DISCLAIMER: Bad Girls and its characters are the property of Shed Productions. No infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Building Bridges
By Rooineck


Part 1

"C'mon, Sean. We need to get out of here." Helen shouted down the stairs at her fiancé. What the hell was he doing? He should be up here, getting dressed.

"Coming. Give us a couple of minutes." She heard his voice drift faintly back to her.

She went back into the bedroom, surveying the enormous pile of boxes that occupied the centre of the floor. She sighed. She hated moving, living like this, out of boxes. She skirted the pile, reaching into the cupboard to pull out a shawl, one suitcaseful of clothes being they only thing they had unpacked as yet, since their move three days ago. There was no point unpacking much at all, really: the kitchen needed gutting, and they needed to do so much work to the place that unpacking now would mean forever dusting, a task that Helen hated with an absolute vengeance. Thank God it was late summer, and still very warm. She thought if it had been wet and cold, Sean would have insisted on a hotel by now. Hell, she thought, she would even consider it herself.

Sean's idea to buy a house that needed 'modernising', because it was cheaper, and they would enjoy doing it up together had sounded lovely when he had first proposed it; she had had romantic notions of them, well, basically nesting together.

The reality, now they had moved in, was falling far wide of her original notions. It wasn't that she didn't love the house – they had both fallen in love with it the moment they had seen it, but that she – neither of them – had realised exactly how much modernisation was required.

The house was beautiful; a pink thatched cottage in a quiet village, handy for her work and also for his. The survey hadn't even put them off; they had joked that they would work all the hours they could to make it a home, one they could bring up children in.

Now reality was hitting hard. Sean was trying his best to plumb in the dishwasher, and had forgotten that they were due out this afternoon. He had also forgotten that his DIY skills were more akin to the big bad wolf's, rather than those of the three little pigs.

"Shit!" She rushed out to the landing as she heard Sean curse. He was normally such a gentleman that she had only ever heard him swear a few times in the four years that they had been together.

"What's wrong?" She called as she rushed down the stairs, being sure to step carefully around the stair tread that had broken when one of the movers had dropped a box on it yesterday.

"This bloody thing doesn't want to go on, and I've cut my hand." She saw his backside under the sink, then he stood up and turned the kitchen sink tap on, standing like a forlorn little boy as blood mixed with water flowed into the kitchen sink.

"What were you doing?" She grabbed his hand, feeling him flinch, as she examined the two-inch cut right on the base of his thumb. It looked quite deep, and nasty.

"I was, er, well, trying to screw that clamp thingy onto the waste hose when the screwdriver slipped," he said.

"Were you holding it?"


"Why didn't you rest it on the floor, you twit?" Sean had no common sense at all. She checked it again. The blood was still flowing, but more slowly now. His hand was frozen. All they had was cold water, as they hadn't managed to get the boiler working yet. She assumed that there was a boiler, although, come to think of it, there didn't seem to be any radiators either.

"Never occurred to me." He shrugged as she stared at the boxes scattered all over the kitchen floor, worktops and even on top of the cooker as she tried to work out where the ones with the kitchen towel or tea-towels were. She had started out with great intentions, labelling each box accurately, but after a while, she had just started writing 'crap' after the room. There were at least six boxes of 'kitchen crap' surrounding them, along with loads of others marked 'dry goods', 'pots and pans' and one mysteriously labelled 'stuff' without even a room on it. It also wasn't in her or Sean's handwriting.

"I think it's going to need stitches, and when did you last have a tetanus shot?" She asked as she gave up looking and grabbed her shawl to wrap his hand it. She didn't really like it, and anyway, the blood would wash out, she supposed.

"Do you think so?" He stared at the bundle wrapped around his hand. "About fifteen years ago, I guess."

"Fifteen years? And you are a landscape gardener? Are you mad?" She stared at him, suddenly infuriated by his inability to take the most sensible precautions, like resting the screw on the floor, instead of his hand, and now this.

"I never hurt myself before, did I?" She couldn't fault his logic, but it was still annoying. They had been invited to the neighbour's house for a barbeque, and now it looked like they wouldn't be making it after all. He was going to make them late, now, and it would hardly do.

She would have to take him to St Mary's, the local hospital. She was sure there was an A&E department; if not, there was a probably a minor injuries clinic that might still be open.

"Come on, grab your coat. Let's go and get you looked at." She led him off, stopping when she heard the squelching under her feet. "Um, when you turned the water back on to wash your hand, had you finished?"

Sean looked to where Helen was looking. They could see water pouring out of the kitchen cupboard, all over the floor and advancing on the nearest boxes.

"Shit, Helen, turn off the stopcock!" He pushed her towards the sink unit, forcing her to bend over so that she was facing a bewildering array of pipes and tap-type thingies. She knew what a stopcock was, but there seemed to be about four here, so she turned them all, watching the cascade slow to a trickle. Unfortunately, the carpet was thoroughly soaked already.

"Hell." Sean stepped away from her, fastidiously shaking his feet with each step, like a cat walking through a puddle.

"It doesn't matter. Carpets in kitchens are horrible, anyway. Especially this one." She nudged the toe of her shoe against the unfortunately mustard coloured carpet, unable to pretend she was depressed about its untimely demise. Maybe now they could get some nice laminate in there.

"What about your…" She had been about to ask him if he should get changed first, so they could go straight on to the party, but saw he was already dressed in a pair of casual cords and an open-necked check shirt. He had been doing the plumbing in his clean, going-out clothes. She made a moue of displeasure and pushed him out of the door ahead of her, the incongruous bundle of her bloodied shawl leading the way.

"Get in the car. I'll go and tell Trisha we'll be late." She pressed the key fob alarm and he got into the car.

"Tell her to save some breast for me" he chuckled wickedly as Helen turned to give him one of her special 'hard stares'.

She turned on her heel and walked a hundred yards along to the lane to their nearest neighbour. Trisha had turned up on their doorstep on the day of the move, armed with coffees, biscuits and all the other stuff required to get workmen moving. She had also taken one look around, and, having seen the state of the house, generously invited them to barbeque on the weekend 'so they wouldn't have to cook'. Helen already felt that, neighbour-wise, they had certainly fallen on their feet. It was an incredible change already from their flat in South London, where you never even met a neighbour, and if you did, they could just as well be inclined to rob you as talk to you.

"Helen, hello. Where's your gorgeous husband?" Trisha greeted her warmly as she air-kissed her cheek.

"He's had a bit of an accident and cut his hand. I've got to take him to St Mary's for stitches and a tetanus booster. I'm afraid we won't be able to make it after all." Helen explained, trying to stop Trisha from drawing her into the house.

"Nonsense. We can get him sorted here. Douglas." The name was uttered in a loud bellow that shocked Helen. Trisha had seemed so ladylike and refined until that moment.

"What's all that racket?" A tall man appeared at the end of the corridor, dressed in bright red cords and a yellow jumper. Helen almost felt her eyes cross at the effect. She hoped that this was one sartorial style that would by-pass Sean completely.

"Douggie, I have here a woman in distress. Helen, this is Douggie; Douggie, this is our new neighbour, Helen Stewart. Take her inside and get her a large glass of wine, then get back here with your medical bag and attend to her mortally wounded husband. He's next door."

"Actually, he's not, he's in the car and I was just about to…"

"Nonsense," Trisha interrupted Helen. "Although, actually, I think you'd better bring him in here, Douggie. Lane End Cottage isn't exactly what you'd call suitable for surgical procedures at the moment. What was he doing to hurt himself?" Trisha's rapid taking charge of the situation and abrupt change of subject made Helen breathless.

"Oh, he was trying his hand at plumbing in the dishwasher, but the screwdriver slipped." She allowed herself to be led inside the house, and through into a huge, light, airy kitchen. Trisha introduced her to people as they went, a wider selection of the locals, although Helen thought that most of them seemed to be weekenders from London, or even if not weekenders, London refugees, after a better, more peaceful way of life than the London rat race, like themselves.

"Did he finish it?"

"Not bloody likely. When he turned the water back on to use the sink, he flooded the kitchen. He doesn't know very much about DIY."

"Don't worry, Douggie will look after him, and I'll get someone to have a look at your kitchen." Having poured Helen a large glass of wine and dispatched Douggie, Trisha guided her out of enormous French windows on to a terrace.

"Nick, come here." Trisha's tone was imperious, similar to the tone she had used on Douggie, and Helen watched yet another person jump to her command. This time it was a tall woman, wearing a polo shirt, jeans, and an unfortunate 'novelty' PVC apron depicting an exaggerated woman's body dressed in knickers, suspenders and a bra. She was waving a large barbeque fork, on which a steak was precariously balanced.

"What?" The aggressive low growl surprised Helen, set against the backdrop of people casually standing, drinking and chatting. Trisha's parties, were, it seemed, very polite and sociable, although Helen noted that Trisha hadn't used a single 'please' or 'thank-you' when asking anyone to do anything.

"I need you to pop next door and fix a minor plumbing disaster. Helen's" here she put a hand on Helen's arm by way of introduction. "Helen's young man has had a bit of a problem in the plumbing department. Be a dear and go and sort it out for him."

The last was said lightly, but there was a definite hint of steel in Trisha's smile. Helen wondered if everyone always did as she said, as the woman called Nick went eye to eye with Trisha in a silent battle of wills for a moment before scowling at her, flinging down the steak and walking past them without acknowledging Helen at all, undoing the apron as she went.

"Good-oh, Nikki. Next door, Lane End Cottage, please. Douggie's in the kitchen looking after…" She turned to Helen. "What is his name again, dear? It's completely escaped me."

"Sean." Trisha led her towards a group of people. She looked after Nikki's retreating back, stiff with protest. "Is she all right?"



"Nikki?" Trisha swung round, as if surprised by her mention of Nikki. "She's fine, she loves doing that sort of stuff and she'll have you sorted before you can say Noah's Ark. Now, let's see, who have we here?"

Trisha deftly introduced her to everyone else in the garden, briefing Helen with a whisper in her ear as they approached each group. "Jenny; local Conservative Party Secretary; terrible bore about property prices and her children. Get her started and we'll be here all night," she said as she took Helen up to one woman, a short, round woman wearing a floaty, diaphanous skirt that looked like it had once been some sort of throw.

"Ah, Jenny dear. This is the divine Helen, our new neighbour. She moved in yesterday, and has already had a run in with the water sprite."

"Really? I heard you paid three hundred and fifty thousand for it; is that right?"

She fended off Jenny's blunt questioning until she saw Sean approach her, looking a little green about the gills. He hated doctors and needles. She excused herself, glad to get away. As she turned, she caught Trisha's ghost of a wink as she attended to the food.

"Are you all right?"

"Yes, he was fine. Can't say I liked his bedside manner, though." He rubbed his uninjured arm with a hand swaddled with white bandages.

"So, Sean, all sorted now?" Trisha came between them, taking them each by an arm and propelling them on to meet yet more new arrivals.

"Fine thanks. Is your brother in practice locally?"

"Oh yes. Just down the road. You're lucky he has his bag with him – he's on call today."

"I didn't know doctors still went on call anymore," Helen said brightly as they walked.

Trisha stopped, turned towards her and started laughing, breaking out into fresh giggles as Douggie joined them.

"What?" Helen's back went up as she thought she was being laughed at, and even Douggie seemed a bit bewildered.

"Oh Douggie, they think you're a doctor. Why didn't you tell Sean you were a vet?"

"Vet?" Sean's face was a picture, and Helen, with half a large glass of wine on an empty stomach, joined in as Trisha started off into fresh paroxysms.

She only stopped when someone brushed past her, rudely shoving her out of the way with nothing more than a brusque, barely uttered 'excuse me'. She turned her head as Nikki pushed past Sean, treating him in the same cavalier manner.

"All sorted now." She stopped at the still laughing Trisha. "Whoever did that plumbing should be shot. It's a terrible mess. Can I go back to work now?"

"I think so, don't you? That food will burn if you don't turn it soon." Trisha turned away, not seeing Nikki's dark eyes boring into her. Dark, intense eyes that turned on Helen, who was fascinated watching the interaction between the two women, contemptuously flicked over her and then were gone.

Helen felt her toes curling with embarrassment, as if she had been judged, and found wanting. She was also embarrassed for Sean, who had been very proud of his pipework, having read a book about DIY and dragged her down to the local DIY superstore at eight o'clock that morning, boasting that he had worked out what to do. It appeared that it hadn't been anything like as successful as he had thought, even though he had spent most of the morning working on it.

She found herself trying to work out the relationship between Trisha and Nikki, and also Trisha and Douggie. The lack of politeness antagonised Nikki, but Douggie didn't seem to care at all. Both jumped to do anything Trisha asked, the moment she asked it. They were clearly all on fairly intimate terms, as you didn't treat complete strangers like that.

Trisha was bright, intelligent and clearly had a wicked sense of humour, but, remembering the antagonism in Nikki's glance Jenny's ability to make watching paint dry interesting, she didn't think that she was going to like all of Trisha's friends as much as she liked their new neighbour.


Part 2

Once the afternoon was over, and dusk had fallen, Sean and Helen had retreated to their house, laughing at the day they had spent. Some of Trisha's friends had been downright peculiar, most were quite normal, and seemed 'very nice'. Helen cringed internally at how English she was becoming. Her Scottish accent, once so broad, had softened over the past few years, since she had been with Sean. She'd had to tone it down a little when she had moved to England, to go to university, but even she had noticed that at times it was subtler that it had ever been.

She had enjoyed herself today and felt like they had fallen on their feet in this small village. Sean had certainly been enjoying himself; Trisha had taken him round to meet everyone personally, introducing him as 'that gardening chap off the radio', much to his pleasure. He'd only been on a few times, first as a last minute substitute for someone off the telly, then in his own right, but they obviously liked Radio 4 in this neck of the woods.

Sean had enjoyed the attention, although not so much when people mentioned his 'war wound' – hard to miss as the bandages were very prominent. He certainly didn't receive the right amount of awe from Helen herself – she had been an 'expert' on the radio herself, and her only knowledge of gardening was that there was usually one at the front and one at the back of the house. It was on a par with housework and ironing in her opinion – beneath her radar.

They had eaten excellent food, very unlike the charred sausages and burgers they produced themselves whenever they had a barbeque, and drunk excellent wines, and been absorbed by the village chatter all day, although she had had enough of the Parish Council flagpole saga, a matter about which Douggie and Jenny seemed to be very much at odds over, although Helen couldn't quite work out why, or what it was really about.

