In some strange, cosmic way, this is probably all her fault.
Salome just left that morning to spend two weeks at summer camp – her last two weeks of freedom before school begins again – and Alex has spent the afternoon moping around the house wondering what she’s going to do with herself until her daughter comes home. It’s strange – when Salome was born she used to miss all that free time before she became a mother, but now all of her time without Salome is spent waiting for her to come back. She’s lying on the sofa, holding one of her daughter’s stuffed animals and wishing for something to occupy her when her mobile buzzes.
Eager for a distraction, she reaches out a hand for it, smiling when she sees a text from Matt.
‘No, just bemoaning the loss of my daughter to summer camp for two weeks. Why? Want to sext?’
‘You almost caused a crash just now. Hope you’re happy with yourself.’
‘Texting and driving? I’m disappointed, Matthew.’
‘I can multi-task.’
‘Darling, you can barely walk and chew gum at the same time.’
‘What do you want?’
‘Are you home?’
Alex frowns at her mobile screen in confusion, just about to type out a reply when the doorbell rings. Sighing, she puts aside her phone and rolls off the couch, carrying Salome’s stuffed animal with her to answer the door. Nothing could have prepared her for the sight of Matt, Karen, and Arthur standing on her doorstep, beaming at her.
“Surprise, Kingston,” Matt says, looking positively gleeful as he leans in to press a warm kiss to her cheek. Then, he slides right past her and into the house. “Nice bear.”
She clutches it to her chest and stares after him as he wanders into her living room and makes himself at home on the sofa.
“Sorry,” Karen says, sighing. “I tried to tell him that it’s rude to jump on the furniture but no matter how many times I smack his nose with a rolled up newspaper, he never learns.”
Arthur nods sagely. “We’re thinking of trying a shock collar next.”
Alex blinks at them. “You’re here. In LA.”
“Oi, Alex knows where she lives,” Matt calls from the living room. “Give the woman a biscuit, Kaz.”
Alex turns just long enough to glare at him and receive a sweet smile in return before looking back at Karen. “Why are you here?”
She grins, jerking a thumb behind her, where a car sits parked in front of the house. “Road trip.”
Reappearing suddenly behind her, Matt rests his chin on top of her head and puts his hands on her shoulders. “Pack a bag, Kingston. We’re kidnapping you.”
Five minutes later, she’s upstairs unpacking everything Karen tries to put into a duffel bag. “You can’t be serious. This is ridiculous – a bloody road trip? What on earth possessed you to come all the way here for a road trip? The trip here is a road trip in itself!”
“That was a plane,” Karen says, stuffing a handful of shirts into the bag. “Doesn’t count. And it wasn’t my idea, it was Matt’s.”
Alex begins to pull the shirts from the bag while Karen goes to look for shoes. “And no one thought to tell him no?”
Karen sighs, inspecting a pair of Chuck Taylors with a frown. “Arthur and I aren’t going to be on Who anymore, as you know. And next year will be Matt’s last year. No one knows when you’re leaving except Moff and maybe you. He’s got it in his head that we’ll never see each other anymore. Moping about like a little boy in time out. I felt bad for him. You try saying no to that face.”
Sadly, Alex knows exactly what face she’s talking about. Matt often comes to her with that face – the big sad puppy eyes and that full bottom lip protruding slightly. Whatever he wants, whether it be half of her chips, a request that she play with his hair or to pretty please cover for him when he breaks something, she usually does it.
“Fair enough,” she mutters. “But why here?”
Dropping to her knees and crawling halfway into Alex’s closet, Karen says, voice muffled, “Not as much recognition here. Plus, America has all the bad tourists traps. Darvill and I googled it – it’s going to be amazing.” Crawling backwards out of the closet with ruffled hair and the other half of Alex’s pair of shoes, she looks up with a hopeful smile. “Salome’s not here anyway.”
“Yes, and how did you know about that?”
“We didn’t. We figured we could either convince you to let her stay with Florian or take her with us.” Karen smiles winningly. “Come on, you’ve gotta admit it could be fun. One last Pond family hurrah.”
Oh, who is she kidding? Alex adores them all and with two weeks by herself anyway, saying no to spending more time with them is absurd to even think about. Especially when Matt is downstairs practically bouncing with excitement and Karen is looking at her so hopefully. Sighing, Alex pinches the bridge of her nose and asks, “How long will we be gone?”
Karen squeals, dropping the shoe to clap her hands once in triumph. “Since Salome is already going to be gone that long, how about two weeks?”
She is never wishing for anything ever again.
“So do you think this is it?”
Turning from his careful study of the picture frames littering Alex’s mantle, Matt frowns at Arthur. “Do I think what is it?”
“This trip,” he says, sprawled on the sofa and not looking up as he scrolls through his phone. “Do you think it’ll be the moment you finally tell Alex you want to marry her and adopt Cambodian babies together?”
Matt scowls at him. “No one said anything about marriage.”
“But Cambodian babies is definitely still on the table?”
“What? No!” He huffs, going back to looking at the picture frames and softening a bit at the one of Salome as a chubby little toddler, her arms around Alex’s neck.
“So you’re not going to tell her you fancy her?”
“I’m not going to push it, if that’s what you mean. This trip is for fun.” Matt runs his finger down a silver-edged frame, smiling softly at the picture of Alex grinning, her hair darker but just as wild. “If something happens, brilliant. But if not, I still have time. Unlike some people.”
After a beat of silence, Arthur grumbles, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’ll make you a deal, Darvill,” he says, turning around with a pointed look. “I’ll tell Alex when you tell Kaz.”
Eyes wide, Arthur puts aside his phone and points a finger at him. “I didn’t mean that. I was drunk.”
Matt smirks and quotes, “A drunk man’s words are a sober man’s thoughts.”
“You’re running out of time, you know. Once she leaves, that’s it. This trip is your last chance. I still have time with Alex.”
Bristling, he says grudgingly, “It’s not like I won’t ever see her again.”
Matt shrugs. “Sometimes people move on, no matter how close they once were or how much they meant to keep in touch.”
Frowning thoughtfully, Arthur doesn’t look up as Karen comes bounding down the stairs, tugging Alex along behind her. “Guess who decided to come along?”
“Yes!” Grinning, Matt throws an arm around Alex’s shoulders. “What’s an adventure without the Kingston?”
“An adventure without flirting,” Karen says, shoving Alex’s bag at his chest.
Matt shoulders it without complaint as Alex leans into his side and walks with him to the door. Turning his face into her hair and hoping she doesn’t notice when he inhales, he says, “That is not an adventure at all, Gillan.”
Alex laughs, pulling away from him as they reach the car. “Come on, children. Let’s get this show on the road.”
Arthur reaches for the passenger door. “I call shotgun!”
“No way, I called it on the flight!” Karen places her hand over his on the door handle and sets her jaw stubbornly.
“You can’t call shotgun when we’re in the air, Kaz! That’s cheating!”
“Says the man who called the window seat on the drive to the airport!”
“Alright,” Alex steps between them, swatting them away like naughty children. “If you can’t get along, you can sit in the backseat together and I’ll sit in the front.”
Stowing Alex’s bag in the boot, Matt shakes his head as Karen and Arthur clamber into the back, glowering at each other. They’ll be lucky if they don’t kill each other on this trip, let alone snog. Climbing into the driver’s seat, he turns on the car and glances at Alex with a grin. “Ready?”
She smiles and he can tell by the crinkling around her eyes that despite her reluctance, she’s starting to look forward to this trip. “First stop?”
Gazing out at the horizon as he pulls out onto the street lined with palm trees, his friends in the backseat and the woman he fancies like mad at his side, Matt smiles contentedly. “Wherever we want.”
They’re bickering within the first ten miles, of course – and over the music, of all things.
Karen had plugged in her iPod and controlled what they listened to from the backseat but after the first four Britpop songs, Matt can’t keep his disdain to himself anymore. “I don’t know what the bloody hell this is but it isn’t music.”
Pausing in her enthusiastic lip-syncing in the back, Karen looks offended. “It’s Sleeper!”
“Oh, and what would you like to listen to, music snob?”
“Something teenage girls in the 90’s didn’t listen to.”
“It’s not snobbery. It’s good taste.”
Deciding to end this before it descends into their usual bickering, Alex reaches for the radio controls, fussing with them until she finds a country station, turning it up and drowning out their sniping with a southern twang.
Everyone in the car freezes, turning to look at her in horror.
She shrugs. “If you can’t agree, we’ll just listen to this.”
After a beat of silence, Matt whispers, “What’s a badonkadonk?”
Alex bites her lip against a smile, ignoring him in favor of humming along.
Arthur gulps audibly, looking nervous. “So…Misty’s Big Adventure, anyone?”
Matt and Karen nod eagerly. “Yes, please.”
Alex smiles, turning to look out the window and enjoy the ceasefire while it lasts.
“Vegas, really? I would have thought that would be too obvious for you all.”
