THAT THEY’D CURSED him to death, if only in play, had a power all of its own. It wreaked havoc with her sense of modesty, reduced her usual quota and replaced what was lost by lust. Modesty beaten, lust triumphant: she felt it was so all day. First in company when Caroline came with His Lordship, then alone with her thoughts and her books. She couldn’t settle to anything. She walked the yard at the back of the house near the stables, watched absently as the smith – whose name was Smith – shaped a hoop on the hoop stone to make a rim then tinkered it to the wheel. The wheel was for the carriage; not the gold but the black one whose shining panels made Nell think – so easily, so readily – of Olu. The furtive glances they exchanged at dinner were full-bellied with meaning. Nell was drawn to the unthinkable, couldn’t avoid it any more than if she’d been tied down in the road as that black carriage hurtled unstoppable towards her, Sir George’s crest of cross foxes emblazoned on its doors. She knew Olu felt the same, that they’d do what must be done – and at the hour for all illicit things, in the dead of night.
Finally it happened, and Olu came to her naked as the day she was born, her breath quick and urgent. But her skin next to Nell’s was not as she’d imagined; it was sticky, cloying, it made her think of disease. They lay there together in silence, the death-watch tick of the clock their judge and jury. It was as if they’d taken friendship to its nadir, found there a fruit that was rich yet poisoned, unnaturally abundant, waiting to be plucked though the act was forbidden.
‘I don’t understand,’ Nell whispered as they lay side-by-side staring at the canopy of the outsized bed. ‘I thought it’s what I wanted. What you wanted too.’ She fumbled for Olu’s hand in the dark but even that felt wrong: too rough, too leathery, but that in itself was not the issue. Something was hurting in the pit of her stomach. She felt she knew why. ‘We’re both virgins, Olu. I think I can speak for us both.’ But she could only speak for herself, and she knew it. Knew there was more to her question that she dared to ask. She was being presumptuous, testing more than the water: just who – yes who! – had she endured?
‘You might stay virgin even after this,’ Olu said, her breath sweet and her smell warm as she turned on her side. ‘Two girls together, it is not the same as man and girl. Nothing broken.’ Nell was thinking of the waters that break at birth but it wasn’t what Olu had meant. Her fingers began to probe; Nell dashed them aside. It wasn’t painful, just repulsive.
‘Nothing broken,’ Nell repeated, keeping Olu’s hand at bay. ‘I’ve heard there’s a membrane, least that’s what they say. I know little of such things, even for a baronet’s daughter. Perhaps because I’m a baronet’s daughter.’
‘Sometimes you have to do a thing, even though you know how it turns out,’ said Olu, scratching Nell’s ankle with her toe nail, an action that felt deliberate. Was it because she’d refused her?
‘I think I understand,’ Nell said, keeping the pain to herself because her groove of thought demanded it. ‘There’s a limit to which you must take your love, to see what it feels like. This makes me feel sick. You don’t smell right, Olu, not like this – on the very edge of – what? – copulation? I’m unsure what men do with women, never mind with each other. There, I’ve said it – I’m innocent in such matters.’ What about you? was the implied question.
There was no answer, and Nell was glad. But not convinced – Olu was hiding something, Nell didn’t know what; didn’t wish to know in case it grieved her.
‘It’s as you say, I don’t smell right,’ said Olu, breaking the silence. ‘You neither. I knew you wouldn’t.’
‘And yet you still came and shared my bed.’
‘You invited me, you were eager.’
‘It won’t happen again. I’ve never felt such nausea. I could be sick this instant all over the sheets.’
‘Go ahead and be sick. Betty clean it up.’ Nell felt the ripple of laughter run down her side. She laughed too, for this contagion was natural and they both needed its relief. It was as if they were friends again, just friends and no more. Nell was pleased but puzzled, a remnant of disappointment in her throat like a fragment of poisoned apple.
‘Where does it leave us now I wonder?’
‘Different,’ Olu said, ‘I’m not sure how. But still friends.’
‘Kiss me then – as friends,’ and again came that laugh rich and mellow, so much part of her that Nell felt it in every organ, though more in the liver than the heart. Her feelings for Olu were guttural, abdominal, like a stomach occasionally settled, more often than not upset. All she knew for certain was that she didn’t wish to lose her. What would become of her if they stayed together long term she couldn’t even guess; didn’t want to guess. For the baronet’s daughter was changing, and far more rapidly than she knew.
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