She had explained their plans for the house umpteen times 'knock out the walls between the kitchen and living room, the living room and dining room – make it all open plan. Take out the wall between the toilet and bathroom. Put in a shower and new bathroom, replace the windows, new central heating, rewiring and kitchen. Then decorate. Oh yeah, and landscape the garden.' The new garden was an acre and a half that the estate agent had optimistically described as 'leant mainly to nature'. Sean had practically licked his lips the first time he saw it, and had been drawing up plans for it ever since. He had showed some enthusiasm for the house, but was far more concerned with showcasing his own talents. They had agreed to 'get someone in' to do the house, and Sean had found their builder, Jim Fenner, in the yellow pages. A nice enough chap, he had seemed equally enthusiastic about the house, and he was coming down early on Monday morning to make a start, and had told her that it would take around a month to do all she wanted. She was now regretting that they hadn't put more in storage.

Each time she had mentioned something they were planning to do, the person she had been talking to had told her to 'pop along and ask Nikki, she'll tell you if that'll work'. She hadn't, of course, that glowering façade making Helen keep her distance, although she had noticed that it had put off very few of their neighbours, who had surrounded the woman. She had cooked beautifully though.

She had politely told everyone that their builder would be coming down from London shortly, and that he had already seen the place with them, and would be helping them to get it right. Everyone had been shocked at their time-frame though, and even though the builder, Jim, had suggested it, she was herself wondering if it wasn't just a little too ambitious. Unless maybe had had half an army of people like one of those house makeover shows she always caught the tail end of on TV, the ones where with a budget of £2.50 and eighteen strapping young men (and one token woman), a whole house was transformed in 20 minutes flat.

She made coffee, and they plonked themselves on the sofa, watching some mindless game show. Sean had heard it described as 'Millionaire for dummies' the other day, and she had heard him criticising it as such today. It didn't stop him getting really involved in it though, and he was shouting away at the telly now.

"Did you look under the sink?" She asked him idly, as she took his good hand. She had, when she was making the coffee, and it looked completely different from the way Sean had left it that morning. The badly-joined extra 't-bars' and flow regulator taps that Sean had insisted were necessary were gone, sitting on the draining board, as were about three feet of copper pipe, all replaced by a divider and a couple of small taps, connected to the washing machine and dishwasher. Even the white drainer pipe had been replaced neatly.

Not only that, the boxes that had been threatened by the flood had been stacked neatly at the end of the kitchen, and although a couple had showed some water damage, none had succumbed.

All in all, she thought that Nikki had been absent from the barbeque for around fifteen minutes, tops. Clearly a quick worker, although how she'd learnt her plumbing skills, God only knew. Helen wished she could pass them onto Sean, who, she thought, hadn't acquitted himself too badly this morning, but clearly needed to read a few more books. Or learn that there were better ways of doing things. She hoped that Nikki hadn't noticed the three previous attempts he had made, before the one he had attached under the sink, now flung outside the back door, out of sight and, for him, out of mind.

"No. Should I?" He lay back against her, relaxing like a cat.

"I guess not, although it looks good."

"Helen, it's only temporary – we're moving the kitchen around soon, once we get this wall down and the new central heating in." He thumped the wall behind them for emphasis.

Helen had to admit that he was right, but his words just sparked off another spiral of thoughts about had they done the right thing? Could she live like this for the next few months? The cottage, well, more of a large, detached house, had been designed badly – or at least, some of it had. At some point, a ground-floor extension had been added at the back of the house. Instead of opening it up, with lights and power sockets, a wall had been built parallel to the outside walls, following the original kitchen wall. A kitchen around thirty-five feet long and six feet wide was awful, dark where it vanished into the bowels of the house, and lacking in cupboards, power points and plumbing in the extended part. That wall was coming out, and they would have a gorgeously huge kitchen dining room, around six metres by five and a half. She had visions of an Aga cooker; kids running around; the kitchen as the hub of the home. She continued to ignore the fact that she couldn't cook to save her life - buying houses was all about aspirational living, anyway.

"So what are we going to do tomorrow?" She asked, also lying back, so that his head was now on her lap. She stroked his hair idly, loving the soft feel of it beneath her fingers.

"I thought we could get the strimmer out and make a start on that wilderness," he said, his lassitude vanishing as he sat up, all energy now he was talking about his beloved garden.

"No, Sean, we agreed to get the house sorted first. I think we should get Jim to start knocking out this wall down here first, before we even start to consider anything else, and we need to move the sofas and all these boxes around." She thought about how to divert Sean. "Besides, Jim said it would be cheaper if we could get rid of all the tiles in the bathroom ourselves. After all, we only have a limited budget, and you want to have enough left for the garden, don't you?"

"I s'pose." He was reluctant, but couldn't fault her logic. He had helped set the budget, and knew that it was for everything. "Maybe we should go to bed now – I'm freezing. Feel."

He grabbed her hand and rubbed his nose on it. He was right, it wasn't that warm a night, and the old windows let in draughts like nobody's business. Still, Jim had said that he would take care of that, and had given them a quote for all of the work on just a little bit over their budget. As she tidied up their cups, she prayed her constant mantra since the move: 'it will all be over soon'.

Sean led her upstairs, whispering suggestively to her as he went, telling her what he was going to do to her. She retaliated in whispers, as they groped and giggled their way to their bedroom. They were nearly at the top of the stairs before they remembered that they only had one working toilet, which was downstairs, and if they didn't want to run around in the middle of the night, with most of the light bulbs missing (a problem they hadn't even considered until the first evening, when they discovered exactly in what state the property had been left) they ought to 'go' now.

Finally, they made it back upstairs, giggling and being silly, a state in their relationship they rarely enjoyed, but when Helen was at her happiest. They didn't have that much in common, and were totally different people, and sometimes she wished Sean 'got' her more, but when they were like this, she felt totally in love, and on top of the world.

They made love, not slowly and languorously, as Helen would have preferred, but more urgent, rougher. Reflecting the state of their lives and their house right now, Helen thought with a slight tinge of displeasure as she drifted off to sleep.

"Do you think we should just flip it?" Sean asked just as she was about to drop off.

"What?" She struggled to come to full wakefulness. He had been snoring just moments ago, and now he seemed to be in the middle of a conversation that they hadn't even had.

"Flip it; you know, do the work, sell it on and make some profit. Then we can invest in another place, do the same again. Become property developers, and give it all up."

"All what up?" Helen felt that she was about half a conversation behind. She had an idea what he was going on about, but was failing to connect it with them.

"Daily life. Get out of the rat race."

"I think we need a bit more practice first, and you need a better book on plumbing." She felt his displeasure at her flippancy, as she couldn't see him. God, it was dark in the country; where were all the streetlights?

"Sean, we don't know what we're doing, or even what we want to do. We've only just been here for as few days, not even a week, and our belongings are scattered at our parents and in storage. Let's just see how we do with this one, before we make any plans, OK?"

Se felt him grumpily agree with her. He got so carried away with ideas, he never gave any thought to the practicalities. Just before she slept, she found herself hoping that the garden was too big to be done quickly, and that he would give more consideration to their situation.


Part 3

She woke up early, the unfamiliar noises of the house disturbing her sleep. She raised her head off the mattress, half-closing her eyes against the light blazing in through the windows. Neither she nor Sean had ever moved house before, except to a succession of rented flats, all of which had been furnished. They had forgotten hundreds of seemingly simple things, such as curtains in the bedroom, light bulbs and God only knew what else, and no-one had told them. Sean always breezed ahead, believing blithely that he knew best, and Helen had just gone along with it – a decision she was now regretting a bit.

Apart from the light bulb problem (they had three for an eight-room house, some rooms having more than one light), and only one working toilet, they had no functioning central-heating or hot water, no kettle (it was in a box, somewhere), no curtains, and their bed frame was still apart, scattered between two different rooms. They couldn't put it together again because neither of them could remember where they had put the bolts. Thank goodness the mattress had made it up the stairs unscathed. They still had no fridge and no cooker, although both were on order. If she was ever going to do this again, she would put the bed on the van last, so they could get it off and put it together while the rest of the stuff was being unloaded. She wouldn't let Sean put his precious, super expensive gardening gear in the car next time, either, but would put it in the van, and bring boxes of personal stuff, like passports, chequebooks and a bloody kettle. At least they had found the coffee machine and some ancient instant (Sean had bought it for the cleaner, although Helen had given her the real stuff), and the coffee machine produced hot water, even if they couldn't find the decent coffee or filters.

She got up, wincing as she picked her way across yet another hideous carpet, lest she tread on some of the creaky boards and wake Sean. She loved this time of the day best, before he awoke, when the day was fresh and new, and the peace, her peace, lay undisturbed before her.

It didn't last long enough, as always, although today it wasn't Sean that broke it, but a hammering on the front door. She hurried to open it, stubbing her toe on yet another box, carelessly dumped by the removal men who had soon grown bored with Sean directing them in different directions to the labels on the boxes, rather than taking any active part. That was another thing she needed to find – footwear – one pair of battered trainers was not going to work for her for long, even if that was all she probably needed while all the work was going on. At least Trisha's barbeque had been 'casual', although she had definitely been underdressed compared to every other woman there, who had all been dressed in floaty pastel linens. In fact, although most of the men had been dressed in jeans, only one other woman had; Nikki – hardly a recommendation, as Helen felt that she had been there under some form of Trisha's duress, her clothes a protest, like a child going to a party they don't want to go to, and so not dressing appropriately.

She staggered to the door, cursing about the interruption under her breath, like the Clydeside fishwives of her ancestry, only to open the door to the woman she had been thinking of.

"What do you want?" She hadn't meant to be so rude, but was surprised. She thought Jim Fenner had made an uncharacteristically early start. A day early, to be precise – it was only Sunday, today.

"I…Trish thought you might need some help, so she sent me over."

"This Trish must be quite a woman," Helen said, with a smirk at Nikki's obvious reluctance.

"You've met her. Forceful." Nikki grinned suddenly, changing the whole look of her face, and suddenly looking very attractive compared to the scowling pouty face of the day before, when she had looked like a small child forced to entertain the grown-ups when the cartoons were on. "She calls it having 'good leadership qualities'. I call it downright bossy, myself."

"Oh." Helen couldn't think of anything to say.

"Do you want a hand with anything?"

"It's a bit early, thanks," Helen protested weakly.

"Is it?" She looked at the watch on her wrist. "No it's not; it's nine o'clock. Never mind, sorry." She turned and loped off down the lane without a second glance, leaving Helen staring at her, a woman, who, on a Sunday morning, thought nine am wasn't early. She wanted to go and wake Sean, with this shocking news. Sean still thought that there was only one seven o'clock in his days off, but she knew what he'd be like if he woke her now. Bears and sore heads didn't even enter into it.

Suddenly she was lonely, in this new life, just for a fleeting moment. She wanted to share this…creature with Sean, so they could laugh at her together, like they always did. As she went back into the cottage, and started the coffee machine to heat the water, and regretted not borrowing a pint of milk from Trisha last night, she looked out at the garden, ignoring all of the boxes, and felt better. Until she saw the cat stalking the bird and opened one of the windows to shoo it away, and the handle broke in her hand. Maybe they should have rented for a while whilst this was all being sorted.

She spent the next few hours pottering around, shifting a few boxes here and there, mainly from place to place and not really achieving anything, and mostly trying to guess where they'd packed the kettle. Or the coffee – she wasn't fussy, and didn't mind which they found first. At least they'd found the mugs, although several of them had been broken. Looking at the box, she saw it was one that Sean had packed, and he hadn't used enough newspaper. She gave up doing anything and went to sit on the bench beside the front door, gingerly testing its ancient frame to see if it would take her weight. She had put weight on recently, but was hoping that the combination of living somewhere with stairs instead of a lift and doing work on the house would help her to slim down a bit.

"Cooee," Trisha's strident voice broke the peace generated by sitting in the sun, listening to the birds and the distant sound of the church bells. "We've come to see how you are settling in". Trailing along behind her was Nikki, scowling again, and almost unrecognisable as the woman who had stood smiling and joking about Trisha on the doorstep just a few hours ago.

"I've brought you a small housewarming pressie." She indicated to Nikki, who stepped forward and handed Helen a gift-wrapped box. Protesting, Helen opened it there and then: a state of the art chrome kettle, a cafetiere and a bag of coffee, all of which must have cost a fortune. Finally, she lifted a cold pint of milk out of the box. Where had all this come from?

"Oh Trisha, thank you so much. This is just what we needed. How did you know?" She had an inkling that Sean had been shooting his mouth off at the party yesterday.

"Nikki said she hadn't seen anything except a jar of instant and a coffee machine." Trisha replied off-handedly. "So I dispatched her into town this morning on a mercy mission to pick these up for you. I hope they're OK and will go with your kitchen? Nikki doesn't have the best sense of style and is satisfied as long as what she has does the job." Nikki's scowl deepened.

"It's perfect." Helen turned to Nikki. "Thank you, that was very thoughtful of you."

"It's nothing," Nikki muttered. Her eyes raked Helen up and down, and Helen became aware that all she was wearing was an old t-shirt and a pair of shorts. Once more, she felt exposed under the glare of those eyes.

"Why don't you two have a seat and I'll go and put some coffee on and get changed?" She backed away, determined not to let the other women see the rip across the seat of her old shorts.

"How about we come in and have a look round?" Trisha, blunt as ever, led the way past her into the cottage.

"Sorry," Nikki muttered on the way past, taking the package of goodies from her. "Here, I'll put the coffee on. You might want to get changed." Helen relinquished the box without a struggle and bolted up the stairs to put on a pair of jeans and a bra, horrified that she had already spoken to Nikki dressed like this today, and hadn't even thought to thank her for the plumbing work she had done for them yesterday.

While she flung on some clothes and woke up Sean, she considered her 'guests'. Trisha was rather more than a little autocratic, which she couldn't help disliking, and her kindness had a rather distant quality about it. Nikki had been a revelation. Not only had she noticed what was missing, she had made sure that she had got good stuff. Helen had noticed the receipt carelessly left in the box; Nikki had been to a very expensive store and had picked out some very nice stuff.

She heard their voices downstairs, Nikki talking in that muted way that people did in other people's houses, and Trisha talking at her normal volume. She obviously didn't care what anyone thought about her, and Helen couldn't help envying that. She cared, perhaps a little too much. She managed to wake up Sean, and they descended the stairs together, to the smell of fresh-brewed coffee.

"It's a bit like that we place we did last year – you know, the one in Gloucestershire. Same shape." Trisha was saying. Nikki's response was too quiet to hear, but obviously annoyed Trisha. "Don't be so bloody wet, of course they want help. Look at it; it's clear they don't know what they've taken on. Do you think they had a survey done?"

And then they were there. Nikki had made coffee for four, but was drinking out of the cup with the broken handle, putting the cup down frequently, and only picking it up to take very quick sips. Trisha was peering at one of the windowsills; one of those that Helen had noticed seemed to be rotting away. She straightened up as they came into the room; not guiltily, but as if she had a perfect right to be there, looking at their house, examining it's flaws, an attitude Helen found disturbing. Nikki was standing at the near end of the kitchen, leaning against the sink and staring at the wall cupboards.

