The Gunpower Plot
By Kristine and Richard
John was sharing a lunchtime drink with Michael Nivin in a quiet bar just off the busy thoroughfare upon which the Old Bailey's massive stone structure imposed its weight of authority. In John's world, nearly all his male friends were always outside that enclosed world of the judiciary. These were people in front of whom he could let his reserve drop, the people he knew on another level from his role as a judge. It was an instinct within him that warned him that the danger to his moral welfare lay in a professional insularity. That was an insidious trap, couched in an insiders code language of interaction, which had a corrosive effect on youthful dreams. He had a sense of feeling different from his brethren, of them but not necessarily with them. This other side of him as an amateur violinist in a quintet enabled him to discuss the finer points of music and something that he craved for as self protection at an instinctive level totally at odds with the dry formal logic of the law. It was a necessary form of release. He made an exception with Michael as there was a sharing of minds as human being which made for a friendship with the strict understanding that, on no account, were they to talk 'shop.'
It was at moments like this that, sitting in the bar while Michael bought the next round of drinks that other forms of release and cravings insidiously eased themselves into his mind. Other middle-aged philanderers might need the loosening effect on the inhibitions of alcohol to put themselves into the right frame of mind but John was different. The distance between his ideas and fantasies and what it took to realise them was that much shorter as if it were a spinoff effect from the particular nature of his high intelligence.
It was when he was temporarily away from what few ties held him down when he was tempted the most. The week spent in the alien grey concrete architecture of Warwick University at a Human Rights conference provided just such an opportunity. He had only chanced to happen upon the very attractive French lady judge clearly bored by the inept attempts of Monty Everard to attract her charms. It only took a glance lazily exchanged between the two of them for her smile to be directed at him while Monty Everard foolishly thought that her smile was directed at him. He was a master of enabling chance, circumstances and his attractions to the female sex to be able to spend the night with the woman of his choice. It was the clandestine nature of it all, free from responsibility and wondering if what he was doing was right that was part of the attraction, the other being, the thrill of the chase.
He eyed up the pretty woman in the bar which made him feel as young and vigorous as anything ever did in his life when his friend rejoined him.
"Have you seen much of George lately?" he asked.
Instantly, the smile on his face disappeared as if someone had switched the light off. Damn the man, he thought, as his words acted as a trip wire to his memories of George when he last spent a lot of time with her a few weeks ago. Etched into his mind was the image of how dreadfully thin she was in comparison with his previous memories of their marriage. He felt vaguely responsible for her shocking loss of weight without him ever noticing it and, for the first time in his life, her take on him, Jo and, most of all, herself. It was strange that, in all those years of marriage, all their arguments had interminably replayed the same stuck record, but only now had circumstances forced them to open up to each other. It was disturbing for both of them, he knew, because neither of them were brought up that way.
He saw the ocean of pain in George's large watery eyes, the last time he talked to her, and heard again the jagged words that she forced out of herself which had been buried in her for so many years, too deep for words to express. He had tried his inadequate best to listen to her, to reassure her, to be patient and firm. He remembered the way that she had 'cut a deal' to talk about her mother on condition that he talked about his. Uncomfortable though it felt, it was a reassuring glimpse of the old, hard George whom he had crossed swords with in court. It had come to something that night, or was it nights, that he had found that bloody minded unreasonable female barrister side of her actually reassuring.
A ghost memory broke its way into his consciousness uninvited. He saw himself at a particular moment in his life when he was in some faraway bar in some provincial town where he had been called on to represent a client as a barrister. It had happened before that he'd had to pack an overnight case and leave both George and home with deep regret. When you have the most sexually satisfying woman to come home to, what need was there for him to go off the straight and narrow as the older barristers in the practice were apt to. He heard them with contempt as they endlessly droned on about how the country was going to the dogs and what held this country together were decent traditional family virtues. Take the wife, for instance, wonderful woman she is and our splendid children who are such a credit to us. A return to old-fashioned values of self-discipline would soon have this country back on its feet after a decade of 'trendy lefties'. It was only later on when he overheard in snatched conversations just how much these hypocrites actually valued the sanctity of family life in the way they discreetly slid off to some secret assignation. It was strange to think that Monty Everard was nearly the same age as him but he was a descendant of this kind of ancient relic of a bygone era and perhaps that explained his instant aversion to the man.
This was all before George had changed and for a reason he could not then work out. Everything had suddenly gone wrong in his marriage or so he felt resentfully, just when it was blessed by an offspring. Certainly, Charlie was the apple of his eye as her tiny, well formed fingers clutched his larger one and led him around exploring the back garden whichever way her infant will led her. George would sit out on the patio, watching them from afar through the elegance of her sunglasses from which she could look at the world around her without being similarly spied upon. The glassily mannered woman who was his wife was slimmer than ever after the birth of their child but nighttime had changed. Instead of the bed being the sexual adventure playground, or any other room in the house that they fancied, she merely accepted his overtures whereas once, she would eagerly lead him into sexual surrender with them in a mingling of bodies wrapped around each other and gloriously out of breath. He could not make head or tail of what had gone wrong though he could remember that pregnancy did not agree with her. His sexual desires remained bottled up and seeking release in a battle for will with his confused and fractious love for her.
