The Affair – Sheryl Browne

Pulling wearily into the drive after a double shift on call at the hospital, Justin was relieved to see Alicia hadn’t yet left for work. They rarely argued, preferring to talk things through. They’d come close to arguing last weekend, though, and hadn’t yet resolved the issue. His issue, he’d realised. Justin hadn’t much liked himself for acting like a suspicious prat and obviously upsetting her. He’d been sure he’d heard her crying in the bathroom, and that had gutted him. At the time, given he’d been inwardly fuming, he’d thought he’d been quite restrained. But thinking about it since, no matter how restrained he’d imagined himself to be, the unspoken accusation had been there, and that was bloody unfair. The last time she’d cried heartbroken tears, it had been for him, when his family had been so senselessly murdered. She’d been there unstintingly for him ever since. She was there whenever he relived that awful night in his dreams, sweat pooling at the base of his neck and saturating the sheets beneath him. Unable to contact his parents or his sister, he’d gone to their house and let himself in with the key he still had. The first thing he’d noticed was the smashed mirror on the hall wall. Justin closed his eyes, feeling afresh the cold fear that had settled in the pit of his stomach when he’d realised the blood at the epicentre of the fractured glass belonged to his sister. She’d tried to run.

Her assailant, not fit to be labelled an animal, had left her bleeding out from her knife wounds on the hall floor. He hadn’t been able to cry. He’d been numb, incapable of processing his emotions, unable to reach out to Alicia, until she’d forced him to, holding him like she would never let him go and crying with him. He had no idea what he would have done if she hadn’t been there for him then. They’d not long been married. He’d been so wrapped up in his grief, he’d shut her out. She’d had every reason to walk away, yet she hadn’t. He needed to apologise, end this awkwardness he’d caused between them. Grovel, if necessary. Luke was only six months old, for Christ’s sake.

Her sister’s birthday party, which she’d needed some persuading to get dressed up to go to, had been Alicia’s first night out after a complicated caesarean section that had nearly cost her and Luke their lives. What in God’s name had possessed him to end up spoiling it for her? ‘Whoops, sorry.’ He found himself apologising prematurely as he opened the front door and narrowly missed hitting her with it. ‘My fault.’ Alicia shuffled around from where she was strapping Luke into his carrier. ‘I’m a bit disorganised, as you might have gathered. We’re running late, as per usual.’ Pressing a kiss to Luke’s soft, downy head, she smiled up at him, somewhat guardedly, Justin noted, which made him like himself even less, and then got to her feet. ‘There are croissants in the oven. Still warm, just about.

Don’t forget to eat,’ she said, heading for the kitchen, and then back-stepping to call up the stairs, ‘Sophie! Clock’s ticking.’ ‘I’m coming!’ Sophie yelled from her bedroom. ‘Do you want me to go to school naked or what?’ That would be minus her make-up, Justin gathered. Shaking his head amusedly, he crouched down to say hello to Luke, who jiggled happily and offered him a delighted, gummy smile. ‘Pandemonium reigns.’ Justin gave him a conspiratorial smile back. ‘So, how’re you doing, little man, hey? Keeping a low profile, I hope.’ Catching hold of one excitedly flailing hand, he marvelled again at the miracle of their surprise arrival. He was doing well – healthy and strong after a worrying premature birth. His mind drifted to the baby who’d undergone a complicated procedure in the early hours of the morning.

Would she be strong enough to survive, he wondered? Admitted with an extradural haemorrhage caused by a head injury, and with no paediatric surgeon available, Justin had had no choice but to drain the blood off, thus reducing cranial pressure, himself. The next twenty-four hours would tell. She was a fighter though. All Justin could do now was pray she didn’t succumb to any infection. Reminding himself of all he had to be grateful for, Justin stroked Luke’s peachy cheek in lieu of giving him a cuddle and got to his feet. Massaging his aching neck, he turned tiredly to the stairs. His fifteen-year-old daughter was descending, clearly disgruntled about school days that started at such an ungodly hour they didn’t allow time for her morning beauty regime. ‘Good morning,’ said Justin, as she stomped past to pick up her schoolbag. ‘It’s not. It’s raining.