Matt glances from the road to look at her through his sunglasses. “Vegas is the biggest tourist trap ever, Kingston. We can’t skip it.”
From the backseat, Arthur leans forward and holds his mobile in front of her face. “We’re not gambling, anyway. Take a look at that badass.”
“The world’s largest typewriter rubber?”
“It’s nearly twenty feet tall,” he says, sounding awed. “A rubber.”
Karen leans over Arthur, craning her neck to look. “Show her the wax museum! It’s so cool.” She sighs. “My life goal is to be famous enough to be a wax figure.”
“Could we trade you in for the wax figure?” Matt asks, lips twitching. “Might be better company. Prettier, too.”
“Play nice, children,” Alex chides, and she has a feeling it’s going to be her new mantra on this trip. Glorified babysitter, that’s her.
Scrolling through his phone, Arthur taps on another link. “And I want to check out the Legends of Erotica Hall of Fame.”
Karen makes a face. “I do not want to see a pair of breasts pressed into a cement slab, thanks. Can we go to the world’s largest chocolate fountain instead?”
Arthur sighs, looking entirely put upon but Alex can see by the excitement in his eyes at the idea of a huge chocolate fountain that it isn’t a gigantic sacrifice. “Fine. But then I want to see the world’s largest pint glass.”
“What is it with you and the world’s largest?” Matt asks, laughing. “Compensating for something, Darvill?” Karen falls back into her seat, giggling until her face turns red while Arthur gives him a betrayed look and pouts.
“Well while we’re doing that, what are you and Kingston going to do?” Arthur meets Matt’s eyes through the rearview mirror and smiles. “Book a chapel with an Elvis impersonator and get hitched?”
Matt sputters but Alex just laughs. “Hardly. He hasn’t even asked me yet.”
“Well we’ve already been married once,” he says. “Didn’t think I had to ask again.”
Karen snorts. “What makes you think she’d want to marry you again?”
“Oh, I don’t know, dear,” Alex says, winking at him. “I might do it again just to get another snog.”
Arthur and Karen cackle but Matt flushes, looking pleased. “It was a good snog,” he mumbles to himself, slowing at a stop sign and tapping his fingers restlessly against the steering wheel.
“Glad you think so, honey,” she purrs and when Matt glances at her with wide eyes, she has to fight to keep from laughing.
The car behind them honks and he starts, as if remembering he’s idling at a stop sign. Blinking, he looks away from Alex and makes a turn into the left lane. Everyone immediately shrieks at the sight of an oncoming car and Matt quickly swerves into the right lane, shouting, “Sorry, sorry!”
Heart pounding, Alex puts a hand to her chest and giggles because if she doesn’t, she’ll reach over and smack the idiot driving. In the back, Arthur slumps against the seats with a look on his face that says he just aged ten years in five seconds, but Karen isn’t quite so calm, slipping off her shoe to smack Matt on the shoulder with it. “What the hell, stupid face!”
“I know, sorry,” he says, wincing away from her well-aimed hits. “Bit of English/American road confusion. It’s fine.”
“I want a new driver.”
“New rule. People who don’t even have a bloody license can’t criticize the driving of someone who does.”
“Well I think I would at least remember to stay on the correct side of the sodding road!”
Alex sighs and turns in her seat to exchange an exasperated look with Arthur, whom she finds is always willing to commiserate her when it comes to Matt and Karen’s bickering. However, when she tries to meet his eye, he’s distracted – staring at the back of Karen’s head with an amused, fond smirk.
When he catches her watching him with a raised eyebrow, he coughs and looks away. “What?”
After that, she’s determined to let Karen and Arthur visit their horrible tourist attractions alone and Matt is all too happy to have her company as they stroll down the boulevard. There’s a chapel just about every twenty feet, each more garish than the next. This late in the evening, sloshed couples are forming queues to get hitched, and Alex wonders how many of them are going to wake up in the morning wondering how the hell that ring had gotten on their finger.
“It’s a bit like buying a car, isn’t it?” She asks, smiling when Matt reaches between them to take her hand, as if he doesn’t want to get separated from her in the crowd.
He looks amused, watching her from under his fringe. “How so, Kingston?”
“Well if you don’t like what you’ve got, you can always trade it in for a model that suits better. And hardly anyone ever sticks with their first car, do they?”
He squeezes her hand, eyes warm. “Some people do.”
They slow to a stop outside a chapel proclaiming to have the real Elvis Presley as acting priest, watching a young, beaming couple wander inside holding hands. “Of course, it’s good that there’s a way out and you’re not stuck with someone you hate like in the bloody middle ages but…” She shrugs, smiling as an older couple walks out of the chapel, laughing and kissing. “I suppose I’m a bit of a romantic. I want forever – haven’t found it yet.”
Matt tugs on her hand, pulling her into him and pressing his lips to her temple. “You will.”
She wraps her arms around his waist, suddenly incredibly thankful for how sweet and patient he is with her. “And what about you, Mr. Smith? Think you’ll be hearing wedding bells any time soon?”
He laughs. “Yes.”
Ignoring the way her heart drops and her stomach fills with lead, she smiles up at him and asks, “Oh? With who?”
“You’re going to come inside and check out this Elvis impersonator with me,” he says, grinning, and she feels her heart lift again. “Let’s infiltrate the place, Kingston.”
He grips her hand and begins to hurry toward the entrance, dragging her with him. They don’t make it far before the young couple Alex had seen going in approaches them and asks with flushed cheeks and the sparkle of alcohol in their eyes if Matt and Alex would care to be their witnesses – thankfully, they don’t seem to realize who they are. Alex can only imagine what would happen if the press ran a story about her and Matt being spotted together at a Vegas chapel.
Matt, of course, agrees gleefully to the couple’s request before Alex can protest. She hadn’t exactly pictured her night ending with Matt in a horrible sequined jacket or her holding the bouquet while the bride and groom exchange rings and Elvis proclaims them ‘man and wife uh-huh’.
When she stumbles out of the chapel later with Matt, who’d nicked the jacket and left twenty dollars on a counter to replace it, she is laughing so hard she can barely breathe, clinging to him and letting him giggle into her neck. “That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever done,” she says when she can breathe again.
Face flushed and grin elated, Matt adjusts the lapels of his terrible, eye-catching jacket and says, “Stick with me, Kingston. I’ll make an adventurer of you yet.”
They meet up with Karen and Arthur at the hotel where they’re staying for the night, and the two are excited to show off their pictures of them posing with wax celebrities and grinning beside the world’s largest chocolate fountain.
Karen prods at Matt’s jacket with a disdainful finger. “Where the hell did you two go?”
“A chapel,” Matt says with relish.
They’re off again in the morning, driving through Arizona.
Arthur drives this time and Alex offers to give Karen the front seat, leaving Matt and Alex to sit in the back. Having Karen in the front seat had been a bad idea and Matt makes sure to glare at Alex every time the redhead does something he doesn’t approve of, like change the radio station to America’s top 40.
“This is your fault,” he mutters under his breath as Nicki Minaj blares through the speakers for the fourth time that afternoon. “A pox on your house, Kingston.”
Alex grins unrepentantly at him as they roll through the desert, propping her feet up in his lap and making it impossible to be annoyed with her. He drops his hand to cover her foot, his thumb caressing her ankle and hides a smile at Alex’s brief shiver of delight.
In the front, Arthur grumbles, “Turn off the bloody air and roll down the windows, would you? I’m freezing to death.”
“No way,” Karen says. “Do you have any idea what the humidity will to do me? I’ll be a hideous monster unrecognizable except for the cloud of ginger hair around my head.”
Matt opens his mouth to make the obvious joke but Alex prods him with her foot warningly and he pouts. “The least you can do is let me insult her.”
She laughs. “Darling, I don’t have a monopoly on the front seat – I have to share. Besides, if I didn’t, she’d be sitting back here with you. I did you a favor. And myself – your bickering gives me a headache.”
It’s a bit difficult to remain sulky when she’s got her bare feet in his lap and hums with pleasure when he slides his hand from her ankle and up her smooth bare leg until his fingertips meet the hem of her sundress. He’s tempted to keep going, to let his fingers caress her knee and wander up her thigh just to see the look on her face but he doesn’t, stroking his hand back down and resting it at her ankle again like a good boy.
Alex beams at him as Karen and Arthur continue to argue over the air conditioning, and when she shifts to remove her legs from his lap, the slight sense of loss is alleviated when he catches a glimpse of her lacy knickers under her dress.
Alex Kingston wears lacy pink knickers.
Tuning out the arguing in the front, Matt files away the information to think about later and grins.
Sitting in the backseat does have its perks.
When they reach Yuma, Karen is determined to see the bridge that leads to nowhere – an abandoned suspension bridge spanning the desert. They park the car and Karen braves the humidity, skipping along beside Arthur across the bridge.
Matt hangs back with Alex, watching her pull all of her hair back and somehow manage to contain it with a small piece of elastic. “How do you do that?”
