If You Kiss Me Like That will be out on 25 June 2020.
Here’s a preview. Enjoy!
If You Kiss Me Like That
© Harper Bliss
Ash quickly paid the driver and hopped out of the cab. She was only fifteen minutes late. Very acceptable by her own standards. But her own standards didn’t matter tonight. A swell of laughter came from behind the fogged-up windows of the party venue across the street. The place looked packed already. Of course it was. She couldn’t think of anyone else who would be there tonight who’d had to commute from London on a Friday night—most people at the party would be retired.
She took a deep breath and went inside. Mercifully, Adrian was standing close to the door and he was the first person to greet her.
“Hello stranger,” he said. “You made it.”
“Was there ever any doubt that I would?” Ash gave her brother a hug.
“Maybe you were hoping to get disowned.” Adrian held her at arms’ length and gave her a once-over. “You look like you work too hard.”
“I do work too hard,” Ash said. As well documented by my ex-wife.
“And for what?” Adrian grinned at her.
“I’d better go find Mum before she actually does disown me for being late on this very special birthday.”
“You can’t miss her. She’s the one with all the airs and graces.” Adrian winked at her.
Before Ash found her mother, she had to make her way through a throng of family members she hadn’t seen in a long time. Uncle Bernard hugged her like she was his own long-lost daughter. Auntie Mabel asked if she had a new girlfriend, emphasising the ‘girl’—as though she’d never been to Ash and Charlotte’s wedding. At least Auntie Joan told her she looked good; that was something.
“Darling.” Her mother opened her arms in a dramatic gesture as Ash approached. “There you are.”
“Happy birthday, Mum.” Ash hugged her mother, who held on to her as though she would never let her go again.
“I haven’t seen you in too long.”
“I was in town just last month.” Ash still stood squeezed in her mother’s embrace.
“It’s not enough.” Her mother finally let go of her. “Now that I’m officially retired, you’ll need to spend more time with me. What else am I going to do?”
“That’s why I got you this.” Ash reached into her blazer pocket and got out an envelope.
Her mother smiled widely, then tore it open. “Exchange this voucher for a night on the town with your only daughter,” she read aloud. “Oh, darling, I already look forward to it.” She kissed Ash on the cheek. “This is just for me, right? Your father’s not invited?”
“Just the two of us, Mum.” Ash had racked her brain for a suitable retirement-slash-birthday present until she came to the conclusion that the best thing she could ever give her mother was her time. “No men allowed.”
“You won’t be taking me to one of those bars, will you?” Her mother grinned.
“We’ll see,” Ash teased. “Speaking of men, where’s Dad?”
“Probably by the bar.” Her mother only half succeeded in suppressing an eye-roll. At least she hadn’t said anything about Ash being late. She had probably been too busy being the centre of attention.
“I’m going to find him. I’ll talk to you later.”
Ash waded through the sea of people, trying to find her father. She grabbed a glass of lukewarm prosecco on the way. Her dad was probably ordering a pint. Prosecco would be too girly for him.
“Ashley.” Before Ash was able to find her father, Aunt Daisy, her father’s only sister and Ash’s godmother, grabbed her by the arm. “Come here.”
Ash dutifully hugged her godmother. It had been a long week and it would be capped by a very long night. Not that Ash didn’t appreciate spending time with her family, but all of them concentrated in a room like this was a bit much. The last time all these people had gathered, had been at her and Charlotte’s wedding. Even though it had been the middle of July, it had rained all day, and the whole event had to take place inside. A bad omen if ever there was one.
“How are you?” Aunt Daisy’s tone was full of compassion—or was it pity?
“I’m fine. And you?” Aunt Daisy was well into her seventies now and getting her to list all her physical ailments would distract her from her goddaughter’s failed marriage for a while.
Ash emptied her glass of prosecco while listening to her godmother, who, instead of discussing her health, raved about her grandchildren. Ash wasn’t sure which was worse.
She caught a glimpse of her father, his elbow propped onto the bar. Ash managed to free herself from the conversation, with the promise that they would continue it later, and finally went to greet her father. That burly man who couldn’t stop tears streaming down his cheeks on his daughter’s wedding day. Ash didn’t know if his cheeks had remained dry on the day the divorce had been finalised. She guessed not, but she would never ask.
“I could murder one of those.” Ash pointed at her dad’s pint.
“Hi, darling,” her father said, as though he had just seen her a few hours ago. “Coming right up.” He gestured to the barman first, before curling an arm around Ash’s shoulders. “How are you?” He gave her shoulder a squeeze.