It was not until that fateful moment that he remembered feeling young and single again in a strange town, the way he used to feel and he smiled at the woman who later invited him up to her flat. He needed that boost to his sense of self esteem that he felt was his just deserts and found that the one night stand gave him that without the burden of responsibility in having to deal with another person's feelings. She was hanging around in the bar and if he had not been there that night, or so he reassured the voice of guilt, then she would have spent the night with another man.
When he came home the next day, he kissed George dutifully as it felt to him that this was as much as she wanted from him and she behaved to him exactly the same way that she normally did. In that one event, the fatal divide opened up in John's soul between his outward façade to George and that restless eye for the fairer sex and his desires which proved impossible to satiate. Above all else, he had eaten of that very dangerously tasting apple that was placed in his hands in his desire for short term relationships off the beaten tracks in his life.
The age in which this took place was, after all, an age of relationships rather than an age of marriages in which he had been brought up. This was a part of a changing world which he was willing to embrace, and the second and third woman that the restless "travelling salesman" lifestyle of a practising barrister made so very convenient. The second and third times, he found that his conscience spoke in a softer and softer voice until it stopped speaking at all.
It was then that the unaccountable rows between him and George, started for real until he came to believe that his great love for her had been obliterated in a thousand petty arguments over nothing and a woman who did not give him what once had been his for his or her asking.
"No, Michael, I've only seen her on odd occasions when she's appeared in court before me. You know how sometimes you can't help but fall over some people's feet one moment and not see them again for weeks the next," John joked to Michael and his eyes opened wide after momentarily closing after Michael spoke to him.
"You ought to keep an eye on her now she's no longer with Houghton if only for old time's sake. You and George go back a long way but then again, so do you and Jo Mills."
In turn, the words triggered off memories of some very unsettling conversations with Jo who revealed a firmness of manner and an ability to see into his mind that he had never suspected that she possessed. It was only a few weeks ago that her wide open intense blue
eyes burned with a passion through his defences into his very soul as she manoeuvred her words through his very labyrinthine defences by the very means with which his engagement with his world was at its strongest. Some men live their lives through the fist, others through the spoken word and though he was best able to fight his way through a situation by his verbal fluency, he had been known to switch to the long forgotten boyhood skills learned on the school playground. Jo's performance had unsettled his well ballasted sense of who he was, especially the way she mixed in glowing praise on the one hand with pointed criticism on the other. Naturally, he had spent a lot of his time with Jo as part of his deal with her and he had made fervent vows to her that he would change at which Jo smiled gently without comment.
The split second reflection of himself which travelled his universe at the speed of light turned what was vital in him into water and, in a spasm of irritation, the sexually reckless John of old flamed up into life who was untrammelled in what he did in his personal life in a similar way that he gleefully pushed boundaries to the limit as a judge.
Instantly, Michael regretted his words. From his point of view, he merely intended that John should call round perfectly innocently to see if George was all right and forget their spectacular arguments, which were well known to raise the roof. John never did explain how the digs carpet came to be curry stained and how it's tenacity defied an army of cleaners to remove. Michael had a shrewd suspicion, which he kept to himself. You could never describe John's relationships with women exactly innocent and why should George be an exception?
"I've not seen George but I was contemplating seeing her now that she has given Lover Boy the push. As you rightly say, it is my duty although it would be my pleasure also."
He could never work out if he was being debonair and casually amusing to himself or to Michael. Two men of long acquaintance who did speak of more intimate moments than their shared public school upbringing normally permitted, did not find the most direct way of expressing their feelings anyway. Unburdening one's heart to another man always seemed faintly indecent to his fastidious mind.
Michael groaned inwardly at John's reply. As head of the practice, he had the unenviable job of acting as mediator between the delicate sensibilities of the quarrelsome brethren who for matters of financial convenience were forever chained together in the one practice. The most frequent disruptive influence was the 'bad boy of the form,' John Deed with his perverse desire to offend and shock in his somewhat eccentric style of judgements handed down from his throne. It took Rumour Control the briefest of time for tongues to be wagging and heads to be shaken in disapproval in one week. The next week the brethren would be permeated with uncomfortable feelings of inferiority as one of his spectacular 'cutting to the core of the case' judgements sealed their tongues in heaping on him the generosity of praise that they would rather be directed at themselves. As self-regarding prima donnas, their profession was half lawyers, half actors with an uncertain unpredictable scattering of virtues and vices of both professions.
The other turbulent side of John's life which must have caused Michael's hair to turn prematurely white, not grey, was John's reckless adolescent sexuality. At an age when he should, by rights, long since have settled down in a comfortable domestic routine, John was the source of the other half of the scandalous stories, which went the rounds. He did not dare to think that John had maliciously invented the stories, certainly not with his ceaseless searching for the truth. He could not find it in his heart to accuse John of hypocrisy. That was half the trouble. His own sense of virtue had compelled him to take an early morning jog round the grounds of the digs and had seen a very hung over and dishevelled Jo Mills stumble out of the front door of the digs, very much the worse for wear. This was quite apart from the more casual affairs which he did not even try to keep pace with.
"For once, I must break the unspoken rule of our get togethers, John and give you some serious advice which you would do well to take to heart. Jo Mills did well to escape by the skin of her teeth from the disciplinary sanctions of the PCC, which she was hauled before. Although she was cleared of improper conduct of a relationship with a judge before whom she appeared in court, I know for certain that she was actually guilty, John."
"So you believe what was supposed to be in the photos, Michael?" John's anger flamed.
