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Start reading Innocent by Erin Kinsley

ONE

First times you can easily recall. First date, first kiss. First day at the job, your child’s first birthday. Your first view of the house you fell in love with, the first time you held the keys to your own car.

 

But last times come and go, and you never notice. The last time you held his hand, the last time you saw her smile: you overlooked those moments, and they slipped by unremarked.

 

Only in hindsight can you see them for what they were. That hasty parting from an old friend, the visit to your mum that you cut short: if you realised they might be endings, mightn’t you stay a little longer, take the time to say a heartfelt goodbye?

 

Be mindful of such moments with your loved ones. One of them, one day, will be the last. Outside the window, a white butterfly settles on a tendril of
spreading ivy.

 

Izzy doesn’t see it. In front of the mirror, she’s busy putting the final pins into her hair, adding a touch of pencil to her brows and pouting to slick soft pink on her lips. As she sprays eau de parfum at her throat, Tristan walks up behind her in the glass. He’s so handsome in his suit.

‘I brought you something.’ He lays a few sprigs of forgetme-not on the dressing table, and she smiles her thanks.

 

‘They’re so pretty.’

 

He bends down and kisses the nape of her neck, exposed now her hair’s in a chignon. At the brush of his lips, she shivers, and with a tantalising suggestion of wickedness, in the mirror his eyes meet hers.

 

‘You look fabulous,’ he murmurs, ‘and you smell divine.’

 

Hand beneath her chin, he tilts her head back and kisses her mouth. ‘I love you so much, beautiful wife.’

 

Pouting, she picks up the lipstick. ‘You kissed it all away.’

 

With the backs of his fingers he strokes her shoulder, naked below the strap of her chiffon dress, and talks into her ear.

 

‘Let me do it again. Let’s forget the wedding and stay here.’

 

She covers his hand with hers. ‘We have to go. Flora’s so excited. And what would people say?’

 

‘Who cares what people say?’

 

‘I’ll make it up to you when we get home.’

 

‘Now that I shall look forward to.’

 

He watches her slip on kitten heels and drop the lipstick in her clutch bag. ‘Ready, Mrs Hart?’

 

In the mirror, she makes a final check, adjusting a hair-pin where a fair strand has broken loose from the chignon.

 

‘Ready,’ says Izzy, and as they leave the bedroom he slides his arm around her waist.

 

 

TWO

 

Absolute darling, perfect angel.

 

Flora, the youngest bridesmaid, runs gleefully across the lawns, trailing a pink balloon on a silk ribbon, not suspecting her pursuer can catch her whenever he wants. He’s letting her believe she can win, but when she veers towards the high box hedge and the path leading to the swimming pool, he
makes his move.

 

Three long strides, and the game’s over. Tristan sweeps his giggling daughter up over his head, laughing as he spins her round in her taffeta dress, and carries her back to the marquee, where Izzy’s watching, smiling, from their table.

 

Among the wedding guests, someone else is watching, thinking what a pretty picture father and daughter make. Some people are just born lucky. Whether they deserve it, or whether they don’t.

 

Little devil, wayward monster.

 

The circlet of blush rosebuds pinned over Flora’s curls has come askew, and her satin slippers are ruined by grass stains. Aidan remembers how Gemma was at that age, mucky-faced and grubby-kneed one minute, bubble-bath sweet the next. Those young years held Aidan’s happiest summers: paddling
pools and picnics, sandcastles and candyfloss, and her fast asleep on his shoulder as he carried her home from some windswept beach. Sometimes it feels like only yesterday, yet he can see her over there now, standing with her friends, fourteen going on twenty-five.

 

She’s already a young woman. Where does the time go?

 

One of the girls Gemma’s with spots Tristan coming their way and beckons him over, and Tristan appears happy to say hello. The girls try and make a fuss of Flora, but she’s feeling shy and hides her face on her father’s shoulder.