“Fine.” Fine, fine, fine. The number of times Ash had uttered that word since she and Charlotte had separated. As though it had to be repeated often enough to reassure everyone around her that she was, indeed, fine.
While she waited for her pint, it was as though everyone’s gaze was aimed at her, as they wondered where Ash’s wife was, and why Ash was there alone. What had gone so horribly wrong between the couple they had witnessed getting married only a few years ago?
“Here you go.” Her dad offered her the beer. Ash gulped it eagerly. She had wolfed down a pack of crisps on the train so she wouldn’t have to drink on an empty stomach. Because drink, she would. Facing her entire family for the first time since she and Charlotte had divorced would not happen without an alcoholic beverage firmly clasped in her hand throughout the evening. “How’s work?”
“The same,” Ash said. It was as though arriving at this party had catapulted her into a parallel universe. Even though Murraywood wasn’t too many miles from London, coming here, to Ash always felt a bit like travelling to a different time and a vastly different place.
Her dad grunted, just the way she had expected him to do. Ash and her father didn’t have many in-depth conversations. Sustained silences didn’t make them uncomfortable. They excelled at this very thing in each other’s company. When she needed a break from it all, there was no place Ash would rather be than in the pub, next to her dad, with a cold pint in her hand. He didn’t require any explanations from her. He didn’t need her to express her innermost feelings to him. Just being there was always enough.
Of course, tonight, they weren’t in The Horse and Groom, the pub her father had frequented all his adult life. They were at her mother’s sixty-fifth birthday party at The Pavilion, Murraywood’s prime venue-for-hire. There wasn’t a lot of peace to be found, what with the endless parade of family members and friends of her parents milling about. The only younger people there were Ash and Adrian and his wife, whom he had miraculously managed to hold on to for almost fifteen years. Another case of her younger brother outperforming her in the feats of life. He and Lizzie had also managed to procreate, as straight people tend to do and produce two adorable grandchildren for their parents to dote on.
When she and Charlotte had got married, Ash had believed that, finally, she had done something right by the standards this world still seemed to operate on. Until the divorce, of course.
“Ashley Cooper.” Ash heard her full name being boomed behind her. “As I live and breathe.” A cold hand squeezed her neck. Christ. Some people were just too loose with their touch. “Look at you.”
“Gloria Young.” An instant smile formed on Ash’s lips. She had always liked Gloria.
“Is this really your daughter, Alan?” Gloria bumped her elbow into Ash’s father’s arm. “Did she really make it down to little old Murraywood tonight? If Mary is to be believed, your daughter hardly ever does.”
Ash could have hugged her dad for the very impressive way in which he rolled his eyes. He had lived with her mother’s flair for exaggeration his entire life.
“Don’t believe a word that comes out of my wife’s mouth,” he mumbled.
“How long has it been, Gloria?” Ash tried to remember, but she came up empty. “You look good.”
“Must have been years,” Gloria said, ignoring the compliment. Instead, she briefly touched her hand to Ash’s arm. She must have heard about the divorce.
A piece of cutlery tapped insistently on a glass.
“Time for your mother’s speech,” Ash’s dad said.
Her mother kept it brief, however—surely she would give another, much longer, speech later—and invited everyone to find their assigned seats.
“Let’s talk later,” Gloria said.
Ash watched her go off in search of the table she’d been placed at.
“Time for something heartier than a pint, darling.” Her father put his empty glass on the counter, looking quite sad that he had to leave his spot at the bar.
Gloria had hoped not to be relegated to the singles’ table at this party. Yet, when she finally found her designated seat, she instantly knew she had been, because of Karen Lloyd’s presence. Gloria had shared a table with Karen too many times since George had died ten years ago. She knew all about Karen’s life, which wasn’t dull per se, but it had become dull to Gloria because she’d had to listen to Karen’s stories over and over again. She knew them all by heart by now.
Miraculously, none of Mary and Alan’s siblings had become widowed, and therefore placed at the singles’ table, even though they were all at least a decade older than Gloria. And at least two decades older than George when he had lost his long battle with cancer. But Gloria had stopped blaming other people for simply continuing to live a long time ago. If you started holding their very life against another person, it ended up not being much of a life for yourself.
“We meet again so quickly.” Ash’s voice sounded in Gloria’s ear.
“Welcome to the exile table for widows and divorcees.” Gloria was glad to have Ash’s company. It gave her someone to talk to other than Karen. Gloria had learnt not to expect too much from life anymore and a small mercy, like sitting next to Mary’s daughter during dinner, could actually make her happy these days.