“What?” She asks, busily tugging unruly strands behind her ears.
“Tame something that has all the secrets of the universe in it.”
“Oh shut up,” she laughs, shoving him away when he tries to put an arm around her.
Ahead of them, Karen and Arthur have reached the end of the bridge and stand at the gate, looking below. “What crap,” Karen mumbles, lacing her fingers through the chain-link fence and giving it a gentle shake. “I want to sit on the edge and throw rocks.”
Matt starts forward but Alex reaches for his hand, tugging him back with her, a strange look on her face. “What?”
“Sshh,” she says, waving him away. “Let’s see what happens.”
He frowns, turning to look at his friends. Arthur watches Karen stare through the fence with a dejected look on her face for all of about five seconds before squaring his jaw and saying, “Gimme a hairpin.”
Karen pulls her face away from the fence and stares at him. “What?”
He waggles his fingers at her impatiently. “You want to sit on the end of the bridge? I need to pick the lock.”
Grinning in surprise, she reaches into her hair and pulls out a pin, placing it in his waiting palm. She claps her hands together as he begins to work on the lock, bouncing at his side and waiting. Matt glances at Alex to see her watching them with a smile and it finally dawns on him.
The lock clicks and Karen throws her arms around Arthur with an excited squeal, kissing his cheek before taking back her hairpin and opening the gate, leaving Arthur to stare after her with the look of a startled deer.
“Matchmaking, Kingston?” Matt grins when she shrugs, looking smug as she walks beyond the gate. “You really are a romantic.”
“A complete sap,” she agrees as he follows behind her.
They reach the end of the bridge and he helps her to sit, slightly nervous for her safety and his own. “A fantastic quality.” He sits next to her, dangling his legs over the end of the bridge and staring down at the desert far below. Karen and Arthur sit on the other side of him, rather close together and not speaking. “Where to next?”
Karen looks up eagerly. “Can we go to Quartzsite next? Apparently there’s a man there who runs a bookstore in nothing but a sock over his penis.”
Alex looks intrigued but Arthur scowls and Matt shakes his head, just as repulsed. “Too far out of the way.”
“You don’t even know where Quartzsite is!”
“Wherever it is, it’s too far out of the way,” he grits out, leaning behind Alex to fix Karen with a glare.
She huffs. “Worried his sock will be bigger than yours?”
“No, I’m worried he’ll ruin socks for me forever.”
Alex leans her head on his shoulder, swinging her legs. “Don’t worry, darling. I’m sure your sock is much more majestic.”
He sighs. “You’re never going to let that go, are you?”
“Maybe someday,” she says, looking up at him with a smile. “But today is not that day.”
After another five minutes, they all pile back into the car before someone comes along and realizes the lock on the gate has been picked. They visit the world’s largest rosebush and the world’s tallest Kachina doll to let Arthur take pictures for his growing collection before leaving Arizona in the dust and driving right into New Mexico.
It’s eleven-thirty when they reach Quemado, having stopped twice so Arthur could see the world’s largest pistachio nut and to get out of the car and take pictures with the giant turquoise brontosaurus outside a shop in Albuquerque.
With Karen asleep and slumped against Arthur’s shoulder in the backseat, Alex feels free to finally turn off the air conditioning and roll down the windows, letting the warm night air catch in her curls and tug them around in the wind.
It’s quieter with Karen and Arthur sleeping and the radio off, and Alex quite likes the peaceful atmosphere – the overcast night sky overhead, the desert highway in front of them and no sound but the wind rushing by and the distant rumble of thunder. It feels intimate with only Matt and herself awake and for a moment, she watches his hand on the gearshift and contemplates what it would be like to reach over and slide her hand over his – whether he would look at her like she’d lost it or if he wouldn’t even glance away from the road to turn his hand over and lace their fingers. They could change gears together.
At another loud rumble of thunder, Alex quickly shakes herself from her musings, turning her head to stare out the window and blinking hard. What on earth had she been thinking? Obviously, lack of sleep is starting to get to her. Perhaps if she just closes her eyes for a bit, she’ll feel better. Less delusional, at least.
Just as she’s letting her eyes slide shut, Matt glances in her direction and says softly, “Don’t fall asleep yet, Kingston. I’ve got a surprise.”
She opens her eyes blearily and looks at him with a frown. “Surprise at eleven-thirty at night, hmm? Is it Taco Bell?”
He grins. “Better.”
Suddenly wide-awake at the boyish excitement on his face, she narrows her eyes and sits up straighter. “What are you up to, darling?”
A flash of lightning lights up the sky and he giggles, his smile widening.
Instantly suspicious, Alex begins to take in her surroundings with a critical eye. It’s a single lane road with nothing but bare fields on either side of them and for the life of her she can’t understand what all the fuss is about. What could be so exciting about a field?
“Is the surprise that we’re lost?” She asks as he pulls the car off to the side of the road and slows to a stop.
“Oi, I am a navigation genius, Alex Kingston.”
She raises an eyebrow.
“Well, I have satnav and it’s almost the exact same thing.”
Laughing, she asks, “Are you going to tell me what we’re doing out here?”
The excitement returns to his face instantly, replacing the scowl and making him look like a little boy. “Get out of the car.”
She stares. “It’s going to rain and you want me to get out of the car? Do you have any idea what that will do to my hair?”
“I promise to keep all jokes to myself now please get out before we miss it.” He gives her that face – the one she can’t resist with the huge puppy eyes and the slightly protruding bottom lip and she sighs, knowing any resistance is a lost cause.
Glancing in the backseat at Karen and Arthur sleeping soundly and leaning against each other, she bites her lip. “Should we wake them?”
“In a minute,” he says, already opening his door and jumping out.
He races around to her side of the car and as soon as she steps out, he takes her wrist and drags her to the other side of the road. Standing on the edge of the field and staring out expectantly with his head tilted slightly and his nose in the air, he looks like a dog sniffing out a treat.
Alex frowns, wrapping her arms around herself as the wind picks up, blowing her hair around wildly and sending goosebumps up her arms. She doesn’t even have time to complain before Matt is whipping off his jean jacket and wrapping it around her shoulders. She glances up at him gratefully, tugging it tighter around her and burying her nose in the collar, smelling cologne and soap and Matt.
Standing behind her, he murmurs into her hair, “Look, Kingston.”
She turns her attention back to the field, noticing for the first time the steel poles sticking out of the ground, ten meters tall at least. There must be hundreds of them out there and she suddenly realizes what she’s supposed to be watching for just as a bolt of lightning flashes and sets the field alight. Suddenly, her goosebumps have nothing to do with the chill in the air as she breathes in the electric current surrounding them, all the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end.
“Lightning field,” Matt says quietly. “We’re not supposed to be here, actually. You have to make reservations and stay in a cabin on the land but we didn’t have time and I thought -”
“No,” she shakes her head, entranced as she waits for the next strike and feels a roll of thunder shake the ground beneath their feet. “This is perfect.”
He beams, looking chuffed.
Behind them, the car door opens and Karen stumbles out followed by a very grumpy looking Arthur. “What’s all the racket?” She grouses, still half-asleep. Matt waves them over excitedly and just as they join them at the edge of the field, lightning strikes another pole and the air sizzles.
Karen gasps; leaning into a suddenly much less irritable Arthur and they both stare out at the field unblinkingly. “Bloody hell.”
For a moment, they stare in silence at the wonder of nature at work and it’s so beautiful Alex feels tears sting her eyes. “Best surprise ever,” she whispers, and she can feel Matt grinning next to her.
Tearing her eyes from the phenomenon in front of her, she glances at him, his smiling profile illuminated by the lightning streaking across the night sky and suddenly it hurts to breathe. He’s beautiful too. In the back of her mind, she has always known it but she never really let herself see because going down that road was such a bad idea. And it still is, but now, oh now she sees.
And there is no going back.
As it starts to drizzle, fat droplets of rain falling all around them, Matt reaches for her hand, and she takes it.
“No but look.” Arthur holds up the donut with both hands, one wide eye peering through the hole in the middle. “It’s actually bigger than my head.”
Karen rolls her eyes and looks on in amusement as he bites into it with gusto, chewing and bouncing a bit in his seat in a way that she has come to recognize as his ‘Good Food Dance’.
He sighs happily, mumbling around a mouthful, “I love the south.”
It’s been a good day for him – a 38-foot tall robot Gumby and the world’s largest patio chair in Dallas, plus the 36-foot tall statue of the Beatles in Houston. And now he’s eating a donut that could rival the size of Texas itself. She wouldn’t be surprised if he applied for citizenship and adopted a twang to fit in.
“Yup,” she says, raising an eyebrow. “Everything really is bigger in Texas.”
Across the table, Matt chokes on the donut he’s sharing with Alex and Karen grins at him. “Choking to death on your own dirty thoughts, Smith?”