"I saw Jo Mills come out of the digs the morning after, John," Michael cut back in dangerously soft-spoken tones. "I was out for an early morning jog."
"Ah," John said non committally.
"That is all water under the bridge, John, but do not travel in the same boat under the same bridge a second time. You might not be so fortunate. See George if you must but please observe the professional limits of our profession. Even you, for once in your life," Michael replied, attempting to be stern and reasoning at the same time with a sinking feeling inside him that he had as much chance in his self imposed task as King Canute had in his.
A silence descended on the room while the convivial sounds of the pub receded into the distance. Both stared at each other as the walls of the Lord Chancellor's Department closed in on them. It made Michael feel very uncomfortable and also that a totally throwaway remark had skewed the track of the conversation into an area of their life that was strictly taboo. Ancient blood lines dictated to him that he was guilty of an unforgivable breach in etiquette yet his duty to John as a friend fought for control of his will and his tongue to tell himself that he had acted for the best. He did not know the words that would smooth over the unpleasantness.
"Another drink. I think that this round is on me."
John smiled broadly at Michael and appreciated the traditionally male way of handling a delicate situation and graciously accepted his offer and the delicacy with which he appeared to lie.
With an enormous feeling of relief, Michael took himself away purposefully to the bar where he queued up for the drinks, conveniently giving himself the space in which to calm down a bit.
John, meanwhile, had a head full of duties, obligations, and confused desires whirling around in his head. Michael might feel all the better for getting that off his chest, something that had been clearly bothering him for weeks but he didn't. What the devil was Michael telling him to do, that if he went along with the plan George and Jo had cooked up for him, he would be brought before the PCC again, by proxy for compromising not one but two professional indiscretions. This time they might take notice of his inspired remark about 'one hand clapping' which poured scorn on the idea that only Jo's conduct of her personal life was relevant to the night that he had slept with a drunk, overwrought Jo who had burst in on him.
If he accepted Michael's well meant advice then his fate would be consigned to that of an endless series of casual affairs which would at least keep him on the professional straight and narrow as if he were Monty Everard without his appalling wife and without the need to pay for sexual gratification. John dismissed that revolting comparison from his mind. Aside from his profession, there was nothing in common with that pompous, morally corrupt man who would tailor his judgements according to his prospects of personal advancement and currying favour with the temporary politicians who lorded it over the LCD.
"A penny for your thoughts, John?" Michael offered as he carefully placed both drinks on the table.
"They're not worth a penny. Utterly trivial and inconsequential," His assured and relaxed reply covered up his feelings with the expertise born of years and experience.
Michael slid into the slightly alcohol fuelled bonhomie and John's sparkling conversation. He couldn't help the man even though he shook his head at his maverick behaviour. He could be as disapproving of John as anyone of the brethren but something in him wished that he could be bolder and less afraid of . of something that his trained legal mind could not define, of life perhaps. He could not share a similar lifestyle to John, he could only sneakingly admire his performance from afar from his seat in the rear stalls. They chit chatted awhile as the conviviality of the pub wrapped itself round them again and the woman at the bar faded into the background. Perhaps, John reflected, it was not meant to be that he should meet the unknown woman.
When John was back at the digs, he sat in his favourite comfortable armchair so that he could think more clearly.
He knew now how little George valued herself and that knowledge still shocked him as being totally contrary to all his past impressions of her.
The overwhelming force of all the words which both Jo and George had spelt out to him was that George desperately needed to feel loved and how little she felt that she deserved to be loved. When he thought about it, for once he had to discipline his desires for George into making sure that the evening was for her pleasure, for her to feel good about herself. In that way he could keep faith with Michael's advice in his fashion.
"Hi George, I thought I'd call you on the off chance."
George's heart leaped inside her as much as she was afraid.
"Hello darling, it's lovely to hear from you. Exactly what sort of off chance had you in mind?"
"Oh nothing much. It's just that I haven't seen anything of you outside court and I wanted to see how you were."
From any other man, George might consider that there was a platonic side to the enquiry but not John.
"Mere friendly concern really doesn't suit you, John."
"Not after I trailed round the supermarket to buy you your favourite food to persuade you to eat properly and generally play nursemaid. You don't read that in the average romantic novel," John said curtly.
"I'm sorry, John," George softened up. She had the habit of reverting to standard reactions in her dealings with John.
John was deeply touched by the simplicity of the words and the total absence of that hard brittle edge in her voice. He knew of old the high castle walls complete with moat and drawbridge that George had constructed to protect her from the psychic dangers of apologising.
"I really am concerned about you. I've been busy recently ."
"With Jo no doubt," George muttered cynically.
"Quite," Came the unashamed retort. "Anyway, my time is my own and, believe it or not, I really do want to see you. For once, my intentions are honourable."
George permitted herself the luxury of a wide smile at the implausibility of the remark. She was prepared to concede that a fraction of John's feelings were perfectly genuine. She had hosted so many glittering parties over the years with such perfect style and played the game of superficial conversation and her address book was as full as anyone's Yet, if she thought about it, if she were in real trouble, who could she be certain that she could depend on for help? She named Daddy, of course, but besides that she could think only of John, and more recently Jo. After all, when she was at her lowest ebb, they were there for her. That thought shook her and strangely reassured her about John.
