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Unfurl: Chapter 39

RAFE

I’ve never known rage like it. The red mist of righteous anger hangs over my vision and creeps like the most intoxicating drug through my veins. My beautiful Belle is in my arms, her face buried in the crook of my neck, her body wracked with sobs. Her breath comes in great, heaving gasps against my skin, and God knows I want to punch Benedict Scott in his judgemental, extremist face.

I press my fingertip to the keypad by my front door and kick said door shut behind me. Hard. It’ll leave a dent, but I suppose better a block of wood than Ben’s nose.

That’s what I tell myself, anyway.

Belle clings to me as I lower her to my bed. I pull off my shoes and jacket and climb on beside her, tugging her right in close against my chest and throwing a leg over hers. If I can shut the whole world out for her right now, I’ll do it.

I lie there and hold her. I’m still, and she’s shaking. I let her cry out her hurt and shock. Let her nervous system find its own release.

Eventually, the racking cries become whimpers, the convulsions shudders. My shirt is damp from her tears. I smooth my hand over her hair, from the crown of her head to the low of her back, over and over. I murmur platitudes. It’s okay, sweetheart. I’m here. I’ll keep you safe. They’re not enough, but I feel helpless. What use can I be when her own father just practically spat in her face?

‘Do you need anything?’ I ask when she’s stilled in my arms except for the occasional shuddery hiccup.

She shakes her head against me. ‘I don’t know what to do,’ she confesses, gripping the placket of my shirt.

‘You don’t need to do anything right now,’ I tell her.

She lifts her head. Her eyes are red, her pert little nose puffy, her cheeks wet. I don’t want to twist away from her to find a tissue, so I tug the lapel of her robe up as far as I can and dab under her eyes with the terrycloth.

‘I can’t go back down there,’ she says, her entire face freezing in panic. ‘But all my stuff’s there.’

‘It’s just stuff. I’ll go get it later, or I can have whatever you need delivered from the shops. None of that’s important. What’s important is you’re here, and you’re safe, and you have me. Consider this your cocoon, okay? You can hide out here for as long as you want.’

‘But you have to go to work. So do I.’ Her eyes widen. ‘Oh, God. I don’t know how I’m going to pull it together enough to face Marie.’

‘Baby, no one’s going to work today. Not you, not me. I’ll call in sick on your behalf.’

I locate my phone in my jacket pocket and dial the Mayfair branch of Liebermann’s. It goes straight through to the out-of-hours voicemail.

‘Hi, Marie,’ I say cheerfully. ‘This is Belle’s boyfriend, Rafe. I’m afraid she had some dodgy sushi last night, and she can’t get her head of out the toilet long enough to call you herself, so she won’t make it in today. Hopefully she’ll be feeling better tomorrow, but she’ll let you know.’

I end the call and throw the phone onto the duvet behind me. ‘All sorted.’

She’s staring at me. ‘You’re terrible.’

‘You knew that already,’ I remind her gently.

‘Thank you,’ she whispers.

I kiss her on the forehead. ‘Least I can do. I feel so helpless. Would you like me to go back down there and punch your father in the face? Or make you a cup of tea?’

That earns me a watery smile. ‘The tea might be a little more socially acceptable.’

‘Got it. Stay here.’ I make to get off the bed, but she sits up too.

‘I’ll come with you. I don’t want to be alone right now.’

‘Of course,’ I say, like the sight of my beautiful, strong girlfriend in this shellshocked state isn’t cutting me right to the core.

As I lead her by the hand into the kitchen, I ask, ‘What the hell was he doing back so early, anyway?’

‘His star fund manager is trying to resign—a competitor’s poached him.’

‘Tiller?’

‘Yeah.’ She blinks, surprised, but Tiller’s reputation is well known across the City.

‘Shit. At least that should distract him while you get yourself sorted. Where’s your mum?’ I tug her against my chest with one arm as I get a mug out of the cupboard with the other.

‘I dunno. Still in Rome, I suppose.’

I wrap my other arm around her and rest my chin on the top of her head. She sighs against my chest. I don’t want to bombard her just yet with questions or advice. I don’t want her to feel any pressure to decide how to play this.

I mean, her dad is batshit crazy and totally fucking out of order, as far as I’m concerned, but he’s still her dad, and she’ll have to decide how to move forward. I’d put money on her most pressing concern being how to make peace and get back in his good books. Really, though, the only person who should be apologising is him.

Her mum’s a whole other issue. Belle’s told me her mum is less radicalised than her dad, but the poor woman is compliant as fuck. Compliant and complicit. Ben’s the bully, and Lauren spends most of her time placating him instead of standing up to him, as far as I can work out.

This should be an interesting test of how far she’ll take her loyalty to that man. I hope and pray that, for Belle’s sake, she pulls her fucking finger out and stands up to him for once. Her daughter will need all the family solidarity she can get.