“Only because you put them there, Gillan,” he retorts, swallowing with watery eyes.
She blinks at him innocently. “I was talking about donuts. What were you talking about?”
He glares. “Not donuts.”
Tearing off a piece of their shared treat, Alex licks at the chocolate icing and Karen watches with avid interest as Matt’s eyes are immediately drawn to her, his earlier annoyance gone. He stares at her with this mixture of longing and affection that’s so obvious she can’t help but wonder how Alex doesn’t see it.
The man has it bad and Karen is growing tired of watching him pine.
“So,” she says, and isn’t surprised when Matt doesn’t take his eyes from Alex, who seems maddeningly oblivious to his attentions. “Where to today?”
“Cow tipping,” Arthur says. “I’ve always wanted to go cow tipping.”
She laughs. “We are not tipping over cows in their sleep.”
“Why not?” He pouts, fantastic donut forgotten.
“Because it’s mean.”
“It’s the ultimate southern American dream, Kaz!”
Finally looking away from Alex when she catches him staring, Matt flushes and hurriedly turns his attention to the conversation while Karen smirks into her coffee cup. “Cow tipping is a myth.”
He nods. “Cattle don’t sleep standing up. It’s a myth.”
Arthur stares at him like Matt had just told him there was no Santa Claus or that no one finds his ugly jumpers adorable. “You’re serious?”
Arthur frowns and says nothing.
Watching him warily, Karen whispers, “Nice going, Smith. I think you broke him.”
Matt shrugs, pushing his coffee cup in Alex’s direction and flushing when she beams gratefully at him. One thing they’ve learned on this trip is that Alex cannot act like a normal, functioning human being without caffeine and after that incident in Phoenix when she actually growled at Arthur, they’ve made sure to keep her in stock.
“You just destroyed my American dream,” Arthur complains, sulky.
Clapping him on the shoulder sympathetically, Matt says, “Sorry, mate. Find a new one.”
Taking a sip of coffee and making a soft noise that makes Matt’s eyes go wide, Alex says, “Oh, wait. I’ve got something. We passed a fireworks supply place a few streets back. We could stock up and set them off in a field tonight. What do you think?”
“I think my genius is starting to rub off on you, Kingston,” Matt says, grinning.
“I’m in,” Karen says, swiping Arthur’s donut and shoving it away.
“Oi! What was that for?”
“You already ate half,” she says. “You keep eating like that and your skinny jeans won’t fit anymore.”
Arthur pouts. “Can we at least have dinner at the Texas Chainsaw Massacre restaurant while we wait for it to get dark?”
“You just had a donut.”
“Yes, but that was a snack. I’m going to need dinner too.”
Matt sighs. “Alright. I don’t want tetchy Darvill around fireworks so let’s go.”
Considerably cheered, Arthur leaps to his feet and leads the way out of the donut shop and to the car. Karen follows after him like a mother keeping her toddler within eyesight.
“Are you sure this field is empty?”
Matt flashes his torch around in the dark. “Looks empty to me. Set them up?”
Arthur shrugs. “Fine. But if a herd of cattle charges us, I’m never speaking to you again.”
Behind them, Karen and Alex are playing with the packet of sparklers they’d purchased, waving them around and trying to move them fast enough to write their names. Occasionally, Karen bursts into song – the same song she’s been singing all day, belting out, “The stars at night are big and bright -” Alex claps, giggling “- deep in the heart of Texas!”
Arthur groans. “I’m going to hear that song in hell. I know it.”
Snorting, Matt removes the torch from his mouth and inspects his firework setup. “That should do it. One match and we’ll set them all off in sequence just by lighting the first one. I don’t want to toot my own horn or anything but - ”
“Then don’t,” Arthur deadpans.
Matt sticks out his tongue, like the mature twenty-nine year old he is. “Kingston,” he calls, giving Arthur a belligerent look. “I’m brilliant!”
She laughs, waving her sparkler. “Oh, I know, darling.”
When Matt looks at him smugly, Arthur grumbles, “For the love of god, just shag and get it over with.”
“Ditto,” Matt counters as Karen bounces up to them.
“Is it ready?”
He grins. “Stand back and be amazed.”
“Oh god, I just realized we let the clumsiest man on earth set up the fireworks. Everyone with a two mile radius is going to die.” Karen grasps Arthur’s arm, tugging him back with her. “Why would we do that?”
“It’s the buggered up sleep schedule,” Alex says. “No one is thinking clearly.”
Matt scowls. “Your faith in my abilities is outstanding. Really, I’m feeling the love.”
Karen pulls Alex back too, shooting him an unapologetic look as Matt strikes a match and sets off the first one. It’s dazzling as it lights up the night sky, streaks of purple, green, yellow and red bursting and shimmering, raining sparks down on them. Karen claps in delight and says, “Oh my god, you did it stupid face!”
“Apology accepted!” Matt searches out Alex just behind them to crow about his success but stops at the sight of her smiling face lit up by the colors overhead. Sometimes, she’s so beautiful it actually makes his chest ache.
And then the moment is broken as in the distance but still far too close for comfort; they hear a disgruntled ‘moooo’.
“Shit,” he mutters.
Arthur glares at him. “You. Me. No longer speaking.”
The sound of numerous stamping feet begins to pound in their direction and Karen shrieks, yanking Arthur with her as she begins to run on long, gangly legs. Quickly, Matt darts for Alex and grabs her hand, tugging her with him as he begins to sprint after Karen and Arthur across the field at full speed. Fireworks are still bursting overhead and the mooing grows louder.
“I thought you said the field was empty,” Alex says, stumbling along beside him and giggling breathlessly.
“I was wrong,” Matt grins, utterly exhilarated as he runs with Alex’s hand in his and the multi-colored lights dancing overhead.
“I hate you!”
Matt laughs, whooping. “No you don’t!”
They make it into New Orleans in the wee hours of the morning and once they’ve gotten a key at a hotel and stashed their belongings inside their rooms, they sneak up onto the roof to wait for the sunrise. Exhausted and running low on caffeine, Alex barely pays anyone any mind, staring off into the distance and waiting for that first hint of light.
Matt slings an arm around her shoulders and she scootches across the roof willingly, burrowing sleepily into his side and utterly grateful for his complete lack of boundaries – it makes for some rather marvelous snuggling. He presses a fond kiss to the top of her head and says, “Eyes open, Kingston.”
“You’re always trying to keep me awake,” she mutters. “I’m starting to think you like me sleep-deprived, darling.”
“I keep you awake for good reasons,” he says. “Like that, for instance.”
She opens her eyes, noting distantly that Arthur has an arm around Karen as well, and sees the faint pink glow in the horizon. “Watching a sunset on a rooftop,” she whispers, not wanting to disturb the peace of the moment. “Mentally crossing it off the bucket list.”
Matt’s arm tightens around her and they watch together as a new day dawns over New Orleans.
New Orleans at night is one rambunctious, never-ending party and combined with the amazing food and the gorgeous architecture, Matt never wants to leave. They’d spent all afternoon sleeping, had dinner in the French quarter and now they’re strolling from pub to pub along Bourbon Street.
Loud blues music pours out of open windows and men and women in face paint and feather boas roam the streets like it’s the middle of the afternoon, mindless of the stifling heat. People hang over the balconies of the ancient buildings, shouting down to those in the street.
Karen looks oddly at home, even with her pale skin and bright ginger hair, bouncing through the crowd with a grin on her face, determined to collect more Mardi Gras beads than Arthur. Matt had only picked up a handful when someone threw them out into the street, sharing them with Alex.
“Ooh, look,” Karen turns in the middle of the sidewalk and points at the pub with beads hanging in the window. “This one next!”
Matt laughs as she tugs Arthur behind her, barging into the place and immediately acquiring more beads. “She is out of control.”
“She’s drunk,” Alex says, and he follows behind her through the throng of people to the bar. “Let her have her fun – if you can’t get sloshed in New Orleans, you can’t get sloshed anywhere.”
He observes the sparkle in her eyes as the bartender places a shot in front of her – her sixth one of the night – and grins. “Well you’re leading a fine example – no one is as gracefully drunk as you are, Kingston.”
She winks, downing her drink. “It’s what I do, darling.”
At the front of the pub, the live band ends their enthusiastic Cajun number and begins a slower song, something smoky and seductive, like the night itself. He spots Karen’s red hair easily in the middle of the crowd, dancing rather closely with Arthur, and smiles, glad that at least someone is close to getting what they want.
Alex slams her shot on the bar and grabs his hand, her smile radiant if a little adorably tipsy. “Come on, darling. Dance with me.”
He sputters, protesting as she drags him out onto the floor. “Dance? Alex, no, I don’t think -”
The words die in his throat as Alex turns and presses herself against him, her arms around his neck and her breasts brushing his chest through the thin silk of her dress. Mouth dry, he swallows hard and places his slightly sweating hands on her hips. His heart is pounding wildly in his chest but she fits against him perfectly, the way no one else ever will and it’s so easy to sway with her to the melody, losing himself in the smoky atmosphere and the heat of her against him.