"It's very sweet of you to enquire after my welfare, darling," George's amused voice slid its seductive way up and down the musical scale with perfect pitch. "But you don't need to be quite so shy." It was the way that George spoke the last four words in ironic inverted commas which aroused mixed feelings of desire and resolution in John.
"Well then, can I come and see you?" John asked softly.
"Yes, on Saturday night," Came the reply which did not commit George to expressing her feelings for him, only that she would be there.
He sighed as he put the phone down. How could he be held to blame if there were women around who were only too eager to lead him into temptation?
Ever since John's phone call, George had been on edge. She still couldn't quite get her head round this new situation. Would Jo really be okay with this, she still couldn't be sure. But would she, George, be able to go through with it. Sleeping with John had almost made her crack up altogether, and she wondered whether the memory of that would keep creeping in on what they might be doing. But George's overall concerns were that for a start, she didn't think she was anywhere near relaxed enough to enjoy anything with anyone, and would she still feel guilty, even though this would be with Jo's blessing. Good god, she thought to herself, this is just way too weird for words. She wanted to be able to go on sleeping with John without any hint of guilt hanging over her, because bed, especially with him, was one of the things she did best, and above all, she needed to start feeling good about herself again. She'd been so down, so much at rock bottom over the last few weeks, that some seriously good loving was probably the kick her endorphin levels needed to get her back on track.
As she waited for John on the Saturday evening, she resisted the urge to have either a cigarette or a glass of wine. She knew that John, not being a smoker, would naturally prefer her not to taste of cigarettes, and if she had one glass of wine, the nervous state she was in would mean she'd have to keep drinking. Whatever happened tonight, whether it be good or bad, George wanted it to be because of real, unenhanced feelings, not because of too much alcohol. She'd stood for almost an hour in front of her wardrobe, wholly unable to make up her mind what she should wear. In the end, she reasoned that whatever she did wear probably wouldn't stay on for too long anyway, her outer covering being only the wrapping round the real goods of her body. Eventually deciding to play it in the minor key, she picked out a very understated simple black dress that accentuated every curve, and made her waist look even more tiny than usual. But before putting the dress on, she stood in front of the mirror, critically examining what she had to offer. It was only three weeks since she'd weighed in at five stone ten, and not too much of her lost weight had been regained since then. Walking in to the bathroom, she pulled out the scales and stepped on to them. She was still only six stone three, which admittedly was a great improvement, but not all that great. Her ribs were still too prominent, her hips and shoulder blades were still far too jutting, and her arms looked like sticks. Would he find her sexy looking like this, she couldn't be sure. Smirking at her reflection, she put on a plain black lacy bra, but decided to leave off her underwear. That would give him a surprise, she hadn't done that since they were married. After slipping the dress on, she drew around her eyes in an eyeliner that made her eyes look huge, endless and added to the lamb to the slaughter effect of the black dress. The only splash of colour she granted herself was to paint her lips with a beautiful, rich wine-red, or in some lights blood-read, shade of lip-gloss. Finally surveying the completed article, she thought that yes, she just might be able to turn him on looking like this. Whether she would be able to turn herself on was another matter. She couldn't sit still as she waited for him. She kept walking round the house, straightening this, moving that, finally putting some soft music on to calm her down, and making sure that there were plenty of logs in the basket in the hearth.
When John finally arrived and rang the doorbell, she almost jumped out of her skin. Mentally telling herself to get a grip, she went to answer it. From the moment she opened the door, he could tell she was nervous about this. Everything about her face, her posture, sang tension. Even when she'd let him in, and he moved to put his arms round her and kiss her cheek, as he always did whether in public or otherwise, she instinctively moved out of his reach.
"How are you?" He asked, realising this was going to be harder than he'd first thought.
"Still only six stone three," She replied, "So you may want to change your mind about this." They'd walked in to the lounge, and in the firelight, he caught hold of her hand to stop her from moving away.
"You look beautiful," He said, allowing his eyes to run scrutinizingly the whole length of her body.
"That's not quite what the mirror told me," She said, immediately withdrawing her hand from his.
"Well, I am a far better judge than your mirror," He said, running a finger down her cheek. Still not sure whether she liked the effect his words and his touch were having on her, she said,
"I've allowed some red wine to breathe. Would you like a glass?" Saying that yes he would, John sat down in what had once been their favourite armchair, and waited for her. But seeing that she had a book of music open on the piano, he got up and went to see what it was. As he read the words, "Nocturne in D Flat major, Op.27 No.2", a flood of memories almost swamped him. It was as if John had returned in his mind to a time in his life that was happy and uncomplicated, to a sense of unity with George when he was young and ardent and that he had found the feeling of family that he most needed. Years of life at public school only gave him a feeling of coldness and disconnectedness which he found only too easy to slip into after his mother's suicide and the way his father emotionally withdrew from him. He is swept away with George right now as she plays this piece with delicate piano notes which he can hear in his mind all wrapped around with her nakedness that he is enjoying now with her. He opened his eyes and the dream faded and the piano is silent and the older George is here in the house where they were married. He is older now and he is here to try and repair the damages to her from over the years.
George returned and handed him his glass.
"I'm trying to relearn it," She said, observing his examination of her music.
"I haven't heard you play since we were married."
"I'm sure you will some time," She said, as he moved back to the armchair and she, for now, took her usual seat in the right hand corner of the sofa. "Jo heard me play once," She continued, though not really sure why she was telling him this. "It was that evening she came looking for a fight after being a little too overzealous with Karen Betts' case." This seemed to bring John out of his thoughts.