’ Sophie huffed moodily. Justin smiled and waited, and sure enough, Sophie back-stepped to plant a kiss on his cheek. ‘Morning, Dad,’ she said, with a sheepish smile. ‘Oh.’ Looking him over, her forehead creased into a concerned frown. ‘Fun night, I take it?’ she enquired, obviously noticing his weariness. ‘I’ve had better,’ Justin admitted, and reached to give her shoulders a squeeze. ‘You’d better get a move on or you’ll be getting a black mark.’ ‘Again.’ Sophie mumbled, hitched her bag over her shoulder and turned to the front door.

‘Do you think you could help carry something, Sophie?’ Alicia called after her, emerging from the kitchen, Luke’s juice in one hand, handbag and baby bag in the other. ‘I’m running out of hands.’ Sighing, Sophie turned back to relieve Alicia of the juice, rolling her eyes as she did. Justin gave her a ‘don’t push it’ look, and Sophie looked suitably apologetic. ‘Bye. See you later,’ he said to Alicia, hoping she’d make proper eye contact with him. Alicia nodded. Her smile was tremulous, her eye contact brief. Justin inwardly cursed himself again. He really had acted like an idiot, cross-questioning her because some exwork colleague had made it obvious he was interested in her.

He wished they’d had time to talk properly since, but their conflicting schedules hadn’t allowed it. His, mostly. As clinical lead in accident and emergency, his job was demanding – soul-destroying, sometimes – with insane targets to meet. The rewards of helping outweighed the endless bureaucracy and the heartbreak of losing patients, but it took its toll. Double shifts were a killer, meaning their time together suffered. He should have made time. He’d been jealous, there were no two ways about it. He’d been furious when this guy, Paul Radley, had tried to get her to dance with him, grabbing her hand and dragging her away from her sister, sliding his arm around her waist – crossing the lines, in Justin’s book. Alicia had pulled away, left him standing on the dance floor, and Radley had looked nonplussed, agitated. Justin had watched him watching Alicia walk away.

He’d met him at the bar afterwards and there was something… the way the guy had looked at him – a challenge in his eyes, almost. It had caused Justin to wonder, just for a second, if something had gone on between Alicia and him, possibly because he’d been preoccupied with his own problems around the same time she’d worked with Radley in financial services. He’d ring her at work, he decided. Order some flowers to be delivered beforehand. Hope she was available and ask if she fancied having lunch with a sad, jealous bastard. Meanwhile, if he had any hopes of being at his scintillating best, he needed to catch up on some sleep. After a demanding night, he was utterly exhausted. All he wanted to do was crawl into bed. Yawning, he climbed the stairs, tugging off his jacket as he went, and then stopped, as Sophie trudged back through the door. Puzzled, Justin turned back.

‘I thought you were late?’ ‘I am now.’ Sophie sighed, with an obligatory roll of the eyes. ‘Mum’s outside calling the breakdown service. The car won’t start.’ TWO ALICIA ‘Nope, it’s not going anywhere,’ Justin confirmed. ‘You’re out of petrol.’ He nodded towards the dash and then glanced sympathetically up at Alicia. ‘Oh no.’ Alicia sighed inwardly. She’d been so het up when the engine had spluttered and died, she hadn’t even noticed the petrol gauge.