"I'd put the boiler in down there, myself, and move the sink; have it overlooking the garden. This wall out – I think its breeze block, not brick. Need a total rewire in the kitchen…" Nikki stopped as their movement caught her eye, and had the grace to look slightly ashamed.

"You renovating for us?" Sean briskly rubbed his hands together and grabbed a coffee, sniffing the delicious aroma greedily. "Thanks for this, Trisha. Jolly kind of you." He drank quickly, smacking his lips together in delight. "Anymore where that came from?" He held his cup out to Nikki, who turned to fill the kettle again, a look of resignation on her face.

Helen wanted to scream to Sean that they only had the kettle and coffee because Nikki had bothered, and that he was being very rude ignoring her, but she didn't get a chance before Sean had whisked Trisha off to the back door to tell her what he was going to do with the garden. They wouldn't be able to go out because the door was locked or stuck, or something, and they hadn't been able to open it since their first night in the house.

"Is it that bad?" Nikki's voice was low and soothing, and so quiet that Helen wondered if she'd imagined it.

"It could be worse, I guess. We could have no water at all and no loo, instead of just no hot water and a downstairs toilet that works." She laughed, trying not to let the bitterness she suddenly felt invade her voice.

"You've got an immersion heater somewhere upstairs. That would give you hot water. Do you want me to go and have a look?" Nikki offered and was heading for the stairs before Helen had even nodded when she was stopped in her tracks by Trisha's imperious command.

"Nik, sort this out."

"I was just…"

"The door is stuck, and we want to go outside." Helen felt rather than heard Nikki's comment of 'why don't you go out the front and walk round', but she changed direction as required and went to study the door. Helen watched, amused. She had noticed that Trisha was quite simply rude, and didn't appear to notice, but surely only a lover or family member would tolerate this sort of behaviour? There was a disparity in their ages, Trisha looking around forty-five, and Nikki clearly being over a decade younger, but she still looked to be in her mid-thirties, and they didn't look in the least alike, so family didn't seem plausible, although, if they were lovers, come to think of it, if Sean tried that sort of attitude on her, he'd get more than he bargained for in response.

Nikki spent a few moments studying the glass door with a wooden frame that looked, like the rest of the house, like it had seen better days, before standing back and delivering a massive kick to it at the bottom. Before Helen had a chance to protest, the door swung slowly outwards, creaking alarmingly and sounding like the set of a haunted house movie.

"Stuck." Nikki said laconically, ignoring them all, standing there dumbstruck, and then they could hear her bounding up the stairs in search of the immersion before anyone could move.

Just as Helen got her wits together to shout a warning about the broken stair tread, they heard splintering and a thud. They rushed out into the hallway just in time to see Nikki staggering back upright.

"You wanna get that fixed," she said, before vanishing around the bend at the top of the stairs.

"Is she OK?" Helen asked Trisha.

"If she's still on her feet, clearly so." Trisha replied, taking Sean's arm. "Now, about the garden, then…" and they vanished back into the kitchen.

Helen stood, irresolute. Should she go after Nikki, making sure she didn't see their dirty washing, scattered all over the landing and check that she was alright, or should she follow Sean and Trisha? She was saved having to make a decision by the reappearance of Nikki at her shoulder.

"Found it. You don't have a screwdriver to hand, by any chance, do you? The wire is a bit a loose, so it won't stay on." Wordlessly Helen led her to the cupboard under the stairs and hauled out Sean's toolbox, a heavy, paint-stained massive receptacle for all the detritus in the house that he barely ever opened except to shove something else in.

"Help yourself," she managed.

"Cheers." She looked down at the dark head, bent over the box. There were a few grey hairs well hidden in the dark brown. Maybe she was older than she looked. The hands were fine, with long, quick, agile fingers, picking out and discarding tools with what seemed to Helen to be casualness. The nails were short and clean, but they seemed to be rough hands, and when she turned something over, revealing the palms, she noticed the lack of rings, and the calluses on the pads of flesh under the fingers.

"This'll do." Nikki took her by surprise, standing up to find Helen studying her. "What's the matter?"

"I was just thinking, that's all."

"About the house?"

"That's all I ever seem to think about these days."

"It'll look great when it's finished, I'm sure."

"Hmm, but how long will that be?" Helen asked, rhetorically. No matter what anyone said, she was sure it would be longer than a month.

"About four or five months, and you won't recognise the place."

"What?" Helen finally registered what Nikki had said and couldn't believe her ears. "Four or five months," she wailed.

"Unless you've got an army of builders, or you're going to be doing a lot yourselves, it'll take a while to do everything you want done and get it redecorated." Nikki was away again before Helen could reply.

Four or five months? Surely not. That was an incredible amount of time. She certainly hadn't been convinced by Jim's assessment, especially because everyone else had told her a week for the wiring, a week for the heating, a week for the windows, a week for the bathroom, a week for the kitchen and a week to take out the walls and make them good, and then changing the lights, fitting curtains and shelves and stripping and redecorating, but she had never imagined anything quite as long as several months. She'd never be able to live like this for more than another few weeks at most, and certainly not if they didn't get hot water soon. She had already had cold washes and drenched herself in scent for three days. Any more, and a hotel was on the cards.

"Right, give that an hour or two and you can have a nice hot bath." Nikki was at her shoulder and handing her the screwdriver almost before she had gone. She went back to drink the cold remains of her coffee.

Helen offered to replenish it, and made herself another cup, stuck for something to say. She didn't feel up to discussing time-frames again, so decided to ask Nikki about herself.

"What do you do?"

"Oh, this and that. I'm on a break right now." Brilliant. That really helped keep the conversation ticking along.

"And Trisha?"

"A bit of this and that too. She owns several of the houses in the village. We kind of work together." Helen fumed silently, wondering how she was going to break the silence, which she felt uncomfortable with. Nikki, who had seemed a great saviour, had now been relegated back to awkward child in her mind. Trisha and Sean were out of sight in the garden, probably hidden behind some of the ten-foot high stinging nettles that seemed to proliferate around here. Still, at least she thought she finally understood the relationship between the two women, boss and employee; although if her boss ever dared talk to her like that, she'd probably resign.

She was saved from the lengthening silence by the return of Sean and Trisha, still walking arm in arm, with Sean babbling on about the garden. Trisha and Nikki started to take their leave, and Helen was only too glad to see them go. She and Sean had to find something to eat, and then they needed to make a start on taking the tiles off the bathroom wall.

"What are you two going to do today?" Trish asked as she and Nikki stood at the front door.

"We've got to strip the tiles out of the bathroom before the builder arrives tomorrow." Sean replied, grimacing. "I'd rather hoped to strim the lawn so we could at least get into the garden, but we have to do the house first." Helen found herself resenting his tone, as if the garden were more important than the house.

"Oh, Nikki will do that for you," Trisha said brightly. Nikki looked like she was about to have a fit.

"There's no need for that," Helen said, not wanting to impose on the woman any more, just at the same time as Sean was warmly taking Trisha up on the offer.

"Nonsense, she'd be glad to help. Go and get your stuff, Nikki, and help these nice people. Then you must all come back to ours for showers and dinner afterwards. I'll make something nice for all you workers." She grinned coquettishly and walked off. "She'll be round in half an hour or so," they heard her call as she strolled up the drive, Nikki dogging her heels and gesticulating furiously beside her.


Part 4

Helen snuggled down on the huge leather sofa, clean, comfortable and well-fed and watered, but exhausted. She and Nikki had laboured for most of the day, knocking tiles off the wall. In the end, as a protest against the deafening silence from Nikki, she had turned on the radio, and they had worked companionably enough.

She looked at her hands, sore and blistered. She had knocked herself on the left hand loads of times with the heavy rubber mallet, and her knuckle was very sore. Having looked at Nikki's hands, covered with scratches and cuts from the sharp edges of the tiles, she was glad that Nikki had made her wear gloves. She was also glad for the safety goggles Nikki had provided her with, and the long sleeved shirt she had insisted that she wear. Shards of sharp tiles had flown the minute they had started, landing everywhere, flying into her face.

Nikki herself had eschewed all safety gear except for the goggles, and had been like a woman possessed, knocking off tiles at triple the rate that Helen had managed, and then some. Sean had watched them both start, declared that there wasn't room enough in the tiny bathroom for three, and had vanished, and a short while later Helen had heard the strimmer motor starting. It had been all the more galling that he had been right, and that there wouldn't have been room in there for him as well.

It hadn't felt right though, Nikki and she doing all the work on the house; it was supposed to be her's and Sean's project, and suddenly he was opting out. Mind you, thank goodness Nikki had been there, as they would still have been smashing at tiles even now.

Nikki had turned up around an hour after Trisha had borne her off to get her stuff, bearing a plate of bacon sandwiches, which Helen and Sean had fallen on like gannets. The one drawback of having no fridge was that they could only shop on a daily basis, and they hadn't managed to do anything the day before, what with the plumbing and the barbeque.

Then they had started. Nikki had produced a worn and filthy set of tools from her car, a battered old Jaguar that had seen even better days than their house. As they went, Nikki had done all of the high work, precariously balanced on the ladder that had been awkwardly wedged in the car, sticking out of one of the back windows. Helen mentally made a note to pick up a stepladder when they next went to the DIY shop.

Nikki had done most of the hard, physical work, making the frequent trips downstairs to empty the builder's buckets, and now there was nothing but a nice stack of full rubble bags outside the house, waiting to be taken to the nearest tip, or shoved into the skip, when that eventually arrived. Nikki had even dispatched Helen round to Trisha's to shower when they had finished, and hadn't let her help with the cleaning up, producing a dustpan and brush and getting down on her knees to clean up the bathroom herself, a move that would forever endear her to Helen. Even better, although Helen had had no idea how she had found the time, the wood or the tools, she had repaired the broken stair tread.

Now she settled back, a glass of superb crisp ice-cold white at her side and waiting for Trisha and Nikki to join her. Sean was in the shower, having finished later then them and hadn't had time to shower before eating; he had done a fantastic job of cutting back stuff in the garden, although he hadn't cleaned anything up, and piles of grass and hedge clippings were strewn everywhere.

"I am not doing it, and that's final. I've worked for four months with barely a single day off, and now you expect me to hold their hands? I need a rest, Trisha." Nikki's voice, slightly muffled by the shut doors, was clearly audible. Helen jumped up to a sitting position, nearly spilling her wine.

"C'mon, Nikki. You said you would get bored with nothing to do, and we've not found anything yet. Why don't you just help out, like today?" Trisha's tone was wheedling, and Helen found herself rooting for Nikki.

"Because this is supposed to be their fucking dream project, their dream home together. That's what she said. I don't want to get involved in that again. It might be great helping someone realising their dream, but not when they can't decide what it is."

"But they've got a builder coming in, and they clearly don't know the first thing about this sort of thing; they'll get mauled. It'll be fun for you."

"I don't want to babysit them. It'll be a shed load of hard work. I don't mind doing that for me, for us, but I'm not going to get paid."

"Don't be so bloody mercenary, Nikki. You took pity on me once, and look what happened." Sean walked in, talking, but Helen shushed him quickly. She wanted to hear the rest of this.

"I'm not denying it's worked brilliantly, but I think somebody should tell her that he doesn't want the same thing as she does. He never came in the house all day." Sean looked indignant, but Helen already had a pretty good idea that this house wasn't quite as important to Sean as it was to her.

"He was working on the garden; he had great vision for that space. And after all, we all do what we 're good at, and if we do, that's how successful partnerships are made. Look at us." Trisha was as angry as Nikki now.

"Ah, you want to cultivate him. I should have seen it." Sean turned to Helen and started asking another question, but she wouldn't listen and instead waved at him to listen with her. "..don't give a stuff. I'm not doing it, and that's final." A door slammed and a few moments later Trisha walked in, carrying a tray of coffee.

"Right, so it's white all round?" She spoke a little too brightly, and started pouring the coffee.

"Nikki not joining us?" Sean asked heartily. Helen wanted to strangle him for giving the game away as she saw Trisha give him a sharp look.

"No, she's gone to bed. I think you've overworked her today." The response was quick, and well done. "She'll probably come over again tomorrow, if you want some more help." Helen doubted that very much, and wished that Trisha wouldn't keep forcing Nikki to do something she obviously didn't want to do.

"No she hasn't." Nikki walked in, glowering at them all, and took a coffee just as Trisha was about to pour milk into it, causing her to spill it all over the tray. There was a brief silent meeting of the eyes as Trisha and Nikki battled it out, then, much to Helen's surprise, Trisha got up to get a cloth to clean it up. It seemed that not everybody jumped to Trisha's tune all the time after all.

"Would you like me to pop round tomorrow, see if I can help any more?" Nikki offered when Trisha returned. Helen eyed her gravely, unwilling to take something that wasn't being given freely. As Sean opened his mouth to say 'yes' she trod heavily on his foot and he lapsed into silence.

"Are you sure?" Helen stared into Nikki's brown eyes, trying to see what was going on behind the blank expression. "I'd hate you to feel we were taking advantage of you."

"No problem. I'll probably only do half days though; I've had enough of getting up early to last me for a while."

"Any help given would be gratefully received, Nikki." She nudged Sean. "Wouldn't it, Sean?"

"Absolutely. Really grateful." His head bobbed up and down, like a nodding dog. Helen wanted to smack him, a feeling heightened as he continued. "Actually, I'm going away for a few days early tomorrow morning, and I'm sure it would be good for Helen to have someone to help her deal with the builder."

"What?" She howled. This was the first she had heard of it.

"I've been invited to help Jerry do a garden for a big client up in Scotland. He's only just asked me." He held out his mobile phone, like a dog returning with a stick. Helen felt sick as she realised what he had been trying to say a few minutes earlier. They certainly hadn't planned on this. Sean would go; this was a really big career opportunity for him to get his name known, to add to his portfolio. It was just a sick joke that the timing was so awful. She didn't know the first thing about dealing with builders, and whilst Sean didn't either, at least they would have been there to back each other up. Now she was going to be saddled with a builder she'd never met, whom Sean had found in the phone book, but whose references appeared to be impeccable.

"Ah well, no problem." Nikki said brightly, "Helen and I will be able to sort out the builderHelen wanted to smack him

all right."

"Oh Nikki will…" Trisha's words died on her lips as Nikki directed a significant look at her. "…be glad to help," she eventually finished, clearly not what she had originally planned to say.

"I'll come early tomorrow, shall I, Helen?" Nikki asked, much to Helen's relief. She didn't want to be on her own when this chap turned up.