"Speaking of Karen Betts," He said, after taking a mouthful of the rich, sultry Pinot Noir. "Why did you warn her off me?" ~George grinned.
"And just how do you know I did?" John could have cursed, he'd been caught out. When he didn't immediately reply, George just rolled her eyes. "You slept with her, didn't you."
"Well, you should know by now," He said with a broad smile. "That telling me not to do something is as good as giving me maximum encouragement, and I think the same goes for Karen. I do know that she took your warning seriously, but that it didn't frighten her off."
"Why am I not surprised?" She said dryly. "And I'm assuming Jo doesn't know about this."
"No," Said John seriously. "She doesn't, and I'd really rather it stayed that way."
"Your past exploits aren't the issue. It's your present or future ones that I'm concerned about."
"You're not the only one who's had reservations about this," He said, finally getting round to the thing that was clearly bugging them both.
"I'd have thought that for you, it simply meant double the amount of your favourite pastime."
"Jo wouldn't have suggested this if she didn't think it was the right thing to do."
"I know," Said George, badly wanting a cigarette but still resisting the urge. "And where you're concerned, I wholeheartedly agree with her. You need to feel like you're playing away, and I'm probably not bad mistress material. I just don't know if either JO or I will get used to it."
"That isn't all you are to me, you know that," He said gently but firmly.
"Yes, it is," She said, equally quietly. "You've loved Jo for a very long time, and for some reason, she thinks that giving you licence to sleep with me on the side will keep you on the straight and narrow. Who knows, nothing else has worked so far, but something as bizarre and radical as this little arrangement just might." It hurt him to the core to hear her talk about herself so dismissively. Referring to herself as part of an 'arrangement' somehow cheapened herself when she had no reason to belittle herself, yes George, the supremely confident one at so many parties, like Monty Everard's. She shouldn't do that to herself, he thought. No one knew George like him, he reflected, even if it bewildered him that he was only just getting to know her after all these years.
"If you're so convinced that I only see you as a beautiful body to keep me off the streets as it were, why are you prepared to go along with this." Putting her wine down, George stood up and moved over to the hearth, putting another log on the fire to give her hands something to do. She kept her eyes to the blaze, so that all he could see was her enchanting but still too thin profile.
"I still love you, John," She said, finally turning to face him. "Probably too much for my own good." She did her best to hide it, but he could see in her face that all she wanted was the pretence of being loved. In making love, she would, temporarily at least, feel that he loved her. The way George saw him, anything was better than nothing. If she could have the occasional appearance of being loved by him, she could allow herself, for those few hours, to believe that she did mean as much to him as he said she did. It was what she couldn't keep out of her eyes that told him more than anything else just how low she still was, and just how little she really thought of herself, never mind all her public bravado.
"Come here," He said softly, and she moved closer until he could take her hand and draw her down on to his knee, enclosing her in the arms whose presence she'd privately missed so much over the years. Knowing that she wasn't going out anywhere, George hadn't bothered to wear shoes with her dress, and now rested her bare feet on the stone flags of the hearth. Even though she made the pretence of relaxing against him, he could still feel the tension in every muscle, every bone. He realised that he was going to have his work cut out if he didn't want her to try that trick that had obviously worked so well and been used so frequently on Haughton. He laid a hand on her cheek, turning her face towards him so that he could examine its every feature.
"I wish you wouldn't do that," She said, her eyes constantly flinching away from his scrutiny. "You act as if you can read my face like a particularly transparent book."
"I can usually," He said with a smile. "It makes you thoroughly incapable of hiding anything from me."
"Sounds like I need to brush up my act," She replied dryly.
"I'd rather you didn't," He said, gently drawing her face closer to his. "I much prefer you just as you are." When their lips met, George briefly felt as if she'd stepped off the dock in to a swirl of unsteady waters, for now calm and tranquil, but which could at any time become violent.
"I love you," He said after a while, which made her detach her lips from his, leaning slightly away so that she could look at him.
"John, that's one little piece of false sentimentality I don't want to hear. I know you think you love me, but you don't, you can't. So please, don't say it." This cut him like a knife. It seemed a savage irony that John had lured so many women to bed so easily with his silver tongue, with his ability to make them feel good about themselves. He felt an abject failure when he couldn't do the same with George, one of the two women in his life whom he felt closest to. His words were the most sincerely meant, of all the times in his life when he really wanted to do the greatest good to another human being, yes almost like the way he wanted so passionately and platonically to bring justice for another human being. Why couldn't George believe him? He gently drew her back to lean against him.
"If there's one thing I'm going to convince you of without fail," He said softly and determinedly. "It's that I do love you." George looked extremely sceptical.
"Oh, really," She said disbelievingly. "John, I'm not the woman you used to know."
"Yes, you are," He said gently. "Underneath all that self-doubt, self-loathing and uncertainty. That's what depression does to a person." She flinched at the word depression. "You've just forgotten what it's like to be loved, to be appreciated for being so beautiful." She looked sceptical.
"I don't want to disappoint you," She said, slightly turning her face away from him.
"George, if this is all you want for now, that's fine."
"But it's not," She said, clearly exasperated with herself. "I need what I know you want to give me too much. I just don't know if I'm capable of enjoying it."