“I’m neither, but hello,” Karen said, while giving Ash a very obvious once-over. Truth be told, she did stand out in this particular crowd, with her platinum-blonde hairdo that looked striking against her tan skin. The sides of her head were shaved so close to her skin that you could make out a birthmark above her ear.
“You’ve got it all wrong,” Adrian said. Ash brother and his wife, Lizzie, had ambled up to the table. “This isn’t the singles’ table at all. This is the younger-than-sixty table.”
“I barely made the cut then,” Karen said.
“Bless you, Adrian, for seeing things that way.” Gloria took her seat.
Ash sat next to her. Gloria knew Lizzie well because they were colleagues. This dinner wouldn’t be too bad at all. In fact, she’d rather find herself at this table, Karen included, than at any of the other ones, where, no doubt, health ailments would be the main topic of conversation. Gloria got enough of that during the day.
A waitress approached with open bottles of white and red wine. Gloria covered her glass with her hand; it was automatic now. She noticed Ash glance at her hand. Didn’t she know? Maybe Mary wasn’t as big a gossip as Gloria believed.
“How’s the money business?” Gloria asked Ash, before any possible untoward question could be uttered. To not drink at a social gathering, especially with people of Mary and Alan’s generation, was still seen as quite the oddity.
Ash just shrugged.
“Are you usually happy when Friday evening rolls around or does it make you itch for Monday morning?” Being a home health nurse, Gloria was very skilled at making conversation. Some of the patients she visited only ever had her or one of her colleagues to talk to. She always made sure they got their money’s worth when it came to a proper chat.
“It depends,” Ash said.
“That’s pretty vague, even for you,” Adrian butted in.
“I love my job, but it has been held against me before, so, you know.”
Gloria tried to read the look that passed between Ash and her brother. Held against her by whom? Her family? Or… oh yes, of course. Her ex-wife. Gloria had to admit she’d never actually met a divorced lesbian before. Same-sex marriage had only been legal since 2014. But why would things automatically work out better between two women or two men, anyway?
“How’s life in London, then?” Gloria asked.
Ash sipped from her glass of white wine. “It’s London. The greatest city in the world. It’s not that far from here, you know. Just hop on a train and you’ll be there in thirty minutes.”
Was that a touch of defiance in her tone? Was Gloria pushing too hard? When had Mary told her about Ash’s divorce again? It wasn’t that long ago. Maybe Ash was still grieving for the marriage. Gloria knew a thing or two about grief. About that ache in the pit of your stomach that never let up, that didn’t seem to diminish with time, but only grew fiercer for the first couple of years. At least that was her experience. She suppressed her nurse’s reflex to pat Ash on the shoulder and decided to cut her some slack instead.
“I do take the train up to London once in a while for some shopping, or just to soak up the city atmosphere,” Gloria said. “Remind me to ask you for some tips later.”
Ash reached for the bottle of water that stood in front of her. “Do you want some water?”
Gloria nodded and let Ash pour her a glass.
“Good luck getting through tonight without a drop of booze,” Ash said.
“It’s really not a problem for me.” Gloria gave Ash the practiced smile she reserved for that kind of comment.
“I tried dry January this year.” Ash took a sip from her wine again, as though she was trying to prove a point. “I lasted a week.”
“To each their own.” Another well-practiced phrase, even though Gloria hated platitudes like that. They stood in the way of a real conversation. But sometimes platitudes were the only possibility.
“I’m sorry,” Ash said. “I don’t mean to be insensitive about this. Drinking alcohol is practically a required skill in my job. There isn’t a cliché about bankers that isn’t actually true.”
“That might be so, but I bet you’re quite different from your co-workers.”
Ash’s face lit up a little. “The amount of testosterone in our office is through the roof.” She shook her head. “You would honestly not believe some of the things these guys say—and some of the women as well, of course. Equal opportunity political incorrectness and all that.”
“How about you?” Gloria saw how Ash came alive when she talked about her work. This skill of Gloria’s was one of the reasons she’d had the same job all her life—she knew the merits of persisting in getting certain conversations off the ground.
“I give as good as I get. And, of course, these days, when one of the guys does go too far, I just have to hashtag-metoo him.” She chuckled.
From the corner of her eye, Gloria could see Karen’s face pull itself into a frown.
“Ash has always suffered from too much testosterone,” Adrian said.
“I’ve always had more than you,” Ash said.
“I got myself a woman and spawned two kids,” Adrian said. “What more can a man achieve these days?”
“I tried to make him pee sitting down,” Lizzie said. “But it didn’t work. He’s got that Cooper stubbornness in him.”