"That would be grand, Nikki," she said, finding herself echoing her maternal great-grandmother's favourite phrase from her Irish homeland. "I'd be so grateful."

"What time do you expect him?"

All eyes turned to Sean, who was texting a message on his mobile, oblivious to what was going on around him. After a few moments, he seemed to realise that he was the centre of attention and looked up. "What?"

"What time are you expecting Jim tomorrow?"

"I dunno." He shrugged and looked back at the screen. "Sometime in the morning. He said he wouldn't be too early, as he had to pick up someone on the way." Helen could have cheerfully throttled him right there and then, and would have lunged at him had she not been in company.

"Not early to a builder means about ten, I guess," Trisha said, looking at Nikki. "What do you think?"

"I guess it depends on the builder," Nikki riposted. Something was clearly going on between the two women, and Helen had no idea what it was. Suddenly, with Sean's news, she didn't care anymore and yawned a huge yawn that took her by surprise, so she barely covered her mouth in time.

"And on that note, I think we should all go to bed. Some of us have got an early start tomorrow." Helen stood. "Trisha, thank you for a lovely meal, and the use of your shower – it's been lovely."

"My house is your house until it's all done. Nikki will be over about nine tomorrow, won't you?" Trisha turned to Nikki, who nodded after the briefest hesitation. "And as Nikki will be helping, I shall feed the troops and provide succour, so I'll organise meals and drinks and so on."

"Thanks for all your help Nikki, it was really good of you to give up your Sunday helping us, and for coming over tomorrow." She also thanked Trisha, grateful that she wouldn't have to go shopping or scavenging for food tomorrow.

"It's our pleasure, Helen." Trisha caught Nikki also yawning. "And as for you, young lady, I think it's your bedtime as well." Helen suddenly realised that Nikki was living there, with Trisha, not just visiting. Certainly a very familiar, intimate relationship. Her professional curiosity was piqued; it wasn't often that she couldn't spot relationships as a trained psychologist and counsellor, but this one baffled her.

They ambled down the lane, Helen waiting only until they were out of earshot before turning furiously on Sean.

"What the hell?"

"Hels, don't worry. This is perfectly legit, and will be fine. Jerry's got a contract for some golfing hotel in Scotland, and he wants me to go up there and sort out some landscaping for it. This is it, my ticket to the big time." He was ecstatic, his mood buoyant, like a little kid who had been given a shiny new bike for Christmas.

She was more concerned. Jerry, chairman of a hotel building company, wasn't always strictly legit, and had been known to pay Sean in dirty cash, something she strongly disapproved of; he was unreliable, certainly when it came to payment; and, in her opinion, led Sean astray.

"He's offered me twenty thousand for this one Helen, and he reckons that these people want to build all over the world, have a chain, or something. Once this one is done, they want to move onto Spain." Helen wasn't as certain as Sean that this would all come true, but didn't want to dampen his enthusiasm.

"Can't you just leave it for a few days, Sean? I thought you'd taken three weeks off, to try and get the house sorted?" She hated the pleading tone in her own voice, and knew that he would ignore it anyway.

"This is my best chance yet, Helen. If I can land this, and work on other developments in the chain, I would only need to do a few jobs a year to be bringing in thousands. We can pay someone to do everything to the house if we want."

"I don't want anyone else to do all the work, I want to do it together." She heard herself become more petulant, and tried to force herself to become more conciliatory. "I want this as much as you, but we've spent almost no time together for six months now, what with my book and your work. Please let's just try and spend one week together?"

"Once this comes off, I'll spend a month with you, pet." Helen noticed that he had already convinced himself that he had got the job and kept her mouth shut. When he was in this sort of mood, she hadn't a snowball's chance in hell of changing his mind.


Part 5

Helen had gone back to bed and fallen asleep after taking Sean to the airport, but was brought back to consciousness by a frenetic knocking at the door. As she glanced at the bedside clock, she cursed Nikki for being early; it was only half-past eight.

Not really caring how she looked, she tumbled out of bed and down the stairs, only to find herself faced with a burly middle-aged man. She immediately regretted not putting on something over her t-shirt and knicker combination as he stared her body up and down several times, before ferally licking his lips.

"Mrs Parr?" He said.

"Miss Stewart, actually," she replied, trying to ignore the fact that his eyes seemed glued to her breasts, and prayed that it wasn't too obvious that she wasn't wearing a bra.

"I'm Jim Fenner." He stepped past her, almost forcing her behind the door. "Where shall we start? How about the bedroom?"

"I think that you're probably best off starting in the kitchen. I'll take you through." Helen had never been so glad to hear anything in her life as those cool, distant tones as Nikki also swept past her, ushering Jim into the house and away from her.

"Breakfast," Nikki waved a bag and spoke over her should succinctly as she moved to block Jim's view of Helen.

Grateful for the help and the food, Helen raced upstairs and made herself decent before venturing back down.

"…take it down and get it in the skip tomorrow," she heard Jim saying. "Then we can start on the electrics."

"Why won't it be here today?" Nikki shot back, her voice glacial. "And why not do the electrics when you've got the floorboards up to put in the central heating?"

Helen was glad Nikki was on her side, and guessed that she didn't much care for Jim already, a precise reflection of Helen's own opinion of him.

"I thought…"

"I think it would be less disruptive to do it that way round, don't you?" She walked into the kitchen to see Nikki and Jim facing up to each other, like two cats disputing the same turf. Neither looked around as she came in. "It would probably be more cost-effective too, wouldn't you say?"

Helen was interested to see that Jim backed down first, muttering agreement. He backed away and went back to his van.

"That was good timing," Helen commented as Nikki filled the kettle.

"I saw the van coming up the lane. You'd gone out early, so I guessed you wouldn't be ready for him. Have a croissant." Nikki held out the bag and Helen grabbed one of the pastries, wondering what time Nikki got up. She had left the house at four thirty, and had been back just after six thirty. Did the woman never sleep? And what was she doing staring out of her windows all the time?

"Right, so what's the plan of action for today?" Nikki bustled around, making coffee for Helen without asking how she wanted it, as if she'd been doing it forever. She probably had, knowing Trisha. Helen found it a pleasant change from Sean, who could never find anything, and on the rare occasions when he had made her breakfast in bed had totally spoilt the effect by shouting up the stairs to find out what she had done with the jam and did she want sugar in her tea. He hadn't even noticed that while he adored tea, and drank it by the gallon, she didn't really care for the stuff and drank coffee out of preference. Typical behaviour for all of her other boyfriends as well, really. Maybe it was a man thing.

"See what order Jim wants to take things, I guess." Helen had no idea, but was glad that Nikki was considering the disruption angle.

"What are you guys going to do about decorating?"

"I guess we thought we'd have the work done first and then think about that later," Helen shrugged. They were a very long way off that right now.

"You need to think about it a bit. I mean, what are you actually having done?"

They were interrupted by Jim bringing his stuff into the kitchen, along with two surly young men who barely acknowledged them. They dropped their bags with a clang, and Jim rubbed his hands together.

"Ah, tea. Don't mind if we do, do we lads?"

Nikki gave him a filthy look, one that Helen was rapidly becoming used to, and silently made a pot of tea. She'd obviously been through this before, having brought with her a teapot and teabags. Fortunately she had also brought sugar, milk, cups and spoons, and even a packet of biscuits. Helen admired her forethought.

"So, any chance of chocolate biscuits tomorrow?" Jim said, his face cracking into what might charitably be called a smirk.

"I doubt there'll be any tomorrow. It's all in a box somewhere." Nikki replied before Helen had a chance, gesturing vaguely around the room as if she owned it. "So, can we leave you to move this stuff out of the way and then get on with it?"

"Shall we go into the lounge and discuss our plan of action, Nikki?" Helen asked through gritted teeth. She had had about enough of Trisha and Nikki bossing people around, and was going to give Nikki a piece of her mind.

"Just a mo', love," Jim interrupted them. "I've managed to get a 16-yard skip to come today, but it'll be an extra fifty quid. Is that alright with you?" He turned away, as if not expecting an answer.

"Just a mo' love." Nikki's voice was a vicious mimic of Jim's. "Didn't you quote for all the work already?"

"Yeah, and what's it to you? She's the boss." He jerked his thumb at Helen, who was fuming that Nikki had taken charge again. Why had she ever been grateful that she would be here to help with Jim? She would send her packing as soon as she got her alone.

"Then there shouldn't be any extra charge for the skip. If you change the day, they don't charge extra, and you've been here; you knew what you had to do, so you must know what you need." A challenge came into her voice. "If you've got enough experience, of course."

Jim stared at Nikki, his eyes narrowing. Helen was grateful that there were no sharp objects about.

"I'll just check with them," he said eventually, before walking out, his phone glued to his ear."

"A word, Nikki, now." Helen propelled Nikki out of the kitchen and into the lounge. "What the hell are you doing?"

"I've just saved you fifty quid. The man is a born con artist, and he's out to make every penny out of you he can, and then some." Nikki stood back and crossed her arms defensively.

"He is our builder, and he comes very highly recommended." Helen felt herself mirroring Nikki's stance, and forced herself to change it. Mirroring was empathetic, and she most definitely was not empathetic towards Nikki right now. "And what makes you such a great expert anyway?"

"He's got a shifty look about him."

"A shifty look? Is that all you're going on? His body language is wide and open, meaning he's on the level. So if you can't keep your mouth shut and keep upsetting my builder, I suggest you go back where you came from, OK?"

Nikki looked taken aback, and Helen immediately regretted taking her temper and insecurity out on her. Truth be told, she was very insecure about this man, and she needed Nikki to help her out; at least she seemed to know what she was talking about.

"Alright, you're the boss."

"Did you hear what I said?" Nikki's easy capitulation was a complete shock. Helen had expected her to walk, at worst, and have a mardy strop at best.

"Loud and clear." She wasn't even truculent, and was as calm as if they really had come in here to have a chat about the works. There was a silence while Helen tried to work out how to start again, and what was going on with Nikki, and Nikki started looking around the room. Eventually she whipped a tape measure and a small pad and pen out of her back pocket. "OK, then. What do you actually want done?"

They were interrupted by muffled banging sounds, and Nikki rushed out of the room saying something about 'keeping an eye on things'. Helen followed, but hadn't even got to the kitchen door when the shouting began.

"What the hell are you doing?" Nikki's cry echoed around the empty hallway.

"Taking down the wall, just like she asked." Jim's voice was surly.

Nikki and Jim were standing about a metre apart, Jim towering over Nikki, who wasn't exactly short. Nikki had her hands on her hips whilst Jim had crossed his arms, a mean feat when he was holding a sledgehammer. Behind him, Helen could see a hole in the wall.

"Not this wall, you wazzock. This one's a supporting wall." She pointed furiously. "That one is the one that's supposed to come out. Here, let me help you." She grabbed her pen from her pocket and stalked over to the wall Helen had wanted removed and scribbled 'REMOVE' over it in large capitals.

"No one said…" Jim started, but was interrupted.

"No one should have to say. It's perfectly clear that that wall is here to stay. And anyway, why are you having a go at it from the middle, with sledgehammers? Shouldn't you be starting at the top, see what it's made of first?"

Helen couldn't help be amused at Jim, standing there opening and closing his mouth like a stranded fish. Nikki certainly had the measure of him. She refused to think about the hole in the wall. Let Nikki deal with that.

"What about your mates? I'd better go and check on Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee, see that they've got the right room." She vanished and Helen heard her clumping up the stairs and muffled voices. She assumed that they had the right wall upstairs as banging started after a few seconds. Jim studiously ignored her, got a ladder out and started with a small hammer on the correct wall.

Nikki returned, and started pointedly looking at the damage Jim had inflicted on the supporting wall. Helen wondered how she knew it was a supporting wall, before deciding that her presence was superfluous to requirements once Nikki started talking to Jim about making good the damage. Jim was getting more and more surly and it was clear that he was frustrated already.

She sat in the lounge, her head in her hands. All she wanted was for all of this to go away, for Sean to be back and for the house to be straight. She closed her eyes, hoping that when she opened them, it would all be all right.

She opened her eyes, still hearing the muffled thumps. Nikki was standing in front of her, holding two cups in one hand and the packet of biscuits in the other.

"You OK?"

"Just starting to get the mother of all headaches. Thanks for sorting that out for me." Helen smiled weakly, not sure what was going to happen next. Nikki sat down next to her and passed her a cup of coffee. "Is it time for a tea break already?"

"Only for management. It's nothing. I think you'll have to keep an eye on that one, though."

"Thank goodness I've got you, eh?" Helen reached out and touched Nikki's arm briefly, smiling at her. Nikki said nothing, just looked at Helen's hand on arm until she moved it, before breaking the awkward silence by jumping up and brightly asking if they shouldn't start looking at what needed doing so they could draw up a schedule of works.

They spent an hour discussing everything that Helen wanted done to the house, all the while accompanied by a rhythmic thumping from the kitchen next door, with a just off-kilter counterpoint from the bathroom upstairs. At the end of the hour, the list on Nikki's pad ran to four pages.

"You don't want much, do you? I thought you said this would only take a month?" Nikki leant back, running her fingers through her short dark hair, making it even more messy than usual.

"Now I see it written down in black and white, I'm beginning to think that this is more than a project – it's practically a rebuild."

"If you don't mind me asking, how much did he quote for all this?"

"Why?" Helen had decided to be blunt. Nikki knew far too much about this whole thing to be just interested in a 'bit of DIY', as she claimed while they were drawing up the list. From the way she was estimating the time to be spent on various jobs, and the order in which they should be done, she knew quite a lot about this sort of thing.

"Curious, that's all."

"Well you know what curiosity did then, don't you?" Helen replied nastily. She thought that when she told Nikki, she'd probably die with laughter. Although, now they had the whole list done, it didn't seem to be such a lot of money now as it had when they were first quoted.

"Really? That much?" Nikki's reply was cool, and she had the beginnings of a smile playing about her lips. Helen had the feeling that Nikki could read her mind and that she was being teased.

"A lot."

"Some of it's quite expensive work," Nikki said. "Thatching, for instance, is an art form. Though I'm amazed that he can do it. It's a really specialist job."

"Why do you want to know?"

"I'm a nosy neighbour."

"Somehow I don't think so."

"I just don't want to see you get done, that's all." Nikki shrugged, non-committal.

"I've told you, Jim comes very well recommended. I'm sure he's on the level."

"If you say so."

"I do." She said it with finality, not wanting to go down this path anymore. Who the hell did Nikki think she was?


Part 6

That evening, Helen wasn't so convinced. The place was in a hell of a mess; chunks of masonry were all over the floor in the kitchen, living room, bathroom and toilet; dust was layered over everything and she couldn't get into any of the rooms without clambering all over it. To top it all, she had gone out with Nikki and Trisha, to get away from the relentless thumping, and Jim and his people had disappeared by the time she had got back, at barely five o'clock, so she couldn't even get them to clean it all up. The only good thing was how different the house looked with all the walls out, and that the skip had arrived.