Her first job this morning was to arrange urgent accommodation for a young mother whose toddler had been assaulted by the child’s father. She couldn’t let that child down, or let her mother down, who wasn’t much more than a child herself. With more families on their caseloads than they could cope with, there were no other social workers to cover for her. Alicia felt suddenly too close to crying the tears she’d been desperately trying to hold back since she’d realised the grave danger her own family was in, and how much Justin would hurt, her children would hurt, because of her. Swallowing hard, she turned to the rear passenger door to start unbuckling Lucas, her precious baby boy. Justin would die to protect him, to protect Sophie. She would. Whatever hold Paul Radley imagined he had over her, she would kill to protect them. All of them, including her husband, who’d done nothing to deserve having the foundations of his life ripped from beneath him. Closing her eyes, she tried to still the image that Justin would see: another man’s breath hot on her neck, his mouth close to her ear, whispering his love for her as he pressed himself into her, assuring her that her husband need never find out.

It would destroy him. She wouldn’t allow it. Couldn’t. ‘How long before the breakdown service gets here?’ Justin asked, climbing out. ‘An hour,’ Alicia said quietly, lifting Lucas out, easing him close to her shoulder and breathing in that special smell that binds baby and mother together forever. ‘Sorry, sweetheart. Mummy’s been a very silly mummy, hasn’t she?’ Silly and weak, and unforgivably deceitful. Her heart squeezing inside her, Alicia eased back to drink her little miracle man in, marvelling at the perfectness of him, his softly curled eyelashes, his perfect cupid lips. ‘I’ll drive you,’ Justin offered. ‘The only alternative is to fetch petrol from the garage and that will probably take just as long.

’ ‘It’s okay, Justin,’ Alicia assured him, noting the dark circles under his eyes. He looked utterly exhausted. His job was demanding enough without her troubles to contend with. Her heart twisted as she thought about what he’d already had to deal with, the awful loss in his life. What he might still have to face, unless she could stop whatever was lurking, ready to twist and weave its insidious way through the fabric of their marriage. ‘You’ve been working all night,’ she reminded him, as if he would need reminding. ‘You’re possibly not even safe to drive. I could take your car.’ She glanced towards it. ‘As long as you don’t need it before I get home?’ ‘I don’t, but…’ Justin looked uncertain.

‘You haven’t driven anything but an automatic for years, Ali. I’m not sure I’d get much sleep, worrying about you having an accident.’ ‘I’ll be fine. I’ll get the hang of it once I get going.’ Alicia waved away his concerns. ‘It’s a forty-minute round trip. I won’t die of sleep deprivation, I promise,’ Justin assured her. ‘I’ll take you. I’m only going to be texting you otherwise.’ Guilt immediately lodged itself like a hard stone in Alicia’s chest.

He would text her. He always did, checking she’d arrived safely. Just wanted to remind you I love you – that was his latest subtle way of enquiring. ‘Thanks.’ Alicia glanced away. She couldn’t meet his eyes, just then. How would he cope, if he knew? Losing his family all over again – how would he ever be able to deal with it? He couldn’t find out. Whatever she had to do, she had to make sure he never found out. ‘Are you getting in?’ Justin asked her, his head cocked bemusedly to one side as he looked her over, clearly noting her mind was elsewhere. ‘Yes, sorry, miles away.

’ Alicia turned to the door he’d opened in his own car, quickly strapped Lucas into the carrier that was already there and then hurried around to the front passenger side. ‘Where’s Sophie?’ she asked, climbing in. ‘Waiting in the hall rather than get rained on,’ Justin supplied, smiling wryly as he climbed into the driver’s side. ‘Sorry about forgetting to fill it up,’ Alicia said, for want of something to say, as she fumbled for her seatbelt. ‘I meant to do it yesterday, but I completely forgot.’ ‘I’m not surprised.’ Justin started the engine. ‘You obviously have a lot on your mind.’ Alicia felt her heart thud. What did he mean? ‘I did the same thing myself last week,’ Justin went on, clearly attempting to make her feel less incompetent, rather than make any insinuation.

‘It’s not a problem. I can catch up on my sleep later.’ ‘I’ll have to pin a note on the fridge or put an alert on my phone or something. My head’s like a sieve these days. I swear pregnancy addled my brain.’ Plugging in her seatbelt, Alicia babbled inconsequently, desperate to stay on safe ground. ‘All done?’ Justin asked her, checking she had belted up. He was always attentive in that way, making sure she was safe. That Sophie and Lucas were. Alicia had hoped to do the same for him, keep him safe, when he’d been floundering after losing his family in the cruellest possible way.

