I didn’t wait for the lift. The stairs suited me just fine. I was too wired to be standing about waiting for a ride down one level, and racing down the stairs was a good way to stop me losing what little self-respect I had left by doing something stupid outside the elevator doors whilst waiting.
As I rounded the corner and into the reception area of Alan Jackson’s office, I was greeted by the rat like face of Tim Clements who was stopping a very harried Branwen from getting past him.
‘Come on, Bran. You know you want to.’
She attempted to side step him but he cut her off and I grinned when I saw her straighten her back and glare up at him. Branwen didn’t take any crap from anyone – that was another thing I loved about her.
‘As usual, you’re wrong, Tim. It is way too late for that.’ She tried to dodge past him again but Tim stopped her once more, placing his hands on her upper arms. I felt a growl of anger surge from my gut, the feeling accompanying the clenching of my fists.
However, something very unusual happened. Something I did not expect to happen in a million years. Tim Clements looked straight at me, his dark eyes widening slightly. At this point I thought he would get out of Branwen’s way and let her pass, but no. He gave me a slight wink before he focused his full attention on the woman who was trying to look bored by his behaviour.
‘Look, Bran. Erin Staunton likes you. She does. Now you don’t work for her there’s nothing to stop you asking her out is there?’
Branwen’s shoulders seemed to sag slightly, and I heard a sigh escape from her mouth. I wanted to say something but I was too stunned to get the words out. Actually, I had to lean on the side of the door frame for support.
‘You’re just saying that, Tim. She doesn’t want me that way. I saw the picture of her and her ex.’ Another sigh accompanied a gesture with her hand as if she was dismissing something.
‘Yes. Her ex, Bran. Ex.’ Branwen made to turn but Tim caught her and pulled her back to face him. If she had turned, Branwen Campbell would have seen a mesmerised me propped in the doorway.
‘Look. Tim. No offense, but you didn’t see the photo of them together. Didn’t hear her tell me how wonderful Erin is. As if I didn’t know that already.’ She rubbed her hands over her face before looking back at Tim. ‘That’s why I asked to leave. It was obvious that the letter and photo were sent as a reminder of how wonderful their relationship had been.’
Four strides. That’s all it took me to be behind her. Four strides and I was touching her shoulder making her spin around to me, her facial expression that of absolute horror. I didn’t speak. Couldn’t. My hands lifted swiftly, cupping her jaw and leaning forwards to claim those lips that I had thought about so often but hadn’t even realised I had thought about until this moment.. But even my subconscious thoughts of those perfect lips paled in comparison to the feel of them underneath mine. Initially, her lips reflected the shock of being discovered, but I pressed more firmly with mine, moving my mouth slightly until I felt her return the action. My fingers dipped into her hair, the silken strands of darkness caressing my skin, making me pull her closer, hold her more tightly, press her against me with just my will, my mouth and my hands.
Then, I felt her fingers slip up the front of me, felt them glance over my chest, along my throat and rest at the sides of my face as if she was holding me in place or trying to work out who was kissing her.
Branwen pressed even more against me, her tongue tentatively slipping between parted lips. A moan left my mouth and entered hers and I felt a hunger I had not felt for a long long time overcome me.
But this was not the time or the place to satiate this raging need. Purposefully, I slowed the kiss, Branwen following my lead.
Pulling away from her was an agony, but it had to be done. Our hands were still on faces, still in hair, eyes locked, green into brown, brown into green. Branwen was slightly shorter than me so I leaned forward, my forehead resting on hers, our ragged breaths mingling. The heat coming from her was radiant, just like her.
Her pupils were dilated making her eyes appear darker, but there was a sparkle swimming around the glorious irises that illuminated the life welling from her. When she blinked, it seemed as if she did so with agonising deliberateness, as if it was a snippet of film slowed to project every nuance, every detail.
When her voice came, it was perfectly pitched for our proximity.
‘You don’t know how long I’ve waited for you to do that.’
With her words, my stomach clenched delectably and I couldn’t help but kiss her again. I felt as if I could keep kissing her for the rest of my life and never tire of it.
As I pulled my mouth away once again, I murmured, ‘Same here.’ It wasn’t until I actually said those two words that I realised how long my wait for our kiss had actually been.
Branwen lifted her hand and placed her finger on the bridge of my nose for a moment before trailing it downward and toward my lips, her eyes following the path before they seemed to spring back to meet my gaze – the same action Carilyn Phillips had done, but the effect so very different.
‘Can I ask you a question?’ I loved her voice. Loved it. Especially this close.
I nodded, my smile open and honest.
‘What about Shannon McEwen?’
My forehead furrowed into a frown. I think this action was mainly because I wasn’t too sure why she was asking about my ex at this precise moment.
I felt her pull away slightly, but I didn’t relinquish my hold of her.