She was furious, and once more felt awful. She had managed to pick her way into the bedroom, but the boys hadn't closed the doors upstairs and everything was covered with dust, including the bed. There was no way she could sleep in there tonight. She went back down the stairs, dust and brick chippings crunching under her feet.

"Mucky pups, aren't they." Nikki said, standing in the kitchen, one hip hitched against the counter, looking at the devastation.

"Just a bit." Helen tried not to cry. It was awful. She, Nikki and Trisha had gone out to look at light fittings, radiators and stuff like that and just trusted that Jim would sort this all out. Now it was like…this.

"Right, I s'pose I'd better do something about this." Nikki grabbed a spade and plastic builder's bucket and set off upstairs. "Can you go over to Trisha and tell her to keep my dinner warm. I'll be a bit. Oh yeah, and tell her to make up the spare bed. I think you'll be staying at ours tonight."

"OK, I'll be back in five." Helen smiled back the tears that had threatened to gush forth. Nikki was a lifesaver, taking a positive view and getting stuck in. Left to herself, Helen would probably have collapsed onto the stairs and cried. She could already hear the sound of masonry being chucked into the bucket before she left the house.

When she returned, armed with a complaining Douggie who had been dispatched by Trisha, there was already a considerable amount of stuff in the skip. Nikki was a fast worker; that much was clear. She was staggering out of the front door, bearing another load when she saw Helen and her reinforcement.

"Brought the cavalry, have you?" She looked Douggie up and down. He was wearing faded brown cords, green wellies and a T-shirt printed 'Dip me in honey and throw me to the lesbians', a t-shirt that Helen thought in rather poor taste, given whose brother he was. He looked thin and weedy, and completely useless.

"Trisha said I'd better come and check up on you," he replied. "It looks like the cavalry arrived already." Helen took him into the kitchen, where he rolled his eyes but got stuck in, nonetheless. He was surprisingly strong, wielding the spade like he knew what he was doing.

Helen went back upstairs to see if Nikki was OK. Dressed in jeans and a vest top, covered with dust, she looked much better built for this than Douggie, muscles on her arms moving smoothly as she worked.

She started picking up the bigger pieces of rubble and dropping them into a second, large bucket, working silently with Nikki again. Between them, they made twenty trips down the stairs with the buckets, and then it was almost finished.

They moved downstairs and helped Douggie, the three of them making short work of the remaining rubble as the pile in the skip grew. Finally, it was almost done, and almost dark.

"Right, Douggie, go back and get those beers open. I'm parched. Helen, you go with him and have a shower. Have you got a hoover?" Nikki was almost as bossy as Trisha in some ways, Helen thought.

She showed her their hoover, an old Dyson, originally passed to them second-hand by Sean's mother, when she had been seduced by the next big thing in hoovers, and she and Douggie ambled companionably through the setting dusk, the rumbling of the appliance following them in the still evening air. She had offered to stay behind and help, but Nikki had shooed her away, telling her she would just be in the way and to go and shower.

"She's a hard worker, isn't she?"

"Mmm, and just loves it, I think. She starts early most days, and knows what it's like, living on a building site. She and Trish did it for years before they got this place."

"Really? Why?"

"They couldn't afford to rent while they were doing up their places. Too expensive. Nikki always said it was cheaper to live on site. They both hated it though. Dust gets everywhere, they assure me. Everywhere." He gave her a not-so-subtle wink and she turned away. OK, that answered all her questions about the relationship Nikki and Trisha shared, although the way they were around each other didn't seem to her to indicate lovers. Still, as she well knew from her job, it took all sorts.

"Have they been together long?" This was the first time she'd been able to get any information about either of them, and couldn't let it slide.

"Nikki's been living with Trish since she was sixteen. We've known Nikki since she was a kid, working for her dad in the holidays. I always thought she'd get the company, but, well, you know. What with Trish and everything, she didn't have a chance. Not that she needs it now; they've done very well together."

He was talking in some kind of code, assuming she knew far more than she did. She sighed. She was too tired to care about much right now. All she knew was that her neighbours, as different as they were to her, were wonderfully kind. They hadn't needed to help her, but they had.

Once more she was shooed into the shower by Trisha, but this time was made to stop and take off her filthy clothes. Embarrassed, even though she had been ushered into a downstairs bathroom to change, huddled inside a massive towelling robe that probably belonged to Douggie, and clutching a warm, soft towel, she showered luxuriously, enjoying the sensation of the hot water as it poured out of the showerhead and over her aching limbs. Right now, she'd kill for a bath.

Back downstairs, she walked into the kitchen just as Nikki was taking off her clothes. Trisha was cooking and Douggie was fetching beers from the fridge. Nikki was completely unselfconscious, peeling off her jeans and vest as if she didn't care. She probably didn't, Helen thought as she caught a glimpse of her face, tired and caked with dust and sweat. Douggie passed her a bottle, and she necked it in one, the muscles of her throat jumping slightly as she took each long swallow. Somehow, to Helen, it was one of the most erotic things she had ever seen, and she thought that Diet Coke should come after Nikki for their next 'Diet Coke Break' advert if she could make something so commonplace as drinking look so sexy. She didn't seem to care that all she was wearing was a bra and knickers as she grabbed another beer and walked past Helen to shower.

Helen wasn't a fan of beer, but at this moment, it seemed the perfect thing to occupy her as she fought to hide her blushes. Neither Douggie nor Trisha had seemed to care that Nikki was barely dressed, and neither had seemed to find it remarkable. This was a very odd household indeed.

As soon as Nikki reappeared, just a few minutes later, dressed in a shirt, jeans and barefoot, with her hair still wet, they ate. Trisha's food was wonderful, and Helen found herself enjoying seconds, and drinking yet more beer. They all seemed to be tired, and Helen was unsurprised that Douggie kept worrying at a blister on his hand. She'd managed to get several already, and didn't know how Jim and Nikki could handle tools all day long.

Sitting in the lounge after dinner, Douggie left them, muttering something about a 'date'. Helen just sat, letting Trisha's and Nikki's sporadic conversation flow over her. She was shattered, physically from the work she had done over the last few days and aching because of it, but also mentally. The strain of what they were trying to do was getting to her, and they had only just started. God knew what sort of state she'd be in when it was over. She wished Sean were here, to help make it better, or at least share the burden.

"Helen." She awoke to the sound of Trisha's voice. The older woman was bent over her, shaking her shoulder gently.

"Whassup?" She was still in Trisha's living room, supine on the couch, and Trisha was smiling at her.

"I think you need to go to bed." She was offered a hand and Helen woke up fully with the realisation that she had gone to sleep on her neighbour's sofa.

"OhmiGod, I'm so sorry." She sat up quickly, brushing away the hand. She couldn't believe she had fallen asleep.

"Don't worry, you weren't the only one to find my company boring." Trisha indicated Nikki, sitting asleep with her head resting on the back of the other sofa, her breathing deep and even, and just slightly rasping into a snore. "I'm used to it with her."

They both watched the younger woman for a moment. She was completely still, as if her labours had exhausted her, which, come to think of the amount of work she had put in clearing up tonight, they probably had. Helen felt guilty; this woman was helping her…why? She wasn't getting anything out of it at all. Unless Trisha was paying her in kind. She felt the naughty thought escape her tired mind and prayed she hadn't said it out loud.

"She's always like this when she's working; usually asleep by nine. She's late tonight because you finished so late." Trisha's voice was soft and gentle, unlike her usual strident tones. "I've had to put her to sleep on the sofa so many times." She looked fondly at Nikki, and Helen saw a look of affection, even love cross the other woman's features as she looked down at Nikki. She took a blanket from inside a dresser drawer and covered the other woman with it, then stroked her hair and face gently. Nikki moved in her sleep, and for a second Helen thought she would wake up, but she just moved her head slightly, almost as if ducking out of the tender caress.

"Right, I've put you in Nikki's bedroom." She must have misread the shock on Helen's face at the news that she and Nikki had separate bedrooms because she went on quickly. "I've changed the linen, so you'll be alright, and I made her clean it out last weekend, so there's nothing growing in there." She made Nikki sound like a wayward teenager. Just what was going on here?

Trisha showed Helen through the house, taking her to Nikki's bedroom. Unlike the rest of the house, it was decorated softly, with pale cream walls, and, instead of Trisha's modern art, there was only a huge painting of a nude woman adorning the wall, her face blurred. The furniture was made up of odds and sods, giving the room a homely feel that was rather at odds with the rest of the showhome look. Books were everywhere – mostly paperbacks, but some reference works were shoved onto shelves on either side of the fireplace, which, unlike those few coffee table-style books she had seen in the rest of the house, showed signs of use.

"Here, I hope you don't mind it." Trisha grimaced. "It's not my style, but then Nikki always has been her own woman. Sleep well."

She left Helen trying to work out what was going on. This seemed to be a weird house. Trisha and Nikki seemed to be lovers, but this set-up showed that if they were, they led separate lives. So why live in the same house?

She gave up thinking about things as sleep claimed her. She had thought that after what had happened today with the house, she would never sleep, but here she had been curled up on the sofa and sleeping like a baby, and shortly to give a repeat performance.


Part 7

Helen's head ached; in fact, most of her ached, but her head was the worst part. She wanted to dive back down into the softness of Nikki's bed, with the cool sheets that smelt of summer.

Unfortunately, all she could so was force her eyes open and continue to watch and listen to Nikki and Jim row. Nikki had started out calmly enough, but Jim's defensiveness had caused her volume and intensity to escalate, he had matched her and now they were shouting at each other.

"Mornin' love." He had spoken to her, but barely nodded at Nikki. He obviously hadn't forgiven her for making him look like a fool yesterday – or, as Nikki would have it, having let himself be caught out in making a fool of himself. He sounded wary, Helen thought; probably because the kitchen was absolutely spotless, with not a hint of dust anywhere, and he'd already seen all the rubble piled in the skip.

"Good morning Jim. How are you today?" Helen had winced at the bright cheeriness of Nikki's tone, even though she knew about the barely concealed anger lurking underneath the falseness. She thought that if she ever heard Nikki speak to her like that, she would turn tail and head for the safety of high ground.

"Good morning." Jim's smirk made an unwelcome reappearance, as Nikki hadn't seemed disposed to shout at him.

"So how'd it go yesterday then?" This was a Nikki she hadn't seen – bright, chatty and personable, even if she knew that she was putting on an act. As always, watching body language fascinated her, and she saw Jim, taken off guard, start relaxing. His pose grew more arrogant. Nikki, on the other hand, was leaning casually against the worktop, in what was becoming a familiar pose, her body language matching her tone, open and friendly.

"Oh, you know. They were just breeze block; nice and soft. No trouble at all. Neither wall took long to come down." He straightened up unconsciously smoothing his shirt and sticking a thumb through his belt loop – preening gestures showing his machismo. Helen thought it one of the most revolting displays she'd ever seen.

"That's good." Nikki looked down and ran a thumb along the edge of the worktop, he demeanour demure. There was a small pause, and Helen realised that Nikki was holding up the conversation deliberately as Jim started to look confusedly from Nikki to her. In a moment of timing that was pretty much perfect, just as his lads came into the kitchen and Jim was about to open his mouth to ask something, Nikki struck.

"So if they didn't take long to come down, you would have had plenty of time to clear up, wouldn't you?" Not exactly the killer question that Helen had been expecting ever since Jim had turned up. Left to herself, Helen would have phrased it slightly differently, more along the lines of 'What the fuck did you do to my house, you arsehole?'

"Well, when I say not that long, a lot of work still needed to be done," he blustered under Nikki's unnervingly direct gaze. Helen could swear that the woman never blinked for over a minute as Jim started more and more half-sentences, trying to find something to say. "We were running late," he finally squeezed out.

"So they took longer than you thought?" Helen finally realised that some of Nikki's gestures, like the slap of her hand now on the worktop, seemed to be borrowed from an American police series, and had to fight the temptation to laugh.

"Yes, that's it. We didn't have a chance to clean up, and thought we'd get in early today to do it, didn't we lads?" They both looked at Jim then Nikki with 'don't drag me into it' faces, but eventually nodded under Nikki's relentless glare. "Well, early-ish," he conceded as Nikki pointedly looked at her watch.

"Jim, it's now nine thirty, not the eight o'clock start you promised every day; you didn't put in a full day yesterday; you failed to clean up the site, which, coincidentally is somebody else's house that they are living in, and which, from a purely health and safety point of view was left unsafe." Nikki finally stood up straight, and still talking, rather than shouting, finally pointed at a piece of wall that was still attached to the ceiling, although with nothing supporting it, it didn't look exactly safe.

Jim looked up just in time to notice that he was standing directly under the offending piece of masonry and took a rapid side-step to the left, bringing him too close to Helen, in her opinion. She heard a chuckle, but wasn't sure who's mouth it came from, as Jim also swung round to find the culprit. There was a moment of anti-climax as the piece of wall stayed exactly where it was, and failed to fall dramatically to the floor to demonstrate Nikki's point.

"We did put in a full day yesterday – we were here 'til half five." He was becoming defensive now – but aggressive with it.

"Bollocks. You were gone by half three. There were three of you. If the walls came down as quickly as you reckoned, you'd have still been clearing up by half five." Nikki cut him off almost before he had a chance to talk, speaking over the end of his sentence. "It took three of us until nine to clean up after you."

"Yes, well, if you'd left it to the men…" Jim didn't finish his sentence this time as Nikki, her face flushed and furious, took a half-step towards him and he backed away more than that. It hadn't even occurred to Helen that they could have left it for Jim to clean up in the morning, she was just so upset at having seen the house in that state last night that she had wanted it done. She wondered why Nikki hadn't left it.

"Men, is that what you call yourselves?" She looked them all scathingly up and down and sounded disgusted. "Right now, you aren't doing your job properly. If that's just because there isn't a 'man' around, then we can arrange that. In the meantime, you have a job to do. We cleaned up your shit yesterday, we are not doing it again. If you pull another stunt like that one, I'll dock your invoice £200. Got it?" She turned on her heel and stalked out of the room, Helen scurrying after her, not wanting to be stuck with Jim, knowing that if she did, she'd be placating him within ten seconds. God, she hated confrontation. She could feel herself shaking.

"Fucking dyke!" She heard Jim mutter under his breath as she passed him, and prayed that Nikki hadn't heard it.

"What did you just say?" Helen almost walked into Nikki's back as she stopped suddenly, half-turning. She side-stepped just in time as Nikki barrelled back past her to stand nose-to-nose with Jim.