Alex looks up at him through her lashes, the tips of her fingers brushing the back of his neck. “We fit well,” she whispers, and Matt is lost. Any consolation he found in the knowledge that nothing had to happen with Alex on this trip, that he had plenty of time to tell her how he felt, is gone. His hopes are so high now that he fears how far he’ll fall when they’re dashed.
“Always have,” he replies softly, pulling her closer.
This would be so perfect if only Alex were sober and talking to him like this, but she isn’t and if he takes anything she says to heart, it will only end up hurting.
He wants to kiss her, wants to feel her mouth open warm and welcoming beneath his own and know that she loves him. But it won’t happen tonight. Tonight, she is completely snockered and he can’t actually trust a thing that she says, no matter how much he wants to. More than anything he wants to ignore his own damn sense of honor but he would regret it in the morning. He hasn’t worked this hard just to ruin everything over a dance.
So instead, he does the only thing he can and buries his face in blonde curls as they sway together, inhaling the smoke of the pub that clings to her and her strawberry shampoo.
When he opens his eyes in the morning and sees blonde curly hair right in his line of vision, resting on his pillows, he has a mini panic attack and prepares to mentally berate himself for being so bloody stupid before he remembers. Kaz and Arthur had gotten horribly drunk and when Matt had decided to take Alex back to the hotel and put her to bed, the two of them had been in the corner of the pub draped in Mardi Gras beads and snogging each other’s faces off.
It didn’t take a genius to understand where the night was headed so he’d taken Alex back to his room to keep her from the mental scarring that would no doubt occur should she accidentally see Arthur Darvill’s naked arse.
Rubbing his eyes sleepily, Matt shifts as quietly as he can but Alex must be a light sleeper because she stirs instantly, her face scrunching up adorably at the light shining in through the windows. For that brief moment before she opens her eyes, he lets himself wonder what it might be like to watch her wake up every morning but the thought makes his chest ache and he pushes it away.
“Oh god,” Alex groans. “I have the headache from hell.”
He grins. “More like the headache from tequila.”
Her eyes fly open at the sound of his voice and she gasps, yanking the sheet to her chest as she scrambles to sit up. “Oh my god. We didn’t. Tell me we didn’t.”
Offended, he says, “If you’ll notice, we’re both dressed. And I can assure you that if we had, you wouldn’t be wearing clothes right now, Kingston.”
She sighs in relief, slumping back against the pillow and shutting her eyes to the ceiling. “Thank god.”
“I’m trying not to be insulted, here,” he grumbles.
Alex turns on her side, sleep-rumpled and apologetic. “It’s not that you’re not attractive, darling. You are. It’s just that -”
He shakes his head, waving her away. “No, it’s okay. I get it.”
She sighs, turning and extracting herself from the sheets, straightening out her rumpled dress. With one hand, she reaches out and brushes his fringe away from his forehead, bending to leave a warm kiss to his cheek. “I don’t think you do, darling,” she says softly, and turns, walking into the adjoining bathroom and shutting the door.
Matt stares at the spot where she’d been with a frown, his cheek tingling as he wonders what on earth she’d meant by that. He doesn’t have time to contemplate it before the door to the room is opening and Arthur enters half-dressed and obviously hungover.
“Walk of shame, Darvill?”
He jumps, dropping his shoes and shirt in his surprise. “Fucking hell. You scared the bejesus out of me!”
Matt eyes the guilty look on his critically. “Did you sneak out of her room without waking her?”
“Seriously? That’s how you want to play it?”
Arthur sighs. “I had to, alright? We were drunk and it would have been awkward as hell. That’s not how it was supposed to go – we were supposed to be sober and bickering, damn it.”
“Well that’s not how it happened so fix it before you bugger up everything,” Matt says, stretching out on the bed and scratching his stomach. “Or I’ll steal your iPod and load it with all of Alex’s favorite songs.”
His eyes narrow at the threat. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“Wouldn’t I?” He raises an eyebrow. “Try me.”
“You’re evil,” he sighs, bending down to pick up his shirt and pulling it on. “Fine. I’ll talk to her.”
“Talk to who?”
The bathroom door opens and Alex steps out.
“No one,” he says, obviously taking in the sight of her in last night’s dress and drawing all the wrong conclusions.
“Ah. I’m sure Karen will be very disappointed to hear that.”
Arthur sputters, “How did you-?” He huffs. “Never mind. Going to complete your own walk of shame, Kingston?”
She smiles, patting his cheek as she moves past him to the door. “No shame at all, honey.”
As soon as the door shuts behind her, Arthur whirls on Matt with wide eyes. “Alex slept over?!”
“Shut up,” Matt mumbles, finally pulling himself out of bed. “Not like that. Would you rather she slept in the same room as you and Kaz? Maybe she could have filmed it so later you could see the exact moment when -”
“Oi, that’s my fake daughter you’re talking about!”
Matt throws a pillow at him.
When they all meet at the car an hour later, he still doesn’t know what to say to Alex and Karen and Arthur won’t even look each other in the eye. When Alex heads across the street to grab a coffee before they leave, Arthur accompanies her and Matt leans against the car, watching her go glumly.
Sliding her sunglasses over her eyes, Karen nudges him. “What’s wrong with you? You look like someone just straightened Alex’s hair. Didn’t get lucky last night?”
He looks at her pointedly. “Not as lucky as you, it seems.”
She scowls and they say nothing else until Alex and Arthur return with a supply of caffeine. Hand around his steaming cup, Matt slides into the driver’s seat and prepares himself for a very long, very awkward drive to Mississippi.
They navigate through the congested streets of New Orleans in total silence and Matt has never felt more horrible. His friends were supposed to be happy once they got together, and waking up next to Alex was supposed to be the best thing in the world – but instead, his friends don’t seem to be speaking and Alex had looked at him like nothing could be worse than opening her eyes to see his face.
This is not the trip he had in mind.
Just as they reach the exit ramp and pull out onto the highway, Alex reaches for the radio control and despite her taste in music, Matt has never been more grateful. Anything is better than this grating silence. She fiddles with the knobs, stopping at a song he actually recognizes, and then she turns up the volume as loud as any of them can stand it.
Almost immediately, the atmosphere in the car changes, lighter and less stifled than it had been only a moment ago. Matt feels his whole body relax and his grip on the steering wheel loosen and next to him, Alex releases a soft sigh and settles back into her seat, propping her bare feet up on the dash.
In the backseat, Arthur drums his fingers against his knees, bobbing his head and Karen slips off her sunglasses, squinting in the sunlight and glancing at Arthur before looking away again quickly.
Alex begins to hum along to the words and after a minute, Arthur joins in until they’re both quietly singing, their voices mingling. In the rearview mirror, Matt meets Karen’s eyes and smiles. She gives him a tentative grin in return.
The song moves through their veins like warm honey, soothing hurts and melting away fears, and by the chorus, they join in together, belting out, “Hold me closer tiny dancer, count the headlights on the highway. Lay me down in sheets of linen, you had a busy day today.”
Through the rearview mirror, Matt watches Arthur close the distance between himself and Karen, reaching between them for her hand. Their fingers lace together and he brings them to his mouth, kissing her knuckles. Glad that he won’t have to go through the trouble of nicking Arthur’s iPod after all, Matt glances at Alex and sees her hiding a rather smug looking smile behind her hand.
He shakes his head and mutters, “You’re an evil genius.”
She looks at him, eyes wide. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, darling.”
“That’s exactly what an evil genius would say, Kingston.”
She only smiles at him, eyes twinkling.
As they roll along toward Mississippi, they keep the radio up as loud as they can and sing along to all the words, making them up if they don’t know them. With the windows rolled down to let the wind hit their faces and the blue sky overhead, it’s exactly what Matt pictured when he first suggested this road trip.
In the backseat, Karen has abandoned her seatbelt in favor of leaning her head on Arthur’s shoulder and it looks like whatever their issue had been this morning, they’ve gotten over it together. Matt can’t quite manage to keep the grin off his face. It’s perfect – his friends have finally gotten their oblivious heads out of their arses, Alex is next to him with a smile on her face, and he’s so in love with her that it doesn’t even matter that they’re not together.
He’s choosing to be optimistic.
At the moment, he’s just happy to be on a road trip with his friends and even if they do end up drifting apart in the future, he will always have this – this amazing memory of driving across America with his best mates. And for now, that’s enough of a comfort.
“Never ever again.”
Karen touches a hand to her hair. “You just had to see the alligators, didn’t you?”
“How was I supposed to know swamps were so disgusting?”
“It’s a swamp – it’s implied! Ugh. I think a bug laid eggs in my hair.”
“Well you’re washing it out in the shower Darvill so ‘ew’ all you want.”
Matt grimaces, wringing swamp water out of his shirt as they walk back toward the car. “Really didn’t need to know that.”