"Well," He said, beginning to kiss her again. "That's for me to find out, isn't it." Did she realise that he wouldn't reproach her if she couldn't go through with it? She wasn't sure. But she allowed him to kiss her, because, just for now, it made her feel safe, cherished, as if he really meant what he'd said. He had his right arm around her waist, and it was simplicity itself to begin caressing her breast with his right hand. As his thumb grazed over her nipple, she could feel the beginnings of the waves of lust creeping over her, making her senses gradually begin to smoulder like the newspaper she'd used to light the fire. He'd always loved the way her body reacted to him, her pinpoint nipples pushing at the front of her clothing, the small indecipherable sounds she made in the back of her throat. He casually rested a hand on her thigh, and when the permission was granted by a slight altering of her position, he began to inch his way up her bare leg under the black dress. He took his time, wanting to give her any opportunity to change her mind, but she didn't. When his hand eventually reached her hip, and he discovered that she wasn't wearing any underwear, his eyebrows soared. Smirking at him, she said,
"I thought you'd like that." It dawned on him, that in having done this, it had been her intention all along to sleep with him, no matter how she felt about it. It touched him greatly that she was prepared to do this for him, to let him make love to her, even if she didn't especially want or enjoy it. This realisation only increased his resolve to make this night as special as possible for her.
"What would really relax you?" He asked, knowing that this was the key to any further intimacy. She looked thoughtful, knitting her brows together in that utterly transparent way he'd always adored.
"A massage might just do it," She said eventually. As they gently disengaged themselves and she slid from his knee, she wondered if she really could come up with the goods. It would be a further, enormous dent in her self-esteem if she couldn't, but she knew that lying to him just wasn't an option. He'd been aware of her faking it the last time, and she knew that he wouldn't fail to notice it if she did it again. Picking up their glasses of wine, they walked upstairs, George wondering just what the hell she was doing, and John wondering if he would be able to push her buttons tonight.
When they reached her bedroom, George suddenly became aware of just how thin she still was. As his hand moved to the buttons of her dress, she stopped him.
"John, I still don't look that good."
"To me, you will always be beautiful," He said, his hand continuing in its progress to unveil her. Thinking that he would soon change his mind, she let him. When her dress was discarded, along with the simple black bra, she had the desire to flee, to hide her unattractive body from his gaze.
"Do you still like what you see?" She asked, her apprehension making her tone take on some of the old Georgia Channing bite. running a finger over the curve of her breast, he said,
"George, I'm not going to suddenly go off you just because one of your favourite fallbacks went a little too far." Kissing her, he asked, "Where do you keep the massage oil these days?"
"Top shelf of the bathroom cabinet," She said with a soft smile. When he returned, she had drawn back the duvet and was lying waiting for him. He was out of his clothes in a trice.
"I swear you're the quickest undresser I've ever known," She said with a smirk.
"I've had a lot of practice," He said dryly. Joining her on the bed, he spent a few moments just looking at her. As for her thinness, he couldn't fail to notice the way her skin was stretched over her hips and ribcage, heightening the obvious lack of spare flesh or flesh of any kind.
"After having seen myself in the mirror this evening, I would understand if you changed your mind."
"George," He said gently but firmly, leaning over to kiss her. "Shut up, and turn over." Unable to suppress a grin at his words, she did as she was told. After leaving her for a moment to switch on the CD-player on her dressing-table, this time containing Lizst, he returned to the bed, picked up the bottle of massage oil, and began gently kneading her shoulders. The sultry scents of Gardenia and Sandalwood permeated the air, mingling with the soft music to create an atmosphere to take them both temporarily away from their ordinary lives. She loved the way his oiled hands were sliding over her skin, deftly untangling the knots of muscle in her neck and her upper back. She writhed half in ecstasy half in agony under his skilful fingers. His mission was to take away every inch of tension, to reduce her to a gently simmering cauldron of lust and desire. As his hands moved gradually down her back, they stretched to their full span, his outer fingers curling round her to occasionally tease the undersides of her breasts. Except for when he came in to contact with a particularly stubborn tangle of muscle or ligament, she didn't make any sound. They were both focussing solely on their sense of touch, her by what he was doing, and him by her physical reactions. He was slightly disturbed, on moving lower, to find that his hands did indeed span her waist. It frightened him that she could allow herself to become so tiny, but he tried to ignore these thoughts and keep on going. As his hands slid languorously over her buttocks and began kneading the tops of her thighs, she let out a very low sound of utter contentment.
"So, this is working, is it," He said softly, finally breaking the silence.
"Mmm," She groaned luxuriously, for the moment incapable of forming actual words. As he progressed down to her calves, she knew this was what it meant to be in complete and utter heaven. Once he'd reached her incredibly pretty and well-manicured feet, he reached for her hips and gently turned her over. There is nothing quite so sensual as having a pair of well-oiled, skilful hands putting the muscles of your feet back in to their proper places. The feeling alone makes you feel as if you could walk forever without wanting to sit down. When his hands moved back up her already relaxed calves, and began removing the tension from the front of her thighs, she thought it was time to give him some visual pleasure. His gaze had been almost solely centred on her still very shapely legs, but he was suddenly aware of her right hand moving towards him. But she didn't attempt to touch him, as he'd thought she was going to, but to touch herself, her finger and thumb gently seeking out her clitoris, right in front of his eyes.