"Nothing," he muttered.

"I believe you just used a word that most fifteen year old boys use when they don't get their leg over. I don't know how old you are Jim, but I think you'd do well to remember who is paying you for this over-quoted job."

"Well it sure as Hell isn't you," he shouted back at her. "You aren't the boss, and when he comes back, I'll tell what a cushty little set up the dyke next door has with his wife."

"Piss off, Fenner. Just 'cause you couldn't get it up in a tart's boudoir doesn't mean that the rest of us think with our dicks."

Helen left them to trade personal insults in front of Jim's builder's mates. If this was going to be the start to every day, a row of some sort between Jim and Nikki, she thought she'd be best off out of it. They were both posturing and although she thought Jim was playing to his audience, especially with the dyke comments, she thought Nikki was motivated entirely by something else. She had gone over the line of taking the piss out of Jim, or even telling him off – this was something personal and she didn't think she needed an audience at all.

The shouting echoed around the house, but thanks to the thick walls, all she could hear was the tone, not the actual words, and as she entered the coolness of her bedroom, the thumping in her head receded a little. Until she stared at the dust-choked bed, that is. Nikki had done a fantastic clean-up job after she had sent Helen and Douggie home last night, but she had only cleaned up the worst of it. The bedroom was thick with dust over every surface. Helen despaired of ever getting anything clean again. She swallowed tears as she poked and prodded at items on the dressing table.

"Right, I think the best thing to do is for you to grab some clothes. I think you'll be staying with us for a few days." Nikki spoke quietly at her shoulder, making her jump. She had been so lost in her thoughts that she hadn't heard her come up behind her.

"Nikki! Don't do that." She sank onto the mattress, her hand over her thudding heart, raising a cloud of dust that made them both sneeze.

"Sorry." She didn't sound contrite in the least. "But you can't stay here. Not 'til it's cleaned up a bit more. Let's get your stuff and get it over to mine. We can at least wash it all there."

"I can't keep presuming on you, Nikki."

"You're not. Honest." Helen just looked at her and Nikki's eyes dropped. She lowered herself gently onto the mattress, and very little dust rose around them. "You can't stay here; not in this mess, and not with 'shit for brains' downstairs. It's no problem."

"Why did you clean up last night? Why didn't you leave it for Jim," Helen demanded.

"Because you were clearly upset about it. It wasn't that much of a problem. If you clean up, it's cheaper, because they don't have to spend hours cleaning up, and can get on with the work. Anyway, it was dangerous."

"Why are you doing this?" Helen asked directly. "Is it because Trisha told you to?"

Nikki laughed. It was a sound that Helen hadn't heard before, low and throaty.

"I am a grown up and I make all my own decisions. I even choose my own underwear, believe it or not. If I didn't want to help you, I wouldn't." She paused. "You look like you could do with some help, that's all."

"But we're strangers."

"And? This place won't be ready to live in for a while. You can't live like this, with no water and dodgy electrics. You can stay at our place for a few days, until they've brought some order to this place, and baby-sit Douggie. We're going away for a few days."

Helen felt panic immediately. She couldn't deal with Jim without someone here. She needed Nikki.

"How long for?" She tried to make it casual, but Nikki answered the unspoken question.

"A week. But look, let's go back to ours, and we can draw up a schedule, so you can talk to him about it, and get stuff done while we're away. You'll be fine." She took Helen's hand and stood up, forcing her to stand up also.

"Thanks so much, for all you've done. You're very sweet." She reached up and kissed Nikki's cheek, watching her blush as she tried to do something with her hands to hide her confusion. It was unexpected, and Helen was touched by it.


Part 8

She saw nothing of Trisha or Nikki after that. She had decided to stop presuming on Trisha's hospitality and had checked into the local pub for a few nights, despite the protests that she wasn't inconveniencing them. They had been gone for a week now, and she had been left to deal with Jim alone.

They had argued and rowed, and nothing had gone at the pace that Nikki's schedule had suggested. She hated the way he talked down to her, talked only to her breasts and called her 'love'. She hated being in the same room as him, and certainly not on her own. He made her feel dirty. That hadn't exactly been conducive to trying to keep him on schedule. Every time she walked in through the front door, something else seemed to have gone wrong, mostly seeming to have extended the budget. She was coming more and more to trust in Nikki's judgement that Jim Fenner was a crook, and was simply taking the piss as he added in extra after extra that needed doing.

She had started feeling lost and alone, pretty much the moment Nikki had gone, and even her frequent phone calls with Sean weren't reassuring. He was going to be gone for 'a while', and every time she asked, the 'while' just got longer and longer. He'd been gone for nearly two weeks now, and seemed totally disinterested in the house, focussing entirely on what he was doing. Helen sighed. She could understand that; when she had been writing her book, she would have worked thirty-six hours a day if she could, and hadn't really taken much notice of Sean. Still, it had been a bit unkind of him to remind her of that as they rowed on the phone each night about him coming back.

She sat on the stairs, looking into what was eventually going to be the dining room. In her mind's eye, it looked beautiful – a long table, covered with a snow white linen cloth, candelabras, glasses and place settings for twelve.

In reality, the carpet was half up, floorboards were up and she could see the joists underneath. Plastic pipe was stacked everywhere as Jim and his team had started 'preparing' to get the heating done.

She had given him £10,000 towards it all, in cash, like a perfect idiot, and he hadn't shown up for five days now, leaving her to contend with this mess. She had tried ringing his mobile, but he was ignoring it, or had it switched off. She had looked him up on the internet, and had since wished she hadn't, as she had found complaint after complaint about him. She had even found him listed on the 'House of Horrors' TV show website. She had already composed a very strongly-worded letter about him to Trading Standards, even though she hadn't sent it yet. Not only that, she had now found out that Sean had given him £10,000 before he had even started work. This was turning out to be the biggest balls-up ever, and their budget had vanished into thin air. Sean didn't seem to give a toss; he just said that he was probably on another job and would be back soon.

She had tried to get another builder to come out and at least give her a quote, but of the three she had tried, two had said they were too busy to quote, and the other had turned up, pursed his lips and breathed out that way that mechanics and builders always did in front of her. He hadn't been complimentary about anything Jim had done, and had named a figure much above their now depleted budget to put it all right.

She was lonely, pissed off, and well on the road to getting pissed, and it was only five o'clock. She lifted the vodka bottle to her lips. To crown it all, the new fridge had been delivered, but didn't fit into the house. Thank God it was still good weather and no forecast for rain. She made a face as the liquid burnt its way down her throat. It was semi-warm; she had discovered a cool stream in the garden that let her cool her drinks, but the bottle of vodka hadn't been there for several hours, and she hadn't bothered to buy mixers.

She continued sitting on the only place left available in the house to sit, the stairs. All of the downstairs rooms had the floorboards up, she couldn't cook, she couldn't sit; in fact, they only thing she could do was sleep, and it was still too early for that, although the vodka would deal with that sooner rather than later. Even then, the mattress was still covered with crap, so she'd have to go back to the pub for yet another night at this rate.

She was still sitting there miserably when she heard the crunch of wheels on the gravel of the drive - the one bit that wasn't choked with weeds, anyway. She thought for a miraculous moment that she had been saved by Jim's return, or that Sean had come to see what was going on, summoned back by her ever more desperate messages.

"Cooee." Oh God, it was Trisha. She didn't think she could face her at the moment, not when everything was crashing abut her ears. Nikki would be with her, and would no doubt smile that supercilious 'I told you so' smirk.

There was a quiet moment, broken by Nikki's murmured voice, hopefully persuading Trisha to give up, and then suddenly Trisha was staring at her through the letterbox.

"Helen! Are you alright?" She let herself in through the unlocked front door, but only got it open a few inches; there was too much crap in the way, and the carpet was stopping it opening any further. Helen turned and dashed up the stairs. She didn't need this right now.

It wasn't Trisha who found her on the bed, trying to hide the vodka bottle and not to cry, but Nikki.

"Hey, come on. It can't be as bad as all that." Her voice was soft and soothing, not at all like Helen expected. She gently touched Helen's shoulder, sending her off into further drunken, hysterical paroxysms.

Helen finally came to herself to find herself surrounded by Nikki's arms, her shoulder wet with her tears, and Trisha watching them with a bittersweet expression on her face, replaced with anger as she spoke.

"…bastard's fucked up the whole house Nikki." Nikki was still muttering rubbish into her ear, rocking her gently and stroking her hair.

"Trish, leave it. Go home and put the kettle on. We'll be there in a minute." Nikki's tone was commanding, and, much to Helen's shock, Trisha immediately obeyed.

"'M sorry," Helen tried to detach herself from Nikki, but was held in place.

"You poor thing. How long's he been gone?"

"Three days after you left." She sniffed, and Nikki held up a grubby tissue to her face.

"Here, blow." She laughed at Helen's hesitation. "I promise it's unused."

This time she detached herself successfully and sat up properly, a difficult feat as she was half-sitting on Nikki. She pulled away, not managing to stand up from the mattress on the floor at all gracefully, half-falling back and having to be supported by Nikki. She still felt pretty drunk, but not much so that she didn't feel acutely embarrassed.

"How much did he get away with?" Nikki asked, a little too casually, and far too knowingly for Helen to cope with right now.

"Enough." She didn't want to reveal the depth of her stupidity to this woman.

"We've all been done." Nikki shrugged philosophically.

"Not for thousands, you haven't."

"Near enough. Being done is being done. It happens to the best of us."

"And that just happens to be you, I suppose, little miss builder." Helen felt all of the pent up fury in her focus on Nikki. She'd found out, whilst they were away, that although she already knew Nikki and Trisha were property developers, that Nikki was a builder, doing nearly all of the building work herself. She had known the score and hadn't sufficiently warned her. "Go on, say it. Say 'I told you so'."

"Oh, that's what all this is about." Nikki stood up, much more gracefully than Helen had been able to manage. "You hired him, and you kept telling me he was great."

"And all the time you were laughing up your sleeve about the Townies being ripped off." Helen faced her, spitting like a cornered wildcat, desperate to hurt someone, to make herself feel better.

"I never lied to you. I told you…"

"I told you so? Is that all you've got to say? I'd have thought you could have done better than that."

"I was going to say that I gave you a schedule, how long it would take and roughly what the cost should be. I also mentioned, if you remember, not paying him except in stages. I tried to help." Nikki was yelling back at her now, a development that Helen, in her befuddled state, hadn't quite anticipated.

"You set me up." She didn't care what she was saying now. "And now you're saying I told you so. You and Trisha just set me up for some stupid one-upmanship game to prove yourselves better than me and Sean. Well, I hope it's made you feel big, pretending to be my friend and then letting this happen. I hate you, Nikki." Before she could get hold of herself, the drama of the moment caught her up and took her away and she had slapped Nikki's face, as well as delivering the most childish insult of her life.

Even before her hand stopped stinging, it was covering her face with its partner, childishly and, more drunkenly, pretending that if she couldn't see Nikki, Nikki couldn't see her.

"I am so sorry, Nikki. I have no idea what came over me."

"Sheer bloody vindictiveness, I expect." Nikki said spitefully as she turned on her heel. "If you want to come and get sobered up, fed and cleaned up, and try and work out what to do next, we'll be at home. If you want to sit here miserable and self-pitying, you'd best stay." Her voice, far from being soft and gentle, was now harsh and frigid.

"Ever the white knight." Helen, following Nikki so she could shout at her some more, couldn't help herself, biting her lip a second too late, after the words had escaped.

"You're pissed, this place is dangerous, and I don't think you should be on your own right now. If you want to sort yourself out, help yourself." Nikki stopped one step down the stairs, bringing their eyes level for the first time, and glared at her.

"No." Helen said in a small voice.

"Then come on." Nikki went down the stairs and over to the front door, picking her way very carefully over the mess, and testing each floorboard as she went. She shut and locked it, putting the keys in her pocket. "We'll have to go out the back."

She led Helen carefully, telling her where to put her feet, and Helen followed meekly. She had assumed that Nikki was somewhat downtrodden by Trisha, and found it hard to believe that the woman did actually have a backbone.

Once they were next door, Trisha took over, feeding her and putting her to bed, once more in Nikki's room. She felt very uncomfortable, but the booze had made her so tired, she really didn't care anymore.

It was still light when she came too, a little man with a hammer in her head reminding her why she shouldn't ever drink during the day. She lay for a few minutes, summoning the energy to move, before Nature became too pressing.

As she struggled to maintain her balance against hammer man, she passed the open door into the kitchen, the heart of the house, where everybody gravitated.

"You be careful Nik."

"…arsehole should be locked up. You can't just do that."

"Not everyone's got as much integrity as you." There was a pause, and Trisha's voice came less confidently, but laughing. "Isn't this where you say 'and you'?"

"You'd never treat anyone like that, Trish. There's a line even you wouldn't cross." Nikki's tone indicated she wasn't serious.

"You were very sweet with her. Sometimes I wish…" After a few moments, Trisha spoke again, quietly, wistful.

"Don't say it, please." Nikki was quick to cut her off, and then they were interrupted by a female voice that Helen didn't know, but sounded like Trisha.

"Who's been sleeping in your bed?"

"The Big Bad Wolf?" Nikki suggested, with a laugh.

"No, seriously, who's been sleeping in your bed?" The voice was more plaintive this time, and Helen realised that whoever this new voice belonged to, she had been in Nikki's room while Helen was sleeping.

"That's Helen. She's my guest." Nikki spoke, not Trisha, surprising Helen.

"An overnight guest, by the look of it. Have a good one, did you?" The voice was spiteful, and Helen realised that she was accusing her of being Nikki's … paramour.

"No, she's our next door neighbour, and she's in trouble. If you can't keep a civil tongue in your head, Em, you can just piss off back to university." Nikki's voice had no heat in it, wasn't unkind, but was firm.

"Zooming off around the country again. Doesn't your charger ever get tired? And who ever said that gallantry was dead?" The vitriol behind the throwaway comment obviously struck a chord, as both Nikki and Trisha said 'Emily' in that warning voice that mothers use on their children when they get out of hand.

"Oh all right. But tell me Nikki, why not me?" Helen had moved to be able to see into the room now. A young blonde, looking so much like Trisha that she had to be closely related, stood in front of Nikki, reaching out to play with the buttons on her shirt.

"You are so not my type. And anyway, I've known you so long, it would practically be incest." Nikki leant back on the kitchen counter smiling at her, before ruffling her hair, a little dismissively. They were clearly intimate, but as Helen looked across at Trisha's face, she was obviously not happy with that intimacy.

"What, and red-heads are?" She flung herself away from Nikki and sat at the kitchen table. "How long?"