Looking up from combing her fingers through her hair, Karen rolls her eyes. “You didn’t know we were sleeping together? I thought I told Alex to give you the talk about birds and bees last season?”
“It’s not so much the act itself that’s causing mental scars, Gillan, it’s the thought of you and Darvill in said act.”
“Alright, enough,” Alex makes a face and he bites back a grin at the sight of her wet hair hanging in loose, soggy curls around her shoulders. “It’s like picturing my mum and dad.”
“Thanks a lot,” Karen grumbles. “Not like I’m eighty and wrinkly.”
“That we know of,” Matt says, eyeing her. “Who knows what you hide under all the flowy dresses and the menswear jackets.”
“Lacy knickers and a dimple on her inner thigh,” Arthur answers absently, checking his phone for water damage.
Matt gapes at him in horror. “Never share anything like that with me again, mate.”
Wrinkling her nose, Alex says, “Ditto.”
Karen flushes. “Oh, shut up, all of you.”
Shaking off the awkward moment as they reach the car, Alex asks, “Did you make reservations at the inn?”
Matt nods, biting his lip.
She freezes. “What?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“But you’re wearing that face.”
“The face that says ‘I’ve done something you won’t like but I don’t want to tell you so watch me bite my lip adorably instead as a distraction.’”
Matt looks intrigued. “Adorable distraction? Really?”
“Matthew.” She puts her hand on her hip. “What did you do?”
He sighs. “The inn only had two rooms left open. One bed per room.” Jerking his thumb in Karen and Arthur’s direction, he says, “Not exactly ideal when these two have started shagging like rabbits.”
Karen hits him, scowling. “It’s not a big deal. Darvill and I can sleep in separate rooms.”
“Oh no, dear,” Alex shakes her head, and Matt feels his heart lift. “I won’t inconvenience you, especially when it’s all so new.” She smiles. “Matt and I are adults; we can sleep in the same bed without a problem. Right, darling?”
Karen looks at him with a raised eyebrow and a smirk and Arthur looks hopeful but Matt ignores them both in favor of his shoes. “Yeah. Sure. Why not?”
Sharing a bed with Alex – a sober Alex, which will magnify the temptation. Either this is the chance he’s been hoping for or the universe at large is out to torture him.
The inn is actually more like an old converted plantation that’s rumored to be haunted by the ghosts of slaves. Matt isn’t one for ghost stories but he’d been outvoted – Arthur and Alex had begged and pleaded until giving in was preferable to hearing them talk about it anymore. They stroll the grounds for a while, examining the beautiful gardens and taking silly pictures, joking about finding spirit orbs in them later. After dinner in the dining hall, they retire upstairs to their rooms, just across the hall from each other.
Hand on the doorknob; Karen turns to Matt and Alex. “Cactus plantation tomorrow, yeah?”
Alex nods. “Bright and early. Goodnight, dear.”
Karen points a finger at Matt, her eyes still on Alex. “If he wakes up in the middle of the night afraid of ghosts, just cuddle him and sing lullabies until he goes back to sleep.”
“Goodnight, Gillan,” Matt sticks out his tongue as Alex unlocks their door. “May something rip the blankets off your bed in the middle of the night.”
She raises her eyebrows, grinning at Arthur. “Oh, he will.”
“Evil! Something evil!”
“Well he can be pretty naughty.”
Squeezing his eyes shut, Matt stumbles into his hotel room after Alex, whinging, “Kingston, Kaz is traumatizing me!”
Standing by the one double bed in the room, Alex glances over her shoulder with a smile as he shuts the door. “I’m sure you asked for it, dear.”
All right. He might have provoked her a bit. But still. A little support would be appreciated.
Alex had showered when they first arrived, adamant about washing the swamp water from her hair before strolling through the plantation gardens so Matt grabs his clothes and heads for the adjoining bathroom, leaving Alex alone to sort out her things. He spends a long time under the hot spray, letting it relax his muscles and hoping that by the time he comes back out, Alex will either be sleeping or waiting naked on the bed. Anything in between will only kill him with frustration.
When he finally emerges in joggers and an old band t-shirt, smelling of plantation provided soap and his damp hair clinging to his forehead, he finds Alex asleep on top of the blankets on the large four poster bed, her t-shirt tight enough to form a lump in his throat and her cotton shorts so tiny they might as well be knickers. Oh, he’d been kidding himself before. The mere sight of her is enough to make him want to turn right back around and turn on the cold water in the shower.
Sighing dejectedly, Matt slips across the room and joins her on the bed, keeping a safe distance. If he just keeps his hands to himself and stays far enough away that he can’t smell her shampoo or her perfume, then maybe he’ll be able to get through this with his sanity intact.
Though, Alex has a fondness for shooting all his plans to hell, and this time is no exception. The moment he shuts his eyes, she rolls over in her sleep, her head suddenly on his shoulder and her leg between his. And oh god, goodbye sanity because this is so much better. She smells amazing and she’s so bloody warm and soft…Unable to resist the temptation, he slowly raises his hand and splays it across her back, feeling her hot skin through her t-shirt.
When she arches into his touch with a soft noise in the back of her throat, Matt freezes, eyes wide and trained on her face. She doesn’t move again, so he slides his thumb across her back in a gentle caress. Her eyes flutter open and meet his. Caught, he stares back with his heart hammering in his chest.
She doesn’t try to move away from him, only watching his face curiously. Taking it as a good sign, Matt keeps his gaze locked on hers as he begins to trace patterns across her back. He reaches the bottom of her t-shirt and slides his fingers beneath it, drawing random letters and circles on the smooth skin of her back. Her breathing hitches and her eyes dilate as she licks her lips and lets him touch her. Her leg shifts between his own, her knee so very close to brushing against his rapidly hardening erection.
A mounting pressure in his chest and the blood pumping wildly through his veins screams at him to press her into the mattress and kiss her lips bruised and swollen, to grind his hips into hers and let her feel what she does to him. He wants to kiss his way down her stomach and drag those little shorts down her legs and off; he wants to feel her thighs close around his head as he slides his tongue past the slick folds of her sex and finally discovers what she tastes like.
More than anything, he wants to make love to her on this vast antique bed and listen to it creak and rock against the wall as Alex gasps out her moans into his ear, her legs wrapped tight around his waist. He wants it so much his hands tremble with it, his breathing labored and his eyes dark just thinking about it.
Alex watches him with wide eyes and everything about her posture tells him that whatever he wanted, she wouldn’t say no. His whole body is calling to him to do it, to give in and let it happen. So he listens.
Bending his head, he lets his lips hover over hers and watches euphorically as her eyes flutter shut in anticipation. He leans in, and his lips just barely brush over hers to let him have a small taste when suddenly their door bursts open. They spring apart like guilty children as Karen barges into the room, dragging Arthur with her.
She bounds over to them and jumps onto the bed, burrowing beneath the blankets. “There’s a ghost in our room!”
Arthur rolls his eyes, sitting on the edge of the bed and looking at them apologetically. “A picture fell off the wall.”
Matt sighs, sitting up and dropping his head into his hands, too frustrated and achingly hard to even form a reply. Next to him, Alex pulls Karen into a hug and refuses to look in his direction. “It’s alright, dear. You two can stay here tonight – the bed is certainly big enough.”
Karen clings to her neck like a child. “I love you, Alex.”
Matt bristles a little, feeling childish but unable to quell his irritation. That was supposed to be his line tonight, after all.
Instead, Karen and Arthur end up between Matt and Alex like children bunking with their parents on a stormy night and Matt stares into the dark long after everyone else has fallen asleep, wondering if he’ll ever get another opportunity like the one he almost had.
Alabama is a bust.
They see an old movie at a drive-in but not even any of the horrible tourist attractions appeal to Arthur, except for the world’s largest office chair. After that little excursion, they sit on the bonnet of the car in a deserted supermarket car park. It’s only eight in the evening but the tiny town they’ve stopped in has shut down for the night. There isn’t a store left open or a tourist attraction worth visiting – nothing to do but sit on the car and smoke, his hand laced through Karen’s between them.
It’s surprising how very little things have changed between them since New Orleans. He hadn’t meant for things to happen that way but in a way, he’s glad it did. They continue to bicker over just about everything. Karen still criticizes his driving and his eating habits, and he still compares her face to the moon. Except now, when he gets tired of hearing that thick Scottish accent raised in irritation, there’s nothing stopping him from kissing her silent.
It’s a nice change, he thinks. How they managed not to kill each other before the snogging, he’ll never know.
Karen takes a drag of her cigarette and lies back against the windshield. “What now?”
Perched on the edge of the bonnet next to Alex, Matt scuffs his shoe against the ground and shrugs. “Get a hotel room. Start off again in the morning for Georgia.”
The dismayed face Karen makes is at once unattractive and adorable – Arthur blames the snogging for his indecision. “No,” she whinges, propping herself up on her elbows, “I can’t stay in this place. It’s mind numbing. Can’t we just go now?”
