think that I'm nervous for the same reason you are, Mark,' she told me. She took a deep breath. Her heart continued to hammer, but her fingers relaxed and they began to run through my hair, combing and caressing. I could feel the warm waft of her words, her sweet breath, on my scalp. 'I'm nervous because this will change everything. I'm nervous…' she hesitated, and then the words came tumbling out. 'I'm nervous because whatever it's like, it will … it will mean something. Not like … some of the other times.'
She grasped my skull and pulled me away from her chest. I looked up to see her face coming slowly down towards mine. Her eyes looked rather moist I noticed, a moment before she closed them. Then we were kissing; her lips were soft and warm upon mine, but our kiss was so gentle that it was almost chaste. I slid my hands over her body, up to her shoulders, and I gently pushed her away from me.
'We don't have to … if you don't want,' I said. 'You know that, don't you?'
'And we have to do it sometime,' she said. 'You know that, don't you?'
'Yes…' I began.
'But everything will change, won't it?' she said.
'Daddy says that we're all boats on the ocean. He says that even when we plot our course carefully, sometimes an unforeseen wind takes us somewhere we didn't intend to go. Sometimes we like it there, sometimes we don't, but we've got to keep sailing,' she said softly, grabbing my arms and lifting them from her shoulders.
'And you think that this is a good time to bring your father into this conversation?' I asked.
She laughed, pushed me backwards onto her bed and lowered herself on top of me, sliding her forearms under my shoulders and again grabbing my head in her hands. She kissed me, and this time it certainly wasn't chaste. I moved my hands onto her thighs, and slid them up to her hips. She lifted her lips from mine, but only by a fraction. Our noses still touched, her lips were only millimetres from mine.
'The zip is on the left hand side,' she whispered. She was so close that I could feel her words on my mouth.
My scrabbling fingers soon found it, but my first attempt failed.
'There's no rush, Emmsy,' she said. 'You don't need to be at work for twenty-four hours. And I have even longer.'
I took my time, followed her instructions, and eventually, we made it.