"There is nothing going on between Helen and I, Em. And won't be. She's straight." Nikki sighed, and then raised a hand to her cheek, which Helen guiltily remembered slapping. She hoped she hadn't hurt the other woman; she was doing her own penance now, anyway, with this hangover.

"She's in your bed."

"You used to sleep in my bed."

"Never with you."

"And neither has Helen. Just leave it, will you? I'm not in the mood." Nikki's voice became tetchy.

"Fair do's. Just remember where I am if you change your mind." Helen had to laugh at the attempt to flirt with Nikki, who wasn't taking it well. Trisha didn't look too happy, either. "Hello, Helen," the young woman said as she left the room, as if she had known that Helen was there all the time.

There was a silence, and then Trisha was bustling around her, making sure she was OK. Nikki stood there in silence, watching them.

"That was my daughter," Trisha finally said, as she sat down with her own coffee, finally breaking the silence. "Twenty-one and a difficult age." She sighed.

"Twenty-one going on forty." Nikki joined them at the table. "Helen, just tell us what happened."

Helen recounted her story, how Jim and his team had taken up most of the ground floor, and left her in the lurch. "I even told them not to bother reconnecting the downstairs water, as they would only have to turn it all off again the next morning." She couldn't help the sniff at the end of her story. "I just feel like such a pillock."

"Don't worry, Helen." Nikki laid a hand over hers, but Helen, shocked by the contact after she had behaved so badly earlier snatched hers away. "I'll go over there and get what I can sorted so that you can safely go in there, and you can stay here for a few days."

Unaccustomed to Nikki taking control when Trisha was around, Helen just meekly nodded.

"Look, about earlier…"

"Nothing happened." Nikki assured her.

"Yes, but…" Trisha was looking intrigued by this little tableau, and Helen could only wonder what Nikki had told her.

"You go and shower, and here's your clothes. Dinner will be ready when you get out, and we can discuss all this later." Nikki indicated Helen's clothes, unwashed for several days, but now neatly cleaned and pressed in a pile at the end of the table. She looked down at herself, and realised that she was dressed in outsize pyjamas that clearly belonged to Nikki, being too big for Trisha and too small for Douggie. If she had been Em, she'd have been bloody suspicious of herself too.


Part 9

Over the next few days, Helen spent most of her time with Nikki, 'helping' restore order in the house. Nikki was a revelation; she could turn her hand to most things, from joinery, to electrics, and she even organised someone to come and sort out the boiler.

She worked like a woman possessed, starting at seven in the morning, the first day, before Helen had even surfaced, barely breaking for lunch, and often working into the evening, when Helen was so tired all she wanted to so was crash out. Helen was feeling guilty that she wasn't putting in as much effort, and that Sean had barely been heard from. She had matched Nikki's hours the second day, and had never been so tired in her life before.

They had fallen into a companionable way of working together. Nikki, no longer so withdrawn, had brought a radio, which they listened to, but this time there was no formidable silence like the first time Nikki had come to help her. They talked. She was a very funny woman, intelligent and well-read – something that, in Helen's eyes, didn't go with being a builder. They talked for hours about everything and nothing, cabbages and kings. Certain topics were off limits, like Nikki's family, Helen learned very early on, and also her relationship with Trisha, and certainly Emily. Helen found, on her part, that she was reluctant to discuss Sean, and never mentioned him at all in front of Nikki.

She was still staying at Trisha's, sleeping in Nikki's room; her room and bathroom were practically a self-contained annexe to the main house, and even had a separate entrance, so she didn't feel she was intruding too much. Neither she nor Nikki had suggested that that change, and Helen had wondered where Nikki was sleeping a few times, but she had never questioned it; it was clear from Emily's behaviour that it wasn't with her.

She had tried to apologise more than once, and had been rebuffed gently each time, until finally Nikki had told her not to worry about it, she had been 'tired and emotional', and had simply taken it out on the nearest target.

She found Nikki a soothing presence in her life; calm, reassuring and extremely easy to talk to. She wasn't sure that Nikki didn't view her as essentially the biggest pain in the arse on Earth, but if she did, she wasn't showing it.

Emily took almost every opportunity to be rude to her, referring to her as a 'lame duck' that Nikki had picked up. Both Nikki and Trisha had been short with her about it, but, apart from Emily's feeling that the relationship was not platonic, Helen couldn't agree with her more.

"Hello, hello, hello." Sean's voice sounded over the song, as she and Nikki bent over yet another set of copper pipes. Nikki had taken one look at the plastic pipes that Jim had provided and chucked most of them in the skip, saying that that was all they were worth, certainly for the heating system. She was getting incredibly sick of pipes right now, full stop, and was ecstatic to hear Sean's voice. She couldn't drop what she was doing, as she was holding a pipe in position for Nikki, who was holding a blowtorch, but she looked up into his cheerful, tanned face.

"Ow." Nikki had obviously looked up too, as the lit torch went too close to the wrench she was holding, heating up the metal uncomfortably. She dropped the wrench as Nikki apologised and Sean helped her to her feet, kissing her hands better.

"You alright?" He looked around, still holding her hands. She was ecstatic to see him, and could barely believe that it had only been 15 days since he had gone north. Curiously though, just because Sean was back, she didn't have the same feeling she had had when Nikki had come back, that everything was going to be all right.

"Fine. Nikki's been great." Nikki acknowledged Sean, then just turned off the blowtorch and left them alone, the soul of tact. Helen heard her move upstairs, then the creak of the loft ladder that Nikki had installed earlier that day.

"It's looking great. So different. It's so light and airy with that wall gone."

Helen's thoughts clouded, and she started to blurt out just what an arsehole Jim Fenner had been, and how he had left the house. She had only really got up to the attempt to knock out the wrong wall when Sean shushed her by putting his finger over her lips.

"Darling, you'll never guess. Something wonderful has happened."

"You've managed to get the money back from Jim?" Living and breathing the house, her thoughts turned to her biggest concern.

"No, much better than that! I've got a contract to landscape for three more hotels. Starting right away. Isn't that great?" He looked so happy, she couldn't help being pleased for him, even though it wasn't what she wanted to hear right now.


"Spain, Portugal, and, get this," he paused for dramatic effect. "Cape Verde."

"Cape Verde?" She repeated stupidly. She had thought from the way he had paused that it would be the Caribbean at the least.

"Mm, it's a new place, near the Canaries. The 'Next Big Thing' in overseas property, apparently. Do you realise what this means, Helen?"

"We're rich and it doesn't matter if my book's a bestseller?" She had recently finished a new textbook for the university she lectured at.

"Well, it's hardly going to be that, is it, sweetie?" He looked down at her fondly, and she felt her hackles rise at the condescension. No, it wasn't going to be a bestseller, but publishing anything helped her tenure. "No, we can get married now."

He picked her up and whirled her around. As they circled, she caught a brief glimpse of Nikki's face in the doorway, devoid of expression. On the next circuit, it was gone.

"Married?" She couldn't help repeating when he put her down.

"What's up, can't believe it's come round so quickly?" He smiled down at her. "I told you, as soon as we had enough money, we could get married. It's what we both dreamed of. Oh, and we can have a honeymoon at any of the hotels we want, all expenses paid. I was thinking we could get married just before Christmas, then I couldn't forget the date, and we could have a winter honeymoon in Cape Verde; it's supposed to be fantastic out there – white sand beaches and all that stuff you love."

She felt neutral, rather than ecstatic, but a month ago, she would have killed to have him utter those words.

"This is a bit sudden, isn't it? What if it doesn't come off?" She hated the negativity in her voice.

"Of course it will come off." His voice was hard; she had upset him with her lack of faith.

"That's not what I mean; I mean, we've got to get the house sorted – we can't afford it at the moment. Can't we wait a bit?" She wasn't sure why she wanted to wait, but suddenly it seemed terribly important not to rush into anything, despite the fact that she had been encouraging him to get married just a few months ago.

"I thought this was what you wanted?" He asked her accusingly. She couldn't blame him; she couldn't see any reason for her volte face at all, herself. It was just a…feeling that this wasn't the right thing to do right now. "And just for the record, we can afford to get someone in to do the house now. We don't need her, or Jim, for that matter."

"We could pay Nikki for all the work she's done." Helen immediately said, thinking of the enormous amount of effort Nikki had put in, and for no recompense, or even expectation of anything in return.

"She's doing it out of neighbourliness. There's no need to pay her. Or maybe she just wants to hang around with you. " He winked roguishly. "I can't say I blame her; you're far better looking than that bird she's shacked up with."

He kissed her on the lips for the first time since he had walked in the door, and she couldn't help thinking that he should have done that sooner, if he was that pleased to see her.

"That's a terrible thing to say," she chided him, hitting him on the arm.

"Oh, I don't know. The truth is the truth. Helen's a top looking bird, isn't she Nikki?" Helen swung around to see Nikki just coming into the room, and blushed immediately. How much had she heard? "Isn't she Nikki?" Sean repeated his question, and Nikki suddenly seemed to realise that they were there.

"Isn't who what?"

"Helen is gorgeous, isn't she?" Helen felt her blush intensify as Nikki looked at her, considering her, weighing her up.

"Inside and out." Came the reply, and Sean tightened his grip around Helen's waist. Nikki's eyes dropped. Helen didn't think she'd ever been so moved by a compliment.

"See, I told you so. Come on, let's go and tell Trisha our happy news, then we can see about what we need to do to celebrate." He led her out, away from the kitchen, towards the door.

"Sean, we can't go, we need to finish up here." Helen wriggled out of his grip.

"I'm sure Nikki can finish what she's doing on her own, can't you?" He directed the last part of his question at Nikki, still pulling Helen towards the door. "Helen and I haven't seen each other for a while and we need to catch up, know what I mean?"

"Sure." What choice did Nikki have, when asked like that? Helen now burned with shame, not embarrassment.

"No, Sean. I need to help Nikki finish up here. It's a two person job." Helen put her foot down, literally as well as figuratively. It wasn't fair to leave Nikki to do it all. Besides, the more work she did on the house, the more it felt like hers.

"Right. Well, if Mohammed won't come to the mountain…" Reluctantly, Sean let her go and stepped back into the room, removing his jacket.

"What are you doing?" Helen had expected him to leave.

"Well, if you're staying, then I'll stay and help too. Until Nikki can manage on her own again."

"I'm fine, really," Nikki said, her voice tight. Her face was expressionless when Helen looked at it.

"No, Nikki. Don't be daft. Let's get these pipes finished, and then let's all finish for the day." Helen jollied her along, feeling less than jolly herself. Their comfortable, easy working atmosphere had vanished already, and she could almost feel Nikki withdrawing into herself, just like she had been when they had first met.

They worked for nearly another hour, Nikki only saying necessary things, like 'hold it here, please'. Sean tried to talk to Helen, and directed a few remarks at Nikki, but wasn't rewarded with much of a response from either of them. They only stopped when he insisted on trying to bend pipes himself, like Nikki was doing. Helen had had a go yesterday, but quickly relinquished the job back to Nikki after some amusing errors, but he scorched a floorboard and made such a pig's ear of it that even Nikki said she thought it was time they called it a day. From the way she looked at Sean's efforts, Helen knew she would be back early in the morning, putting it right again. She sighed; she hadn't wanted to create more work for Nikki, the woman was helping them out enough as it was.

Sean wanted to stay in the house that evening, and was only put off when Helen told him that the all the floorboards were up throughout the house, so that they could do the new heating and hot water system and the wiring more easily. He seemed a little upset by the fact that she had spent practically a week living with Nikki and Trisha, but Helen finally persuaded him by telling him that the hot water still wasn't on yet, and that the bathroom had been gutted. Much to her disappointment, he hadn't wanted to look at what she and Nikki had done to the house so far, but she consoled herself with the fact that it probably looked much worse now than it had when they had moved in.


Part 10

She lay in bed, next to a sleeping Sean. Much to her surprise, when she had emerged from the shower, Trisha had directed her upstairs, an area of Trisha's house she had never ventured into before, and she and Sean were now sharing a bed in one of the spare rooms. She was still trying to work out how many bedrooms this confusing rabbit warren of a house actually had.

She shifted slightly away from Sean, the heat from his body overpowering on this hot, close night. The evening hadn't exactly been a success. Emily had been antagonistic, to say the least, something that even the mood-insensitive Sean had noticed, although she had managed to gloss over it.

Trisha had tried very hard, producing champagne and being very pleased for them, but Sean had 'delayed' them while they were showering, and they had been late for dinner, and as a result, the salmon was overcooked and dry, no matter how many sauces Trisha used to try and save it. Douggie had turned up, and had been very charming, but Sean had been too busy talking about the hotels and their future together to let anyone else get much of a word in edgewise.

Nikki was back to her old self, silent and glowering, almost. She had vanished quickly after they had eaten, much to Emily's annoyance, and the younger woman had spent the rest of the evening speculating in front of Helen about her whereabouts. She was getting very sick of the younger woman and her totally unwarranted jealousy.

She had been glad when Sean had suggested they go to bed, although, as it had still been light, she had insisted on a turn about the garden first. They had walked, and Sean had carried on outlining his plans for both the hotels and the wedding, effortlessly switching from one to the other, when she had seen a flash of light in their house. Immediately she knew where Nikki was, and felt a certain amount of tension leave her body for some curious reason, followed by a flood of guilt that this woman was working on her house and she wasn't.

Now she couldn't sleep. She heard the noises of this house – different up here to the noises she heard from Nikki's room. Wood creaked, the wind blew against the window in a different way and some of the floorboards creaked.

She was just relaxing and dropping into the beginnings of sleep when she heard slow footsteps outside the door. They stopped for a moment, and then moved on. She wondered who was moving around the house.

"Can I come in?" For a moment she thought Nikki was asking her, but a door nearby opened and Nikki was presumably let into whichever bedroom she had wanted. Helen felt a little…odd. Not that she was jealous, she told herself quickly, but because Nikki had had to ask. She could think of two women in the house who surely Nikki wouldn't have to ask.

"You OK?" She could barely hear Trisha's voice, low and well-modulated. Or was it Emily's? She couldn't tell the difference sometimes.

"Tired." There was a silence, then a creak, and Helen wondered if Nikki had got into bed with…whichever of them it was.

"Let me rub you." The voice was lightly suggestive, and Helen started to get worried about what she was about to overhear.

"I need to talk to you." Nikki's voice sounded parental; it must be Emily. Helen couldn't believe the walls were so thin she could hear this conversation.

"What have I done this time?" Emily was defensive, and Helen remembered the times when her father had come into her room to have the same sort of conversation, and how she had reacted exactly the same way.

"Please can you be a bit nicer to Helen?" She couldn't believe that she was listening to a conversation about herself, and felt mortified that Nikki was stepping in. She could handle the little rugrat herself, although come to think of the snide comments and deliberate pushing her out of the way that had happened over the past few days, perhaps she was at a bit of a loss with the younger woman, uncertain of her own place in this strange household.