"As incredible as that looks," He said, after a few moments observation. "Don't do it."
"Why?" She said, not obeying him. "I thought that seeing me do this was one of your things."
"Not tonight," He said with a smile. "I think you need reminding what you've been missing." Gently removing her hand, he placed it on the bed beside her. "Any pleasure you receive tonight will be given by me and me alone." Oh, how she loved it when he was masterful, though she'd never admit it.
He began kissing his way up her left thigh but, whether because she couldn't help it or simply to wind him up, she began running her left hand over her left breast, bringing her own nipple to a pinpoint, bullet-like hardness. But John had kept his eye on her, knowing she might do this.
"Eh," He said, using the firm tone he'd often used on her in court. "Do you want me to tie your hands to the headboard, to keep them out of harm's way?" Her eyes widened in excitement.
"Not tonight, no," She said, her mouth dry with lust. Taking hold of both her wrists, he momentarily held them to the bed.
"Then you'll have to be patient," He Said with a broad smile, remembering of old her occasional liking to be treated as a misbehaving schoolgirl who couldn't wait for the thing she wanted most.
"John, I'm useless at being patient, you know that." Part of him wanted to make her wait, to see how long she could last, but the rest of him just wanted to lavish every ounce of attention on her he could muster. Kissing his way up her thigh, over her hip and up between her breasts, he purposefully avoided every possible erogenous zone, making her twitch with frustration. When he reached her face, he said,
"I don't care what your mirror told you, you are beautiful."
"John, let's not argue about that again. You seem to think I am, and I know I'm not. Let's just leave it at that." This was what told him that she really was still in a bad way.
"George," he said slowly. "I remember the days when you knew how beautiful you were. Every time you left the house, even if it was only to go to the supermarket or the office, you always knew how good you looked. I remember walking down Oxford Street with you, and you'd be looking in shop windows just to keep an eye on your reflection. I had to glare at so many men for gazing at you."
"Not anymore, John," She said, with too much finality in her tone. Starting to kiss her, he said,
"The other part to my mission, is to make you start liking yourself again. You've held on to far too much guilt for far too long, and now it's time to let some of that go." Knowing that he absolutely believed in what he was saying brought tears to her eyes. Furiously blinking them away, she said,
"I'd like to believe you were right."
"Aren't I always?" He said between kisses.
"No, you're certainly not," She said in mock disgust. But thought of further words was drowned as he moved a hand, still baring the traces of massage oil, over her right nipple, as if switching on a light, returning her to her previous state of heightened awareness. As he regretfully detached his lips from hers and kissed his way down to encircle her other nipple, George made up her resolve to simply go with the flow, let her feelings take her where they would and to get her head round it afterwards. If she tried to understand or deconstruct it here and now, she knew she probably wouldn't enjoy it. As she felt his tongue flicker over her already hypersensitive nipple, a random thought popped in to her head, making her blush all over. Feeling the sudden heat in her skin, John detached himself and looked up at her blushing cheeks and widened eyes. Realising she'd just thought something incredibly naughty, he asked,
"What are you thinking?"
"Nothing," She answered evasively, turning her gaze away from his.
"Your capacity for telling little white lies hasn't improved over the years," He said, grinning broadly.
"I was just thinking that you must have done that to Karen Betts." John's eyebrows soared in comprehension. Then, as the wickedest grin she'd ever seen began to spread over his face, he said,
"And you found that thought somewhat erotic, didn't you."
"Yes," She said, trying to brush the admission away. "Terrible, isn't it."
"No, just amusing," He said, thinking he just might know what she wanted.
"Will you tell me about her?" George asked, proving him absolutely right.
"Are you sure you really want to know?" He asked, not wanting to upset her.
"Let's just say that the word curiosity would be an enormous understatement where you and Karen Betts are concerned." Taking her word as gospel, he arranged the pillows so that he could sit leaning up against the headboard, and then raised her up slightly so that she was lying with her back against his chest. Putting his arms round her, one hand still moving on her breast, he said,
"What do you want to know about her?"
"Everything. What she looks like, what you did with her, everything."
"Because she is without doubt the sexiest woman I've ever seen. Is there a better reason?"
"No, of course not," He said, looking down in to her upturned smiling face. "You've seen what she looks like," He said, his lips close to her ear.
"Not well and truly unclothed, I haven't."
"But you'd like too, wouldn't you." George stretched languorously in response.
"You know I would," She said, bringing his other hand to her other breast. "Or you wouldn't be telling me about her now."
"Well, she's got wonderfully tanned legs that just seem to go on for ever. I think most of her height is in her legs, and I'm not sure where, but she's spent some of her summer sunbathing completely naked."
"Lucky sun," Said George dryly, but loving the way John's words were creeping over her like honey.
"And no matter what she's wearing, nobody could fail to miss how well-sculptured she is."
"Yes, I could be quite envious of a cleavage like hers." Turning her slightly so that she was half sprawled across his thighs and supported in the crook of his left arm, he kissed her and said,
"You shouldn't be. A cleavage that a man, or a woman, could get lost in wouldn't look right on you. You are beautiful as you are." Running a soft thumb directly over her nipple, he said, "Doing this to her made her eyes go briefly glazed. I thought it was odd, but when we were first in bed, she couldn't keep her eyes or her hands off me."
"What's odd about that?" Said George with a little smirk. "I know how she feels."