The only way a bully gets stopped is when his victims decide they won’t take his shit any longer.


BELLE

Rafe settles me on his enormous velvet sofa with a cup of tea. He changes into a t-shirt and soft jersey shorts before snuggling up next to me so he can order some breakfast for both of us on Deliveroo.

Despite the toxic, exhausting gamut of emotions I’m experiencing, having him next to me is undeniably grounding. His presence—physical and emotional—is a huge comfort.

As if he can read my mind, he takes one of my feet and proceeds to rub it, his strong thumbs kneading my instep. ‘I don’t know if it’ll help,’ he begins hesitantly, ‘but consider this. It’s just you and me. No one else is here. Your dad can’t get in. In this moment, nothing else has to exist. I’m here, I’ve got you, and that’s all you need to concern yourself with.’

I nod and exhale deeply, because he’s right. This is a technique I’ve often used to deal with my anxiety in the past. When my mind is a maelstrom of worrying and projecting and spiralling, I can close my eyes and remind myself that, in this moment, none of those things actually exist.

They’re thoughts.

Nothing more.

I’m here.

I’m well.

I’m safe.

I repeat it like a mantra in my head.

I’m here. I’m well. I’m safe.

It helps that Rafe’s beautiful flat is the perfect hideout, with its awe-inspiring art and stunning furnishings. It’s a luxury womb, insulated against the rest of the world and its frenetic, toxic energy.

I tell myself that, but the force of Daddy’s displeasure is so great it lingers despite the physical distance between us. It’s coated me in grimy shame and guilt and horror and disbelief. In self-loathing at the version of me I saw reflected in his eyes warring with the fundamental knowledge that I haven’t betrayed my own moral compass.

Not my new and less messed-up one, anyway.

‘Maybe I should have a shower,’ I mutter.

Rafe bites down on his lower lip before answering. ‘Of course. I’d like to get in with you, though.’

I stare mutinously at him, and he raises an eyebrow at me. ‘Baby. If you go for a shower by yourself you’ll either collapse in tears or you’ll end up scrubbing yourself raw in an attempt to wash off how dirty he made you feel.’ He pauses. ‘Tell me I’m wrong,’ he says softly.

There are no words.

No words for how this man gets me.

How close I feel to him after such a short time.

How far I would trust him.

I’d trust him with my life.

‘You’re not wrong,’ I tell him. My lower lip trembles.

‘Jesus, sweetheart. Come here,’ he says, pulling me into the cradle of his body. I go willingly, because pressing my cheek against his beating heart makes everything a tiny bit easier. I’m like a premature baby, held against her mother’s heart so she can flourish. Fight.

But it’s Rafe who’s giving me the healing strength of his life force.

‘How about,’ he mutters into my hair, ‘we have a bath in a bit? I’ll wash you. But meanwhile, you have nowhere to be. Go easy on yourself and eat the pancakes that are on their way.’

I’m not sure I’ll be able to swallow a single bite. My stomach is in knots. My entire body is tense. But I nod wearily against his chest and revel in the simple touch of his hands in my hair.

‘That’s my girl,’ he croons. His fingers thread through my hair with infinite gentleness, smoothing it away from my face and down my back. How can it be that this man, whom I found so terrifying, so intimidating, when I first met him, is here by my side at my lowest low, seeming like my entire universe in one perfect chunk of human flesh?

I’ve never been so grateful for anyone’s presence in my life.

‘I want you to know something,’ he continues. ‘I wish I wasn’t saying it under these circumstances, but I need you to know before you spend another second in pain.’ He cups my face in his hands and pulls back from me enough for me to see the beautiful brown eyes that share my pain while radiating strength and affection back at me.

‘I love you,’ he says. His thumb strokes my cheek, his facial expression softening. ‘I’m completely in love with you, baby. You blow me away with your strength and your grace, and while I am so fucking angry with your father right now, I need you to know how I feel. You should know you have me in your corner, forever if you want me, and I will do everything in my power to protect you from ever feeling like this again.

‘If you decide you want to make a stand against your dad and fight for you and me, know I’ll never let you down.’

The tears come now, not in agonised gasps like earlier, but in a slow outpouring of emotion and gratitude and disbelief. I gaze at the man in front of me, the man I undoubtedly love, whose words simply underline what his actions told me earlier this morning—that I come first for him. My happiness. My wellbeing. And that he’ll be here, just like this, anytime someone tries to hurt me. Anytime someone tries to make me feel less than.

And maybe, just maybe, the dazzling, life-affirming power of his love will be the support I need to believe in my own strength.

Maybe, with Rafe and his superhero brand of love by my side, nothing else will hurt quite so much.

‘I love you too,’ I stammer through my tears.

Words I never expected to say.

Not to Rafe.

But nothing has ever felt more right and true and pure.


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