"Why? Are you afraid I'm putting her off? Doesn't she want a step-daughter as old as me?"

"I should very much doubt that she does, especially when you behave that way towards her." This was an unusual tack, and what exactly was Nikki talking about?

"She's not the right one for you, Nikki. Can't you see that? Look at her boyfriend; he's a prick."

"Em, I have to agree with you there, but she's still a guest in my house, and unless you are going to be nice to her, I think you should go." My house? Surely it was Trisha's? It must simply be a figure of speech.

"So I'm right then, you do fancy her. What's going on between you?" Emily's voice rose in both pitch and volume and Helen felt Sean stir besides her, and wondered what she would do if he woke up.

"You know she's in the next room?" Emily's silence said that she did, and didn't mind waking them up. "Look, Em, she's just a, a friend; someone who's in a spot of bother and who needs friends around her right now."

"You've only just met her."

"True, but wouldn't you help out a dog who's been kicked? Who's got no one else?"

Helen wasn't sure she liked hearing herself described in those terms, and she sure as hell didn't want Nikki's – or anybody else's – pity.

"But you do fancy her?" Emily's voice was small, so quiet Helen almost didn't hear the question, and she wasn't sure she wanted to hear the answer.

"Emily, don't make this about her. It's about you. You know that there will never be anything between us." Too right, thought Helen, with that age difference.

"You can't say that you're too old for me. I'm older now that when you met Mum…" So, Nikki and Trisha had been lovers, Helen realised.

"True, but we didn't get together until I was much older then you are now, and look how well that lasted," Nikki replied, her voice infinitely patient.

"What happened? Mum won't tell me." Emphasis on the 'had' Helen thought to herself, obviously a relationship no longer. She strained her ears to listen.

"We got to know each other and we spent too much time together and realised we didn't like each other enough in that way, that's all."

"How long?"

"Barely a year. She wasn't for me, and I wasn't for her. We were both much younger then."

"And now?" Yes, and now, Nikki, Helen wondered, not thinking about the reason why she wanted to know.

"You know there's too much water under the bridge. We're much better friends than we were lovers. I love her, and she loves me, but we're not in love." Nikki's voice was gentle. "We've been friends and lived in the same house since I was sixteen." Sixteen? Helen's outrage was almost palpable. Had Trisha been grooming Nikki since she was sixteen? That was cradle-snatching; practically abuse of a minor.

"So what about us?"

"Emily, there is not and will never be an 'us'. Just as I know that Trisha and I are better friends than anything else, I know the same about us." Nikki was starting to become exasperated, and Helen suspected that she had had this same conversation with Emily before. Minus the bits about her and Sean, of course. "You've done this every time you thought I'd met someone for the last ten years, and it's never been true, once. Anyway, you have a boyfriend."

A boyfriend? Somebody actually cared about this little monster enough to voluntarily spend time with her? Helen did a mental double take. A boyfriend? Then why did she seem intent on getting Nikki into bed?

"He's not you," Emily replied sulkily.

"I should hope not. I'd be worried if you got someone as bad-tempered, arrogant and just plain horrible as me. But this only ever comes up when you think I'm seeing somebody. Talk to me, Emily, please?"

Helen could have told her exactly why Emily acted this way whenever she felt that their 'family' group was threatened – she wanted to keep it together. It probably wouldn't change until either her mother moved on from Nikki, or she herself moved onto the next stage with her own 'significant other'. Or possibly Nikki moved on herself – although that would probably just make this situation worse.

She wondered idly what Nikki and Trisha did when they wanted … her mind baulked at the Anglo-Saxon term and substituted 'companionship' instead, although that was the problem – that's what they really did have, and maybe neither of them wanted more from anybody else. She had the feeling that when either of them did find someone else they wanted to be involved with more than each other, this family group was going to be shattered. Small wonder, then, that Emily was trying desperate measures to keep her family together, although, top marks to the girl, it was certainly a novel approach, and one that Helen hadn't come across before. Had she not been so horrible about Sean, and herself, for that matter, she almost might feel sorry for her.

"Look, your mum and I are fine as we are. No one has rocked our worlds yet, and it may never happen. I've told you before, don't borrow trouble." Helen was amazed at the depth of Nikki's insight; she might not be a parent herself, but she'd obviously learned a lot helping bring this child up. She wondered what had happened to Emily's father.

"Now, I'm going to bed, and I think you should too. Nothing is going to happen between Helen and I – she's straight, if you hadn't forgotten, and in bed with her boyfriend right now." A board creaked as Nikki rose from the bed, and then she could hear discrete footsteps heading towards the door. There was a slight noise as it opened, and then: "Night. Don't let the bedbugs bite."

"But you do fancy her, don't you?" Helen wondered why this child couldn't let it lie.

"She's unavailable, Em."

"That doesn't mean anything." The girl's voice changed. "Oh my God, you don't just fancy her, you really like her, don't you? You've never cared when I teased you before."

"That's enough. Go to sleep." Nikki's voice was angry, and Helen wondered if she had hit a nerve, before realising that Emily was talking about herself in relation to Nikki.

"Night Nikki. Night Helen." She heard the mischief in the girl's voice, but Nikki's footsteps crossing the floor were rapid.

"What's that meant to mean?"

"Nikki, don't." Helen could only imagine that Nikki had grabbed Emily and hoped it hurt. "Nothing. I meant nothing."

"Is she still up?"

"I doubt it. They were shagging like rabbits when I came to bed. I doubt they're awake." Helen felt herself blush in the darkness, even though she couldn't be seen, and neither woman had any idea that she was actually awake.

"Don't be so coarse." Nikki's voice was disapproving. "Go to sleep." Once more she could hear her footsteps.

As the door closed, Helen heard a sigh. She was unsure who had uttered it for a moment, before she realised it was herself. She hoped that neither of the women had heard it as she turned her back to Sean, who was beginning to snore at that perfect pitch which meant she wouldn't get to sleep for ages.


Part 11

Sean's presence disturbed Helen – the routine she had got herself into, and the work on the house. Despite the fact that they were all working on the same house, she and Sean barely saw Nikki, who was up before them, and usually left the property after they did.

Helen gave into his demands that they work on the garden, because it was easier than watching Nikki watch them. Besides, she had the feeling that the house was now more hers and Nikki's project than it was hers and Sean's, and she didn't want to ruin it by having Sean work on it with them.

She crept into the house on the second day, unable to keep from seeing what Nikki had done to it. All of the floors were down now, although the carpet was still rolled up. It looked like she had finished the pipework, and electrical cable (unconnected, Helen hoped) stuck up at crazy angles around the edge of the downstairs rooms. Nikki had a friend coming later tomorrow to actually fit the boiler and sort out the gas. She wasn't registered as a Corgi, or something, although Helen couldn't see what dogs had to do with it. Helen found it amazing that there was something that the capable Nikki couldn't do - so far she had turned her hand to pretty much everything, and it had come out looking great.

She looked into the dining room, and saw Nikki sitting on her heels, back to Helen, fiddling with one of the trendy flat-panelled upright radiators that Sean had insisted on. She was dressed, as she had been since the late summer had started to get hot again, in a pair of ripped and paint-spattered jeans and a crop top. Her skin was a sort of olive tan, probably the result of her time away, and her arm stood out in relief against the white radiator, the muscles showing clearly in her arms and shoulders as she manhandled it.

Helen watched her in silence for a few moments, as she leaned it against the wall and got to her feet, then lifting it again, holding it in place with her body as she reached for the pencil behind her ear that wasn't there. Helen could see it resting on top of the tool box and moved forward to get it as Nikki swapped hands, checked her other ear and the back pockets of her jeans. She turned round to look for it at precisely the same moment Helen reached her, causing her to drop the radiator on her foot. Helen, dashed forward, solicitous, expecting screams of agony, and unprepared for the spirit level that fell off the top of the radiator and landed on her head.

"Are you OK? Ouch!"

"Fine. Steel toe caps." Helen looked down at the sand-coloured workboots that Nikki was wearing, rubbing the sore spot on her own head. "You? Let me take a look, you caught a helleva crack from that thing."

She released the radiator and gently grasped Helen's head in her hands, feeling the damage through her hair. Helen stood, head bowed, realising that in the two weeks she had known Nikki, they had never touched, beyond an occasional brush of the hands or bodies while they had been working, apart from when she had kissed or slapped Nikki on the cheek.

"No blood. I guess you'll live." She tensed as Nikki's fingers softly ran over the spot where she had been hit. "You're going to have a sore spot for a day or so, I'm afraid."

"Good thing I have a thick skull, I guess." Helen straightened up. They stood for a few moments in silence.

"What are you doing here? I didn't hear you come in."

"I just wanted to er…well, see what you'd done." Helen couldn't think of any reason why she had been sneaking into her own house that didn't sound lame. After all, it was her house, and she did want to see how far Nikki was getting along. And to get some relief from Sean, truth be told.

"Fine. Just this one and the other one to go, and Trevor can come in and fit the boiler, check it all and reconnect the gas supply." She looked around her. "Have you seen my…" She grinned sheepishly as Helen held out the pencil stub for her. "Thanks."

"You've done really well. Do you want a hand?" Helen didn't really want to go back into the garden and collect garden waste and put it into sacks for Sean while he pontificated on what he was going to do with the garden.

"Not too shabby, am I?" Nikki grinned at her. "But yes, if you wouldn't mind. I can't hold these up, keep them straight and mark where I'm supposed to drill."

They worked quickly, Helen moving around according to Nikki's directions as she had done on previous days. All too soon, the final two radiators were up and Helen had no excuse to stay in the house.

"What are you going to do now?"

"I thought I'd get started on stripping the wallpaper off the ceiling in the kitchen, so I can get the walls finished and made good. Then you can sort out getting that kitchen designer in you were talking about."

Helen remembered the conversation from two days ago. She and Nikki had been discussing where to put the boiler, and she had mentioned then that she needed to reconsider the kitchen, after Nikki told her that her original plans for the boiler weren't going to work.

In fact, Nikki's suggestions about the layout of the kitchen were so good that Helen didn't think she'd get a designer in at all; she could already see how it would look in her mind's eye, even if she had actually not envisaged the layout as Nikki had.

"OK, well, I'll leave you to it, then." She left to return to the garden, having no real excuse to stay in the house, rather than because Sean was calling her.

"Can we just have a bonfire of all this lot?" She asked as she came up to him, distastefully looking at the mountain of rubbish.

"If you like. I thought you wanted it all out of the way."

"I do, but I can't be bothered raking it all up."

"Well then, my petit pyromaniac, lets get it all over there. That area could do with being burnt out anyway." The two of them worked noisily, talking about what they were going to do.

"Can you come with me and pick out the new bathroom tomorrow?" Helen wanted to get as much done as she could before she went back to work, and before Sean vanished again.

"I'm back to Scotland tomorrow, didn't I tell you?" He didn't even look up as he replied off-handedly. Helen knew he certainly hadn't mentioned that little fact.

"No, you didn't," she replied evenly, reigning in her temper. "Sean, you can't keep on doing this."

"Doing what?" He finally looked up at her.

"Vanishing all the time. I can't be expected to do it on my own."

"But you're not, are you? Nikki's here, and she seems to be doing a pretty good job."

"Sean, you don't get it. This is supposed to be our house – you and I working on it together." She put all the emphasis on 'together'. "Nikki's in there stripping wallpaper, which we should be doing." She couldn't bring herself to say that she felt that the house was quickly becoming hers and Nikki's. It sounded stupid, especially as they barely knew the woman. Hell, it even belonged more to Trisha than Sean, as she had spent a lot of time going over décor with Helen, more than Sean ever had.

She worked furiously as Sean just gave her a look; one that said she was overreacting, and put on his 'careful' face, the one he wore when he wasn't sure what to say to her, when he felt that she was being unreasonable. She wanted to smack it off his face with her rake.

"Helen, this is a big thing for me; for us. Once we've got this in the bag, we can get married, hell, have kids. It's what we both want; what we've worked so hard for. We can get the house sorted with Trisha's and Nikki's help."

"We ought to be hiring a builder. Nikki's worked on this for a straight week or so now, with no time off. Do you know how much the charge-out rate a day is for someone like her? Two hundred pounds a day."

"You said she was in Croatia barely a week ago. What was that, work?"

"Actually, yes. We're building a development over there." Nikki's voice was cold, and they both jumped at the sound of it.

"Nikki, we were…" Helen's brain garbled any chance of getting her mouth to work at the same time.

" Really? Do you need someone to do the landscaping?" She could have hit Sean again, and felt the rake twitch disturbingly in her hand. Nikki's face said that she was less than impressed.

"Actually, no. We already have someone for that, thanks." She cleared her throat after her knockback, and Helen could feel Sean fuming away beside her. "I think you need to come and see this."

She turned and led the way across the garden and into the house. Helen was grateful she couldn't see Sean mouthing rude things behind her back. She gave in to her feelings and hit him on the arm with her hand as they walked.

"Here." Nikki indicated the partially stripped kitchen ceiling, which Helen could see appeared to be falling down in several places. She hadn't for the life of her been able to work out why most of the ceilings in the house had been wallpapered, but now, staring at up at the board stuff coming away from the wooden thingies and the insulation poking out from behind it, realised that it wasn't purely cosmetic.

"Oh." Was all she could think of to say.

"What's wrong with it?" Sean asked. Talk about a stupid question, Helen thought.

"When they put the ceiling up, they didn't butt the plasterboard properly. And they didn't tape or fill the joints properly. And it wasn't nailed up properly, and they didn't skim it with plaster, just papered it over. Take your pick."

"Can you sort it?" Helen saw Nikki throw Sean a despairing look, as if he had asked the stupidest question in the world, which, to be fair, he probably just had.

"Of course, but you're going to have to buy the stuff for it."

"What do we need, and how long will it take?" Helen jumped in.

"Plasterboard." She measured the room quickly. "Nails, tape, plaster. It'll take a few days. I'll have to get it all up, then I've got to plaster it. Let the plaster dry, then sand it for painting."

"We can go and get it tomorrow when we go and find a bathroom. Just tell us what we need to get," Helen said quickly, to stop Sean putting in his twopenn'orth.

"You mean you and Nikki can go. I won't be here." Sean brought her back down to Earth with a bump.

"As you won't be able to get the plasterboard in either of your cars, I'll have to go and take the van. Let me finish this up now, and I'll go early in the morning." Nikki practically jumped on the ladder, and using her hammer, levered some of the plasterboard from the ceiling, bringing a shower of dust and muck down on Sean's head. For all her apologies, which Helen wasn't entirely convinced by, Helen couldn't help notice her smirk, and had trouble hiding her own.

Part 12

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