"Let me finish," He said gently but firmly. "It was as if she was reacquainting herself with what it was like to be in bed with a man again."
"Well, if she's been sleeping with Yvonne Atkins, that's hardly surprising."
"I can't be certain, but I think the last man she slept with before me was Ritchie Atkins."
"Then no wonder she ignored my advice. Did she like what she saw?"
"I think so," John replied modestly, though not fooling George an inch. He moved a hand down between her legs, for the moment just running the gentle tip of his finger over her perfectly smooth skin.
"Was she shaved?" George found herself asking.
"She certainly was," Said John between kisses, deftly seeking out George's little bundle of nerves.
"You usually prefer women who are, don't you," She said, in total certainty.
"I would never not sleep with a woman just because she didn't," He said thoughtfully. "But it is far more erotic. Karen Betts was so responsive," He said, his finger and thumb moving back and forth over her clit. "She was about as wet as you are now," He added, dipping a long, tapered finger inside her, feeling the liquid heat of her arousal which told him just how much she was enjoying this.
"You gave her oral, didn't you," George asserted, knowing him of old.
"How did you guess," He said with a smile.
"Because for some reason you could never get enough of doing that for me, and I suspect you're the same with most of the other women you've slept with over the years. Admittedly I'll do the same for you from time to time, but it's like you're hooked on doing it."
"You've got absolutely no idea, have you," He said with a broad smile. "Most women taste absolutely divine, all slightly different, but nevertheless wonderful." Taking the delightfully presented opportunity, he removed his finger from inside her and intently watching her slowly widening eyes, he ran his finger across her lips. As her pink tongue came out and flickered over his finger, tasting what he'd presented to her, her breathing quickened. When he'd removed his finger from her lips, and returned it to doing what it had always done best in the world, he said,
"You quite liked that, didn't you."
"It's certainly a vast improvement on anything any man has to offer," She said dryly, almost to cover up how startled she'd been at the taste of her own sexual secretion.
"I think you ought to sleep with a woman," He said, expertly moving his thumb over her clit and returning two fingers to the heat of her body. "If only to get it out of your system."
"How do you know I wouldn't find I preferred women to men?" She asked mischievously.
"Because I know that no matter how many different ways you might find of getting yourself an orgasm," He said with complete assurance. "You'll always at some point return to the feeling of having someone inside you, making you feel as full as it's possible to feel, taking you over the edge with that final hard thrust that makes you one whole being instead of two." Whilst he'd been saying all this, his hand had increased its speed, and he could feel her breath coming in quicker and shorter gasps. She clung to him as her orgasm approached, almost crushing his hand between her thighs.
When she finally lay still in his arms, her head on his shoulder, he gently removed his hand, softly smiling down at her.
"Now tell me something," He said, when she looked like she'd returned to the land of the living. "Why have you never asked me anything of the sort about Jo."
"I'd have thought that was obvious," She said, her voice slightly drowsy. "I don't fancy Jo."
"Pity," He said contemplatively. "Because you and her would look sensational together."
"Don't tell Jo that," George said on a laugh. "She'd run away screaming." After a little while of silent closeness, George slipped out of his embrace, and with the agility of an eel, slid down the bed until her cheek was resting on his thigh.
"You don't have to," He said, realising her intention.
"Did Karen?" George asked, though this wasn't going to alter her decision.
"Yes, she did, and believe me, there isn't much to choose between you for that."
"Oh, really," George drawled, dipping her head to enclose him in her warm supple lips. For a while there wasn't much sound between them, as even Georgia Channing couldn't talk with her mouth full. When he knew he was fast approaching the point of no return, he gently detached her from him.
"I thought you might like me to take you the whole way like that," She said in surprise.
"Not tonight," He said, sliding down the bed until he was level with her. "I want to be inside you."
"As it happens, you were," She said with a smirk, "but we won't split hairs." As she moved to lie on her back, he put a hand out to stop her. Realising that he wanted her to be the aggressor, she gently pushed him back, swung one leg over his and sank deliciously down on to his rock hard shaft. He sucked in a breath as her boiling heat enclosed him, hoping he could last long enough to make it good for her too. As they moved in perfect rhythm, he found that his hands were spanning her waist, perhaps reminding him of how thin she still was. The sight of her small but heavy breasts dancing in perfect syncopation to their rising scale of passion was enchanting. Detaching one hand from her waist, he sought out her clitoris, determined to give her as much pleasure as possible, this particular position making this much easier. When they finally hurtled over the inevitable precipice her internal muscles almost squeezed the life out of him. She leaned forward and flung her arms round him, both clinging together for the end of their joyride. Afterwards, she lay for a moment against John's chest, but soon he turned them on to their sides. Her eyes looked bright and happy, and at the same time thoroughly exhausted. a possible lack of physical energy, due to her still not eating as much as he thought she should, hadn't really occurred to him until now. But as they lay, gently nestling in each other's arms, he could see her eyes gradually beginning to close. When she shivered slightly, he detached himself in order to reach for the duvet, most of which had fallen to the floor.
"Tell me you're not going?" She murmured with a slight hint of fear.
"I'm not going anywhere," He said, covering them both and putting his arms round her.
"I love you, John," She said, her voice slightly slurred with the approach of sleep.
"And I love you," He whispered, softly pressing his lips to hers as she finally drifted off in to the land of dreams.
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