 

At the next table, Aidan notices big, bluff David Garner is watching too, stroking the side of his pint glass as his eyes run over the girls in turn. Dave’s a local builder, with a reputation for spending as much time in bed with his clients’ wives as he does working on their extensions, and he’s currently involved – so Aidan’s heard – with a part-time assistant at the high street
pharmacy. Less than two months ago, he got punched in the mouth, explaining the loss of two teeth to his wife Karen with some cock-and-bull story about a fall from a ladder. For a builder, Dave’s fallen off a lot of ladders in his time.

 

The girls gathered round Tristan laugh at something he’s said. Gemma moves behind his back and puts her face up to Flora’s, but whatever she says then makes Flora scowl. Tristan’s apologising for his anti-social daughter, but the girls don’t seem to mind. As he leaves them he encourages her to wave,
but Flora doesn’t comply.

 

Her cheeks are flushed from running in the heat. Yesterday was the hottest June day on record, and it’s barely any cooler today. With the sides of the marquee pinned up to encourage a through-draught, the natural scents of the formal garden – lavender, roses and mown grass – waft in to compete with Jo Malone and Marc Jacobs, the yeastiness of barrelled beer and, increasingly, sweat.

 

The wedding’s theme is swans, and every place setting has a glass swan filled with silvered dragées; the marquee roof is draped with garlands of white feathers, and alongside the cake – five tiers of sugarcraft, decorated with hearts formed from curved swans’ necks – is a swan carved in ice, melting
so fast in the heat, it will soon have to be wheeled away. Tristan retakes his seat beside Izzy, lifting Flora on to his lap.

 

‘Bit of a mad risk, ordering ice-sculpture in June,’ he says. ‘And what’s with all the swans anyway?’

 

Flora leans across to Izzy, and Izzy reaches out to take her, not troubled by the dusty smears the soles of Flora’s slippers leave on her dress. Izzy has a traffic-stopping beauty, a pale, willowy loveliness made unfashionable by the current fake-tanned, tattoo-browed ideals of reality TV. Compared to
them, Izzy seems from another time, her looks as classically English as a Gainsborough portrait. Alongside Tristan in his vintage-cut linen suit and collarless shirt, with his blond hair falling across one eye, they resemble throwbacks to Sterndale Hall’s heyday, before a receding financial tide left its titled owners high and dry and made conversion to a country house hotel the only possible alternative to slow decay and ruin.

 

As Izzy leans forward to take Flora, a curve of breast shows at the neck of her dress, and Aidan takes a sharp breath. He knows his lust for Izzy is predictable and clichéd, and he glances at Laura, afraid she might have noticed, but he’s no cause for concern. Laura’s happily chatting to Tristan, who’s
always fun to talk to with his anecdotes and wit.

 

Anyway, Aidan’s very happy with Laura and isn’t seriously looking to stray. She’s attractive too, though in a different way, become what his mother would have called bonny since having two kids. Her fitted dress makes the most of her figure, and with her hair professionally done and careful make-up,
he knows there are men in Sterndale who’d be keen to know her much better, given an opportunity. And if they were ever – God forbid – not together, Aidan would attract similar female attention. Even after his accident he’s in good shape, but he’d need more than admirable biceps to compete with
Tris. Tris is a celebrity, who gilds an occasion just by being there. If Tris snapped his fingers, women would be lining up, but none of them would hold a candle to Izzy.

 

Flora is reaching for a glass swan, or at least for the shiny sweets held in its back. Izzy grasps her hand and tells her no, which Flora accepts without argument. Putting her thumb in her mouth, she rests her head on Izzy’s breast and closes her eyes.

 

‘She’s tired,’ says Tristan, touching Flora’s cheek. ‘Aren’t you, princess? I’ll give Bridget a call in a few minutes and ask her to come and fetch her. Enough excitement for one day.’

 

‘Swans are a symbol of fidelity,’ says Izzy, beginning to unpin the rosebud circlet from Flora’s hair. ‘They mate for life, so I think they’re a great choice for a wedding. And they’re sacred to Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and passion.’

 

‘There you are, ladies and gentlemen,’ says Tristan. ‘That’s the kind of useful knowledge you get from an expensive education.’

 

‘I got a scholarship, actually,’ objects Izzy.