A hope doomed to failure. Part of her had known that the truth would come out, causing her world to unravel. She’d ignored it. Hoped it would go away. And now Paul Radley had come back. The lie she’d told was in danger of being exposed. She couldn’t ignore it. Not any longer. ‘Good.’ Justin went quiet, and then turned to glance towards the house, presumably checking for signs of Sophie.

For a long second, silence hung heavy between them, like a yawning chasm, and then he turned back to her. The icy chill running the length of her spine told Alicia he was about to broach the subject she’d prayed he wouldn’t. She wasn’t ready. He wasn’t. He would never be. Her heart sank hopelessly. ‘Alicia,’ he started hesitantly, ‘about the other night, I was—’ The passenger door being yanked open cut him short, allowing Alicia to breathe out the breath she hadn’t realised she was holding in. ‘God, what is it with this rain?’ Sophie moaned, throwing herself into the back seat. ‘It’s totally ruining my hair.’ ‘Don’t worry, Sophie, you’re still irresistibly gorgeous, even with totally ruined hair.

’ Justin eyed her amusedly through the rear-view mirror as he pulled out of the drive. ‘But not as irresistible as your mother, obviously.’ Alicia felt her heart drop as if down a lift shaft. ‘I assume there was some kind of innuendo in there?’ she asked him quietly. ‘What?’ Justin looked across to her, surprised. ‘No,’ he said quickly. ‘There wasn’t meant to be. Look, Alicia’ – he glanced again in his mirror, careful of Sophie in the back – ‘about the other night: I was out of order. Overreacting. A touch of the green-eyed monster, obviously.

Can you blame me? You’re a beautiful woman.’ Astonished by that, Alicia simply stared at him. ‘So, have you two kissed and made up then?’ Sophie asked, clearly aware of the awkwardness there’d been between them. ‘Only Luke reckons all this not talking to each other crap is really juvenile, don’t you, Luke?’ ‘I don’t know.’ Justin turned questioningly to Alicia as he slowed at the traffic lights. ‘Have we?’ Alicia studied him, bewildered. How could he imagine she was beautiful? How could he ever have? Her heart felt too big in her chest, stuffed full of regret, of overwhelming love for this man, who actually had made her feel beautiful – even immediately post pregnancy, he’d told her she was gorgeous. Small lies, little white lies to make her feel better, whereas hers… Feeling as if it might be for the last time, she leaned towards him and pressed a soft kiss to his cheek. She wished there was a way to tell him, before his love turned to hatred, how deeply she loved him. Justin reached to squeeze her hand, and then, a warm glint in his eyes, leaned towards her to steal a kiss of his own.

‘Urgh, cover your eyes, Luke,’ Sophie advised her baby brother. ‘The parents are doing lovey-dovey stuff in public. So embarrassing.’ Alicia felt a laugh bubble up inside her. It felt good. For the briefest moment, everything felt normal. If only she could hold on to it. Never let it go. ‘Sorry,’ Justin mouthed, giving her an apologetic smile. Gulping back her heartache, Alicia smiled back and cupped her hand to his face, needing to feel the solidity of him.

Soon it would be gone. Soon her man – her strong, dependable man – would recoil at her touch. ‘Er, excuse us, children present.’ Sophie sighed disapprovingly, and then said, ‘Dad, lights. You’re stopping traffic.’ ‘Hell,’ Justin mumbled, checking the lights and then pulling hurriedly out. Alicia was still looking at him when her blood froze in her veins. ‘Justin!’ she screamed, clutching his arm hard. Instinctively slamming his foot on the brake, Justin swung his gaze to the side window. ‘Dear God…’ The words died on his lips as the full impact of the collision hit the family.

.

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