“You want to drive through the night?” Matt frowns. “Are you seriously that desperate?”
Karen nods. “We can’t even grab dinner here anyway. There’s nothing bloody open.”
“She has a point,” Alex says, and Arthur can’t help but notice the way she very deliberately avoids Matt’s eyes, the same way she has since Mississippi. “Might as well leave now and get a head start.”
Matt scratches his chin, peeking at Alex quickly before looking away. “Fine. We’ll take turns driving then.”
Karen claps, tossing her cigarette to the ground and hopping off the car to stamp it out. “Yes.” Cupping her hands around her mouth, she shouts, “Goodbye Alabama! And stick your sodding bedtime up your -”
“Kaz, stop it,” he says, grabbing her wrists and laughing. “In case you’ve forgotten, we’re in the south where their guns are as big as the bloody alligators.”
She giggles, stepping close enough to press a kiss to his jaw and his grip on her wrists loosens immediately. Glancing over his shoulder to where Matt and Alex have already climbed into the car and appear to be looking anywhere but at each other, the smile slides off her face. “I think we interrupted something the other night.”
“You mean when it looked like he was about to devour her right before you barged in yelling about ghosts?” He gives her a pointed look. “That was all you, remember? You interrupted something.”
She bites her lip guiltily. “I didn’t know!”
“I know you didn’t,” he sighs, pushing his glasses up his nose and tugging her toward the car. “They’ll figure it out. Hopefully.”
“But what if they don’t?”
“Then it’ll be all your fault when they kill each other from the sexual tension.”
“Why are you so mean to me?” she pouts.
“Call it a hobby. Now get in the car.”
He follows after her, unsurprised to find Matt and Alex sitting in silence when he shuts the door. Somehow, he doubts an Elton John sing-along is going to fix anything this time. They drive for over an hour without speaking, Karen cuddled against his side with her head on his shoulder as she reads a book on her phone and he stares straight ahead at the cars in front of them, smelling her perfume and pressing his lips to her hair.
After a while, he notices Matt glancing over at Alex frequently, his eyes soft and his expression beyond love and venturing into sappy territory. Arthur follows his gaze and sees Alex sleeping against the window, her legs tucked under her and her arms wrapped around herself.
He continues to take his eyes of the road to look at her every so often and after a few minutes, Karen sighs. “You’re going to drive us into a ditch if you don’t stop it. Just bloody well snog her already.”
Matt frowns at her through the rearview mirror. “Quiet, Gillan. No one asked you.”
“I’m serious,” she says, voice soft in the quiet of the car. “You’re going to wake her up with the force of your stare alone.”
The car slows to a stop at a light and Matt turns in his seat to level her with a rather impressive glare. “I wouldn’t have to sneak glimpses when she’s sleeping if you had stayed in your own sodding room in Mississippi so shut up and let me have what I can get.”
She purses her lips, eyes pained. “Sorry.”
Matt sighs, running a hand through his hair and turning back to Alex. “Don’t worry about it.”
Karen reaches forward and squeezes his shoulder. “Don’t give up, stupid face.”
Without answering her, Matt slips off his jean jacket and drapes it over Alex’s sleeping form. Arthur watches as she curls her fingers around the denim and snuggles further into it, inhaling softly. The light changes but the look Matt gives her before he turns his attention to the road again is so lovesick that Arthur knows despite their current awkwardness, Matt and Alex are going to be just fine.
When they reach Georgia, the first thing they do is find the camel farm. Matt had discovered it online three states ago and has been waiting for it with such glee that Alex can’t find it in her heart to tell him that camels are smelly and dirty and make disgusting noises. He’ll find out for himself soon enough.
They haven’t spoken much since Mississippi – at least not the way they had been before and for her part, it’s because she doesn’t know what to say. She doesn’t regret what had almost happened between them, and she supposes she’d known since the lightning field in New Mexico that things with him were headed toward an inevitable intersection, like two perpendicular lines meeting in the middle.
Matt’s inability to meet her eyes is a little worrying but he still stands just as close as he always has and still talks to her in that soft, low voice that makes her knees tremble. She hopes that maybe he just can’t find the right words either.
More than anything, she’s frustrated. They haven’t had a moment alone since their almost-kiss. And tonight doesn’t look to be any more conducive to talking – Arthur had called in advance at Karen’s request and made them a reservation at a bloody tree house hostel of all things – a rickety ladder up to a quaint, well-kept tree house and no accommodations other than a vegetarian breakfast in the morning. They’re not even getting proper beds, laying out sleeping bags on the floor of the tree house instead. All three of them are excited by the prospect of sleeping in a tree and Alex can’t help but hate them a little bit for making it impossible for her to complain.
When they make it to the camel farm, they pile out of the car eagerly – not so much desperate to get to the camels but to get away from Karen. The minute they crossed the state line, she’s been singing The Devil Went Down To Georgia nonstop, complete with fiddle solos.
Matt practically bounces over to the camel pen, grinning at the one leaning its head over the railing and chewing. “Look at it,” he enthuses, reaching out a hand to touch its neck. “So sick.” Turning his back on it to look at them, he pats the camel’s neck. “This one is mine. I’m calling it Alfonso.”
Arthur snorts. “Well Alfonso is eating your shirt.”
Matt turns to see his beloved camel chewing on the shoulder of his favorite Guns n’ Roses shirt and gasps, jerking away. “No, bad camel,” he says, wiping at the saliva on his shirt with an adorably disgusted faced. “Bad Alfonso. If you’re going to eat anything, eat Arthur’s terrible baseball hat.”
“Oi, baseball is an American tradition,” he says, clutching his hat as if the camel could snatch it from several feet away. “I’m blending in.”
Matt opens his mouth to retort but frowns when they all burst into laughter. “What?” Then, he feels the tugging on his head and reaches up a hand, patting curiously. “Oh, Alfonso! No! Don’t eat my hair!” He bats the camel away, wiping at his hair with a wrinkled nose.
“Your camel hates you,” Karen says, coming up to the fence and petting a different one.
“It does not,” he pouts. “It’s obviously starving to death. We should report this place for neglect.”
Karen ignores him, scratching under her camel’s chin. “Aw, Mildred likes me. You’re so sweet, yes you are.”
“Mildred?” Arthur frowns, tilting his head at the camel and then looking at Alex. “Am I seeing things or is Mildred a boy?”
Alex pats his shoulder, smiling. “I don’t think she cares, dear.”
“Kingston, come have a look,” Matt calls her over, obviously relaxed enough to meet her eyes now and Alex feels a little thrill at the way he smiles at her. “I can’t be sure, but I think this camel looks like the Moff. I’m considering a name change.”
She laughs and starts toward him, leaving Arthur to find his own camel. “I’m not sure Steven would appreciate that, darling.”
“Well he doesn’t have to find out.” He stands back, pulling her with him. “From this angle, Alfonso has his eyes.”
Alex squints, tilting her head. “Oh.”
“He has his hair on top too.” She giggles. “Oh, poor Alfonso.”
“I’m absolutely telling him when we get back that you felt sorry for his camel lookalike.”
“Fine. And you can get whoever they bring in to replace me to give you backrubs and bring you tea.”
“She would,” he says stubbornly. “I’m terribly charming.”
Alex snorts. “I think the word you’re looking for is clumsy, darling.”
“That’s it, Alex Kingston,” he points a finger at her and then bops her on the nose with it. “I was going to offer you a ride on my camel but -”
“A ride on your camel?” She smirks. “Is that what you’re calling it now? I’m still rather fond of Your Majesty.”
He sputters, face red. “Stop it! You’re making my camel dirty!”
“Oh honey, I think it’s dirty all by itself.”
He huffs, scratching his cheek. “You’re impossible.”
Seated comfortably on his camel, Arthur looks up from his phone with a grimace. “Did you know that male camels have this thing called a dulla in their neck – like an inflatable sac – that hangs out of their mouths like a swollen tongue when they’re in rut?”
Karen frowns. “Rut?”
“Heat,” Alex supplies helpfully, smirking.
Karen gags. “I’m so glad my camel is a girl.”
Arthur hides a snort in a cough.
Glancing at his own camel, Matt eyes it with disdain. “That is disgusting, Moffat-Alfonso.”
Eventually, Alex finds a camel to her liking and climbs on, thinking of how much Salome would love this if she were here. Even knowing her daughter wouldn’t be home anyway, she still can’t help but miss her terribly. She takes lots of pictures with her mobile to show her later and names the camel after Salome’s favorite teddy bear.
Just before it’s time to leave, the four of them have a race that results in Karen victory dancing so wildly she almost falls from her camel. Matt’s camel refuses to even run, trotting along at a slow pace more acceptable of an elderly elephant, and continues to try to eat his clothing and his hair. It isn’t long before he becomes disenchanted with the whole lot of them, as Alex suspected he would. Still, she hates that his long-awaited camel experience hadn’t gone as well as he’d hoped.