 

‘So much the cleverer, then,’ says Tristan, as if he doesn’t already know. ‘An expensive education for free. Now, there are too many empty glasses on this table, and I believe it’s my round. More bubbles, ladies? Aidan, mate, are you ready for another pint?’

 

Making his way towards the bar, Tristan knows that – as always – he is noticed. Sometimes, when he’s being the star, it’s the best feeling, an adrenaline high like no other. But today he’s trying to blend in. A ripple follows him, regardless – whispers and nudges – and the energy of people’s interest creates an intangible shimmer, the aura of there being Someone in the room. There’s a fine balance to be maintained between keeping his head down and attracting bad press if he offends anyone, so he gives the odd smile to be sure he’s not coming over as arrogant or rude.

 

He’s closing in on the bar when a young man stands up and blocks his way – gym-fit with a short, half-shaved haircut, looking uncomfortable in a fashionably over-tight suit. Holding out his hand to be shaken, plainly he’s determined to have a word.

 

The people sharing his table have fallen silent.

 

Tristan has a practised strategy for these moments. He takes the offered hand, and the plan is that as he says, Hello, nice to see you, are you having a good time? a little backwards pressure from the forearm will knock the guy off-balance and out of his way, allowing him to escape without giving offence.

 

But the young man doesn’t respond to the backwards pressure. Instead, he holds his ground, and keeps Tristan’s hand in his.

 

Tristan, mate,’ he says.

 

‘Good to see you,’ says Tristan, trying to pull back his hand.

 

The young man’s face is red with embarrassment, but at least he doesn’t seem drunk.

 

‘Sorry to bother you, but could I ask a favour?’

 

Favours Tristan is also prepared for, with a wad of cards with his agent’s contact details always in his pocket. ‘You can ask.’

 

More and more people are watching, but he’s perfectly used to that; in Sterndale people frequently stand and stare at him, whether he’s buying olives in the Italian deli or plant pots in Abbot’s Hardware.

 

Finally, his hand is released.

 

‘I’m on leave from the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, based in Iraq,’ says the young man. ‘It gets tough out there sometimes, and I was thinking it would be a real boost for the lads if you’d send them a video message. Just a hello, like. Anything really, just a few words.’

 

Do we still have soldiers in Iraq? Tristan doesn’t know if we do or if we don’t, but the young man seems in real earnest, and how can this be anything but a good thing?

 

‘What’s your name?’

 

‘Simon, Simon Fisher. Lance Corporal.’

 

‘Well, Corporal, where’s your phone?’ The soldier grins, and one of his companions hurries to pass over a mobile. As more and more guests wonder what’s going on, an audible murmur is building across the marquee. ‘You got any pictures of these guys?’

 

The soldier scrolls through his phone and shows Tristan a series of photos: groups of sunburnt men in desert fatigues and combat boots, posing in arid landscapes. Few of them are smiling. Some of them are close to Tristan’s apparent age, late thirties or early forties, but their faces are more careworn,
more adult than his own. Others are barely more than boys, but from the obvious juniors to the most senior their eyes are old, reflecting what they’ve seen that can’t be unseen and their bafflement at life’s cruelties, their optimism for the future having taken a fatal hit.

 

Tristan feels the awkwardness of inadequacy. While he has his enviable job and his beautiful wife and daughter, other people’s children are out there facing landmines and hostile gunfire, taking the daily risk of being shot dead, blown up or maimed.

 

‘That’s my mate Steve,’ says the soldier, pointing to one of the younger men. ‘He’s not with us any more. He lost a leg a few weeks ago.’

 

‘So where is he now?’

 

‘In hospital in Birmingham.’

 

Tristan’s surprised to feel a tug of heartache. Since Flora was born, he’s become an emotional weakling.

 

‘I’m sorry to hear that. Send him my best wishes, won’t you?’

 

He puts his arm around the soldier’s shoulders, and the soldier holds up his phone.

 

‘Let’s do this,’ says Tristan. ‘Ready? Press that button, buddy.’

 

Tristan looks into the lens, and ad libs.