I repeated her question, although my tone was different. ‘What about Shannon McEwen?’
This time Branwen managed to pull back as she stepped out from our inner sanctum. I was surprised all over again to realise we were still in the reception area, Tim Clements nowhere in sight.
It was at this moment that I realised what she meant when she had asked about Shannon.
‘We are not an item.’ Fuck. I knew as soon as my words hit the air they were the wrong ones. I’d just announced that I didn’t believe Branwen and I were an item and not Shannon and myself. If I hadn’t worked it out with just the words, the crushed expression on Branwen’s face should have been enough to alert me of my oral faux pas. Stupidly, I tried to rectify it by blurting out something I thought would show Branwen that Shannon was with someone else. ‘The wedding is set for New Year’s Eve.’
I should’ve been clearer.
Branwen’s mouth initially dropped, then she blurted ‘You are getting married to her and you come and kiss me like this? What kind of woman are you?’
‘No, no! You don’t understand.’ My voice sounded panicky, and I’m not surprised Branwen stepped further away from me, her body language closing up. ‘Would you like to come to a wedding?’
Her lips tightened until I saw a white line. Stupidly, I couldn’t understand why she was so angry. All she had to do was say no, she had other plans.
‘How dare you. What would your intended say if she knew what you had just done?’ Branwen stepped forward. ‘To think I really liked you. Really respected you. God!’
‘I don’t understand what …’
‘When I met her on Friday, I was crushed. She was the woman who held your heart, the same heart I had yearned for since I’d started working for you.’
‘When she told me how wonderful you were and to give you the letter, I wanted to hide it. That way …’ Branwen dramatically threw her hands into the air. ‘Never mind, eh? Shannon won after all. It was a good job I decided to take Alan up on his offer.’
‘No. You’ve got it wrong, Branwen. Sha …’
‘Yes! I did get it wrong. Very wrong.’ Finally. ‘I should’ve pushed you off me as soon as you kissed me.’
‘I don’t think …’
‘No. You don’t. That’s the whole …’
Once again my mouth met hers, as it seemed the only way I could get my point across without her getting the wrong end of the stick.
She tried to pull away, but I wasn’t having any of it. My lips were staying against hers until she responded. Then, and only then, would I feel it would be safe to release my hold of her without repercussions. However, when she did respond, I completely forgot why I had launched my kissing attack in the first place. Well, until the kiss came to a natural end and I dreamily pulled my mouth free from hers.
A sad smile flittered over Branwen’s face and I felt the ache of it in my chest.
Trailing my thumb over her mouth, I asked, ‘What’s the matter, love?’
I could feel her shaking slightly, almost as if she was vibrating. ‘I can’t believe you could kiss me like that and be marrying someone else.’
‘Marrying someone else? Me? Marrying someone else?’ Branwen’s eyes opened widely. ‘I’m not marrying anyone else. If I was to marry anyone …’ I stopped before I made a complete fool out of myself. ‘Whatever gave you that idea?’
‘You said the wedding was set for New Year’s Eve.’ Her voice sounded a little unsure. Thankfully.
I held my hands out, totally at a loss for what to say. The situation seemed so stupid I believed if I spoke at that moment I would just cock it up even more.
Branwen looked up at me, those brown eyes absorbing me.
‘Just tell me the truth, Erin. Tell me what’s happening. If it hurts me, I’d prefer it to hurt me now rather than later.’
Reaching out, I lifted her hand and brought it to my lips. Once, twice, three times I left a kiss on her skin, my gaze never leaving hers.
‘I am not getting married to Shannon McEwen.’ Branwen just continued to look into my eyes. ‘Do you want to know the reason?’ She nodded once. Clear and sure.
With my free hand, I cupped her under her chin, lifting her face so it was in direct line to mine to make sure I had her full attention.
‘Shannon is marrying Leah on New Year’s eve. Marrying Leah. The woman she loves. Do you understand, Bran?’ It was the first time I had abbreviated her name and I liked how it felt on my lips.
‘But that isn’t the only reason why I am not getting married to Shannon on New Year’s Eve. Do you want to know the other reason?’ I stepped closer, mesmerised by how dark her eyes were becoming all over again. She nodded, again once, again, clearly and surely.
‘The reason I am not marrying Shannon McEwen on New Year’s Eve is because I am inexplicably, undoubtedly, resolutely and undeniably in love with you, that’s why.’
The kiss I received at that moment made all the other kisses pale in comparison.
Considering I’d always thought Christmas was a humbug time of year, I believed I’d found the true meaning of it as I held my future in my arms. Santa must have made his list, checked it twice, and then decided I was on the ‘Nice’ list after all. Branwen Campbell was the only thing I’d ever, or would ever want for Christmas for the rest of my life.
Now that’s what I call a gift that keeps on giving.