‘Take good care of her for us,’ I say. ‘Mind if I cut in?’
He twirls Laurie round one last time and dips her over his arm. ‘She’s all yours, mate.’
She raises her eyebrows at Luke. ‘Do I get any say in this?’
He winks and kisses her cheek. ‘Sorry, Laurie; I should go and check on the wife anyway.’ He grins at me as he walks away.
Laurie stands in front of me. She’s bright-eyed and flushed. She looks more like she used to, happy and carefree.
‘Dance with me, Lu? For old times’ sake?’
I don’t know what to say, because I want to say yes. Or rather, a small part of me wants to. The greater, more sensible part of me knows that Jack is a place I shouldn’t go. Especially when I’ve lost count of the glasses of wine I’ve drunk.
I glance around. ‘Where’s Amanda?’
He scrubs his hand over his hair and shrugs. ‘She went outside to make a call.’ He frowns. ‘Or take a call. She won’t mind.’
He laughs, as if it’s a stupid question. ‘She’s not a jealous psycho, Lu, she knows you’re one of my oldest friends.’
I can’t help smiling because his laugh has been missing from my life for so long. It’s late and the lights are low, and his green-gold eyes are the same green-gold eyes I looked into one December night from the top deck of a bus on Camden High Street. It seems like a lifetime ago. For that girl, I can’t say no.
He draws me against him, one hand warm round my waist, the other holding mine.
‘I can’t believe she’s actually leaving,’ I say. ‘It’s too far away.’
‘It’ll be okay,’ he says, quiet by my ear. ‘Nowhere’s that far away these days.’
‘But I can’t call Australia every day, and she’ll be so busy.’
‘Call me sometimes instead, then.’ He rests his chin on the top of my head.
This isn’t going to plan. I came here determined to be polite and civil to Jack if he was here tonight, nothing more and nothing less. Yet somehow I’m dancing with him, his hand rubbing up and down my spine, and time seems to have done something strange, because I’m not the Laurie I was a couple of hours ago. I’m the Laurie I was seven years ago. Oh, Oscar, why didn’t you come?
‘I remember you telling me once about the boy you danced with at the school disco,’ he says, low laughter in his throat. ‘Don’t go and headbutt me.’
I lay my cheek against his chest. ‘We’ve shared a lot over the years, haven’t we?’
I can’t answer him honestly, because what I’d have to say is yes, too much. You take up too much of my heart and it’s not fair on my husband.
‘Did you tell Sarah that I kissed you? Is that why she wasn’t at your wedding?’
I’ve always known he’d ask me this one day or another. There are very few good reasons why Sarah would miss my wedding, and he probably sussed that she didn’t have any family emergency.
‘Yes, but I didn’t say you did it, just that it happened.’ We turn slowly under the glittering low lights, pressed together from shoulder to hip. ‘I couldn’t lie to her face when she asked me.’
‘I lost you for a while afterwards.’ His breath warms my ear. ‘I hated it.’
He looks down at me, and then he lays his forehead against mine. There’s no one else in this room any more for me. He’s Jack O’Mara, and I’m Laurie James, and I close my eyes and remember us.
‘Do you think we were always destined to know each other?’ I say.
In my head I’m cresting the Ferris wheel with Jack beside me, our heads tipped back to look at the stars. Perhaps it’s the wine, but my stomach flips slowly as he laughs quietly against my ear.
‘I don’t know if I believe in all that destiny stuff, Lu, but I’ll always be glad you’re in my life.’
He looks down into my eyes and his mouth is so close I can feel his breath on my lips. I ache.
‘Me too,’ I whisper. ‘Even though being with you is hard on my heart sometimes.’
It’s difficult to read the look in his eyes. Regret, maybe?
‘Don’t,’ he says. ‘Don’t say any more.’ He brushes my hair behind my ear, probably so I can hear him more clearly, but what it actually does is bring his lips heart-stoppingly close to my skin. ‘We’ve both got too much to lose.’
‘I know,’ I say, and I do. God knows I do. I’m lonely so much of the time, but Oscar’s continued absences are no justification for crossing lines that should never be crossed with a wedding ring on your hand.
‘We’re not kids any more,’ Jack says, his thumb circling slowly on the base of my back. ‘You’re Oscar’s wife. I watched you marry him, Laurie.’
I try to recapture the feeling of my wedding day, but all my treacherous heart can conjure up is Jack’s speech.
‘Do you ever think what if …’ I stop, because his lips brush briefly against the skin beneath my ear as he bends his head to shush me. I’m shamed by the sharp twist of lust that stabs through me, all the way from my ear to the pit of my stomach. It takes my breath; I want him with a force that frightens me.
‘Of course I’ve wondered what if,’ he says, so low and intimate that his words slide straight into my veins. ‘But we know what if, Lu. We tried it once before, remember? We kissed and it made everything worse for both of us.’
‘Of course I remember,’ I breathe. I’ll remember to the day I die.
He adjusts our hands, his fingers warm around mine.
And then he looks down at me, and his eyes say all the things he cannot. His gaze holds mine as we dance slowly, and I silently tell him that I’ll always carry him in my heart, and he silently tells me that in another place, another time, we’d have been pretty damn close to perfect.
‘For what it’s worth –’ his hand slips into my hair and he strokes his thumb along my jaw – ‘and because we’re finally being honest with each other, you’re just about my favourite person in the world, and it was the single most spectacular kiss of my whole life.’
I’m lost. Lost in his words, and his arms, and in what might have been.
‘We could …’ I start, but I don’t say more, because we both know we can’t.
‘Don’t,’ he says. ‘We’re all where we should be.’
I start to cry; too much wine, too much emotion, too much of my life walking out the door tonight. He gathers me close and presses his lips to my ear.
‘Don’t cry,’ he says. ‘I love you, Laurie James.’
I look up, unsure how to read his words, and he looks away.
I turn at the sound of Amanda’s voice as she weaves towards us through the dancers.
‘Okay?’ She looks from Jack to me, eyebrows raised in enquiry, and I dash my hands across my wet cheeks.
‘Sorry. Emotional wreck,’ I gulp, shaky. ‘Ignore me, it’s the wine. I’m just upset about Sarah leaving.’ I glance quickly at Jack, not quite meeting his eyes. ‘Sorry about your damp shirt. Send me the dry-cleaning bill.’
Wearily, I let myself into the flat and strip off for bed. Considering the amount of wine I’ve had, I’m suddenly as sober as a judge. I’ve been over and over the things we said tonight, and I’m shamed by how easily the bedrock of my marriage crumbled under pressure. The truth is that I’ve walked around the edge of being in love with Jack for too many years. It’s made me realize something inevitable, something that’s been a long time coming: he and I would be better off without each other.
I need to unwind the roots of Jack O’Mara from my life. He’s too much a part of who I am, and me a part of him. The problem with uprooting things is that sometimes it kills them altogether, but that’s a risk I have to take. For the sake of my marriage; for the sake of all of us.