 

‘Greetings to all of our friends out there in the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. This is Tristan Hart here with your very own Lance Corporal Simon Fisher – give ’em a wave, Corporal – and we’re here to let you know that all your families and friends are thinking of you, that they love and miss you very
much, and that they can’t wait to have you home. Meantime, keep your peckers up, guys – and girls. You’re doing a great job most of us don’t have the balls for, so stay strong, and most of all stay safe. This is Tristan Hart, over and out.’

 

The red light goes off, and there’s low-key applause from around the marquee.

 

‘That’s brilliant,’ says the soldier, grinning. ‘Thanks so much.’

 

‘It’s a privilege,’ says Tristan. ‘I really mean that. And I meant what I said, you guys stay safe. You know what, Simon, I’m just on my way to the bar. Come on, let me buy you a drink.’

 

The delighted soldier follows him, turning back to give his mates an ebullient double thumbs up. His companions burst into excited chatter.

 

‘I can’t believe it,’ the soldier’s girlfriend is saying. ‘Isn’t he just the loveliest man? Just like he is on TV.’

 

Tristan finds a gap in the crush, and leans forward on the counter to try and get a bartender’s attention. Down the bar, he hears the pop of a champagne cork, and the excited chatter of women ready to have fun.

 

‘Simon, what are you having?’

 

The soldier is still beaming at his good fortune. ‘Pint of Gold, please, Tristan.’

 

The customer to Tristan’s left picks up his tray of drinks and moves away. Now Tristan can see he’s standing next to Dave Garner.

 

Tristan takes one step to his left so no one can stand between them. ‘All right there, Dave?’

 

Garner’s focus is on the blonde barmaid. When he hears his name, he looks round and acknowledges Tristan with a nod.

 

‘Listen, Dave.’ Tristan matches Garner’s pose, with both forearms on the bar. ‘I’m glad I bumped into you. Your brother’s still on the town council, isn’t he?’

 

Garner turns to look at him. His breath is unpleasantly beery. ‘Last I heard.’

 

The barmaid approaches and looks from one man to the other, not knowing who to serve first. When she recognises Tristan, she flushes in delighted discomposure and asks what she can get him.

 

Garner scowls.

 

‘I think this gentleman was here before me,’ says Tristan, and the barmaid looks indifferently at Garner, who orders a pint of IPA and an Aperol spritz.

 

As the barmaid turns away, Tristan says, ‘The thing is, you guys might be able to help with a programme we’re thinking of making.’

 

Garner shifts his position so he’s looking straight at Tristan.

 

Two of his front teeth are noticeably whiter than the rest. ‘Oh yeah? What’s that, then?’

 

‘Didn’t your company get involved last year in the refurb of the council chambers?’

 

‘We did that, yeah. What about it?’

 

‘And those repairs to the leisure centre roof, aren’t you doing those as well?’

 

‘Yes. A few more days and my boys will be done there.’

 

‘And the library extension, when was that, two years ago, three?’

 

Garner’s eyes narrow. ‘What’s this about?’

 

The barmaid brings his drinks. Garner pulls a roll of banknotes from his trouser pocket and hands one over, gesturing to her to keep the change.
While she’s at the till, Tristan says, ‘A little bird told me your brother was active in pushing those council contracts in your direction. Pulling a few strings, you might say. That’s a criminal offence, in public office. He could go to jail for that, if it turned out to be true.’

 

The barmaid returns, with a big smile for Tristan. Garner picks up his drinks, but he doesn’t move away.

 

‘What can I get you?’ asks the barmaid.

 

‘I’ve a long list.’ Tristan turns round and touches the soldier on the shoulder. ‘We’ll start with a pint of Gold for my friend here, and a pint of Champion, please, my love.’

 

Pink-cheeked, the barmaid heads for the pumps.

 

‘My viewers are interested in stories like that,’ Tristan says to Garner. ‘They’re fed up with the creeping sickness of corruption in everyday life. They want to get back to the days when the people who are supposed to work for us, do work for us, and not for themselves. You understand what I’m saying?’

 

‘Fuck you,’ says Garner, as he walks away.

 

‘Better mend your ways, or we’ll be coming for you, Dave,’ Tristan calls to his retreating back.