Right before they get in the car to leave, she takes him by the hand and leads him back over to the camel pen. “Alex, what are you doing? This is silly. Camels hate me and I’ve decided I’m not very fond of them either.”
“This one is different,” she says, tugging him with her to the camel she’d used, a very calm and mellow female who hadn’t caused any trouble and didn’t even smell all that terrible. “Stella.”
He watches it from behind her shoulder suspiciously. “Well, Stella doesn’t look any different from her hair-chewing friends.”
She sighs, grabbing his hand and placing it on the camel’s muzzle. Stella turns her face, nudging at his palm gently and then licking his fingers. Alex watches fondly as Matt’s trepidation slowly disappears, replaced by a tiny smile as he pets the animal. “Alright, maybe this one isn’t so bad.”
“I think you just picked the wrong camel, darling,” she says, scratching under its chin.
“Odd,” he strokes his hand along Stella’s neck and looks at her from beneath his fringe. “My taste is usually much better.”
Alex grins and turns her eyes back to Stella, trying not to blush.
If he has to go another day without kissing Alex, he thinks he’s going to go mad. Today, they’re in South Carolina and then they’ll just have North Carolina left before it’s time to go home and the only people snogging are Karen and Arthur. While Matt is happy for them, he also can’t help but be a little envious. He’s starting to lose hope.
“Okay, I have a request.” Arthur looks up from his phone with a grin.
Filing her nails next to him and dressed in a bikini and shorts for the beach, Karen sighs. “Alright, Darvill. Let’s hear it.”
“Unless it’s about visiting the world’s biggest rabbit,” Alex says, glaring at Matt. “Because it’s still not funny.”
Matt frowns. “It was sort of funny.”
“No, hush,” Arthur demands impatiently, waving his hand. “There is a monument here dedicated to the father of gynecology. I need to pay homage.”
Karen whacks him with her nail file and Alex laughs. “Pervert.”
“That’s not even the best part,” Arthur grins, dodging Karen’s next swipe. “He actually said – swear to God – ‘if you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life.’”
Matt bursts out laughing, thankful for the red traffic light as his head drops to rest on the steering wheel. Alex shakes her head at him, biting her lip against a smile. “You are making that up,” he giggles.
“Am not!” Arthur leans forward to show Matt his phone screen. He glances at Karen. “Now who’s a pervert?”
“You’re still not going,” Karen says. “I don’t care how funny it is.”
Arthur sighs, turning off his phone. “Is this what a relationship between us is going to be like? You ordering me around and forbidding me to do things?”
“Probably,” she says, leaning forward to kiss his cheek. “Now, chauffeur, stop at that petrol station. I want gummi bears.”
“On the beach?” Matt flicks on his turn signal and pulls into the car park before realizing that he’s not in a relationship with Kaz and therefore not obligated to follow her orders.
“I get hungry,” she says, jumping out of the car.
Arthur calls after her, “You’re not even dressed! Put a shirt on!”
“Didn’t bring one,” she says, doing a little shimmy in her bikini top. “Going to come along and protect my honor Darvill?”
He grumbles under his breath, climbing out of the car and following her into the petrol station.
Left alone in the silence of the car with Alex, Matt drums his fingers nervously against the steering wheel. Things have been less awkward between them since Georgia but the tension is palpable, the air thick with all the words they don’t say. They haven’t had a moment to themselves since that night in Mississippi and his hands itch with the need to touch her again. She’s sitting there next to him with her hair piled on top of her head, her dark blue bikini peeking out from beneath the button up shirt she’d stolen from his bag. He can barely concentrate as it is and he can’t help wondering how he’ll even function or manage to keep his hands to himself once she sheds that shirt.
Alex turns from the window and looks at him, green eyes bright. “I don’t know when we’ll ever get another moment alone, so I’m just going to say it because I need you to know.”
He swallows around the sudden lump in his throat.
“Do you know why I was so upset when I thought we had slept together in New Orleans?”
Shaking his head, he wonders if it’s actually possible for his heart to burst right out of his chest and flutter away like a freed bird.
Alex purses her lips, hesitant. “Because if it ever happened, I would want to remember every second, darling.”
He stares, sure he has to be hearing things. “You -”
She nods like he’d spoken aloud, tears in her eyes. “So much.”
The bird in his chest beats wildly against the bars of its cage, desperate to soar up and away. “Alex, I -”
The car door opens and he snaps his mouth shut abruptly as Karen and Arthur climb back into the car loaded down with enough junk food to supply a two-day stay at the beach. Jaw clenched, Matt starts the car again, putting his hand on the gearshift. Alex brushes her fingers reassuringly over his, giving him a faint smile as she turns from him to stare out the window again.
He sighs, frustrated, and does his best not to outright glare at his friends through the rearview mirror. Oblivious to his annoyance, they sit in the backseat and share a bag of gummi bears, fighting over who gets the red ones.
They’re about a mile from the beach when the relative quiet is broken.
“Have you ever been driving and you see this big open field, and you just want to pull over, get out and run?” Alex asks quietly, staring out at the landscape on her side of the car, her fingers pressed to the glass.
“I don’t know,” she answers. “Just run.”
Arthur and Karen are still bickering when he pulls off to the side of the road and unbuckles his seatbelt. Alex turns to look at him, frowning. “What are we doing?”
“Running,” he says simply, getting out. Alex stares after him as he rounds the car to her side and opens her door. “Come on.”
“I don’t understand. Why -”
“When else are you going to get a chance without anyone thinking you’ve lost the plot?” He asks, grinning as he holds out a hand to her. “See that pretty field there with all the wildflowers and the sand dunes? You want to run?”
She nods, biting her lip.
“Then take my hand and get out of the car, Kingston.”
Karen looks up from her forage for green gummi bears and glances around. “Wait, what are we doing? Did I miss something?”
Alex giggles, putting her hand in Matt’s. He tugs her from the car while Karen and Arthur watch in puzzlement, and hand in hand, they scurry down the embankment and into the sand dunes littered with overgrown grass and wildflowers. They laugh as they run, kicking up sand and feeling the salt air hit their faces. When Alex stumbles, he catches her around the waist and pulls her into him.
Still laughing, she looks up at him with flushed cheeks and sparkling green eyes. “Another one off the bucket list thanks to you,” she says, her arms sliding up his chest and around his neck.
“That’s me, making all your dreams come true,” he says, swiping his thumb over her cheek. “Mind helping me out with one of my own?”
She grins. “Oh anything, Mr. Smith.”
Taking it as permission, he bends his head and finally kisses her. Alex sighs against his mouth, parting her lips immediately for him and his tongue delves inside eagerly to taste her. She’s perfect – a blend of coffee and caramel and everything he’s ever wanted. He slides his hand into her hair and groans, too overjoyed to do anything but pull her closer. Alex smiles against his mouth and it’s contagious. Soon, they’re doing nothing but holding each other and grinning, their lips still brushing together.
“Crossing it off the bucket list?” She whispers, fingers stroking the back of his neck.
He shakes his head, brushing his mouth over her cheek. “Bucket list would imply I only need to kiss you once to be satisfied which isn’t accurate at all. I’m afraid I’m going to need a lifetime supply.”
Alex beams. “Happy to hear it, darling.”
In North Carolina, they forgo the usual touristy locations and decide that spending their last two days lounging on the beach is the best way to go. Matt is all too happy to look at Alex in a bikini for a while longer, especially now that he doesn’t have to keep his hands to himself.
When he tells Alex this, she laughs and kisses his chin, looking up at him fondly. “You never had to keep your hands to yourself, darling.”
“That would have been nice to know back in bloody New Orleans.”
She grins, patting his cheek. “You did the right thing, honey.”
Nudging his nose against her curls and still smelling her shampoo beneath the scent of the sand and the ocean, he hums his agreement and joins her in watching Karen and Arthur splash each other in the water. Right now, he’s perfectly content to lounge on this beach towel and trail his mouth over Alex’s sun-kissed skin.
“Can you believe this is the last stop?” He asks, resting his hand on the indent of her waist. “LA bound tomorrow.”
She sighs, snuggling against him with a pout. “You’ll go home too.”
His chest tightens at the sadness in her eyes – he hates the thought of leaving her but it’s nice to know he’ll be missed. “I’ll be back, love.”
“I know,” she says, smiling as she bends her head and places a soft kiss to his throat. “It’s been amazing, though, darling. I’m glad you made me come along.”
He runs one hand over her warm back and buries the other in her hair. “Favorite part?”
She pretends to think for a moment. “Moffat-Alfonso eating your hair.”
“Oi,” he laughs, kissing the top of her head.
Alex giggles, raising her head to look at him, her eyes soft. “This moment is very quickly rising through the ranks.”
“Yeah?” He pulls her against him, lying back in the sun and holding her face in his hands as he kisses her. “It’s my favorite too.”