“You have to leave a man some dignity,” Gloria said.
“Christ, almighty,” Karen said. “And the appetisers haven’t even come out yet.”
They all chuckled heartily.
“Why did you never get married, Karen?” Ash asked.
“Why would I?” Karen said.
“No man or woman has ever tempted you?”
“I’ve always been perfectly happy by myself,” Karen said matter-of-factly, and Gloria admired her for doing so.
“I loved my husband dearly,” Gloria said. “But I’ve been single for a very long time now, and it does have its advantages.” Not that Gloria wouldn’t trade everything she had for one more day with George. But she had her children. Once she’d emerged from beneath the rubble of her grief, she’d found she still had a life left. A job she loved. Life-long friends. The persistent kindness of her family and people she had shut out for months and months.
“Like what?” Lizzie asked.
“Why are you so keen to find out?” Adrian threw an arm around his wife.
“Just curious, sweetie.” She blew him a kiss.
God, how they reminded Gloria of her and George when they’d been in their thirties, free of disease and worries.
“Now that my girls have flown the nest, I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to consider anyone’s opinion on how I choose to spend my time.”
“If you have children, you’ll never be truly free,” Ash said flatly.
“That might be true, but I will always have them, so…” Gloria’s mind drifted to Sally, her oldest daughter, who was in her last year of university in York. Would she move back home after? Gloria had no idea. Her youngest daughter, Isabelle, had just started university and Gloria wondered what she would be up to tonight. Some nights, she preferred not to wonder about these things at all.
“I will always have an ex-wife,” Ash said. “No matter what happens next in my life, Charlotte will always be a woman I once married. A person I stood next to in front of all my family and friends and vowed to be with for the rest of my life.” She shook her head more vigorously this time. “I’m never doing that again. Not ever. The utter foolishness of the whole thing.” She looked at the table where her parents and aunts and uncles were sitting. “Can you believe that they’re all still in their marriages? As are all our cousins? What is it with this family?”
“Dumb luck,” Karen said.
“It’s not really something to bemoan, though,” Gloria said. “I think it’s wonderful.”
“Try being the only divorced one of the lot,” Ash said. “First, I made them all come to my big, fancy lesbian wedding. Then, it turned out to be all for nothing. We didn’t even make it to five bloody years.”
“Have you eaten at all today, Ash?” Adrian asked.
“I had a bag of crisps on the train,” Ash said.
“That’s it?” Lizzie sounded appalled.
“Why would you not eat?” Gloria couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
As if on cue, the appetisers arrived.
“I’m about to tuck in.” Ash picked up her cutlery. “And before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, it’s called intermittent fasting. It’s not an eating disorder.” She held a forkful of smoked salmon in front of her mouth. “Yes, I should have eaten more today because I knew I would be drinking, but time just got away from me. If I had taken the time to buy more food before I got on the train, I would have missed it.” She put the salmon in her mouth and started chewing.
Gloria hadn’t seen Ash in years, but she had known both her and her brother for a long time. Ash had been like this as a girl as well. Feisty and stubborn to a fault.
“Intermittent fasting.” Karen said the words as if they were the dirtiest she’d ever spoken. “Whatever will they invent next to torture women with?” She looked at Ash, but Ash didn’t reply. She kept on shovelling salmon into her mouth. Gloria would do the same if she hadn’t eaten all day.
“Ash has been doing it for years. Since long before it became trendy,” Adrian said, earning himself a shut-up look from his sister.
“As much as I’d love to regale you all with the benefits of fasting, I’m too busy breaking my fast right now,” Ash said. Her plate was nearly empty, while Gloria had yet to start.
“I don’t drink alcohol,” Gloria said, “and Ash doesn’t eat food before a certain time of day. I’m sure we each have our own habits.” She glanced sideways at Ash, while finally scooping some food onto her fork.
“Don’t get me started on Adrian’s quirks.” Ash grinned. “We’ll be here all night. Oh wait, we are going to be here all night.” She turned her head and shot Gloria a wink, which Gloria hadn’t expected at all.
“The salmon’s good,” Lizzie said, probably to keep Ash from spilling the beans on Adrian.
Gloria nodded, even though she’d barely tasted it. Ash’s wink was just that. An acknowledgement of what Gloria had said just before, which, in a way, could be interpreted as coming to Ash’s defence. It was nothing. Just a wink. Still, for a reason she couldn’t explain, it felt like something to Gloria.
<<End of preview>>
If You Kiss Me Like That will be available on Thursday 25 June 2020 from all retailers.