Duffy pushed her key into the lock and opened the front door. The house was dark and peaceful, radiating warmth that was a sharp contrast to the cold night air.
"Looks like everyone’s in bed," Duffy observed, as she showed Charlie through to the living room.
"I feel like a teenager again, sneaking back to my date’s house while her parents are asleep upstairs!"
"Oh yeah?" she replied teasingly, as she dropped down onto the sofa. Charlie sat down next to her and wrapped his arm around her shoulder, enjoying the sensation of her snuggling in closer to him.
"Not really," he admitted with a smile, "I was always hopeless with girls. In fact I did more sneaking around behind parent’s backs when I was in Birmingham with Baz". As soon as he said it he winced, and wished he could take it back. It didn’t take a genius to work out that rambling on about your ex with your new girlfriend wasn’t a smart move. He hoped that given their shared history she might let it go.
"I’d rather not talk about her," Duffy replied trying to keep the tone of her voice light, but by mentioning it at all proving that it got to her.
"I was only saying…" Charlie started defensively. Duffy pulled away from him so she could look him in the eyes.
"I know. But she’s always going to come between us, isn’t she?"
Charlie frowned, "She doesn’t have to. She’s gone Duffy, out of my life, out of the country for God’s sake!"
"And I’m still here."
"Don’t be like that…"
"That!" he exclaimed exasperated. "What do you want me to do? Pretend she doesn’t exist, that she means nothing to me, never did?"
"Of course not!"
"I don’t know…" She turned away and rubbed at her temples.
"Duffy this evening has been wonderful, don’t let’s spoil it now. Please?" He leaned toward her, brushing her hair away from her face, entreating to her silently to turn and face him, to forgive his faux pas.
"I’m not trying to spoil it, Charlie," she said, standing up and pacing across the room. "I just can’t stop thinking about her. About how happy you looked on your wedding day, about how miserable you were when you split up…"
Charlie rose and stepped toward her, "It’s all in the past."
"But is it? Can you look me in the eyes and tell me that if she turned up right now you wouldn’t drop me like that?" She made a dismissive sweep of her arm.
Charlie tried to divine her thoughts; what was causing her to act this way? Their night out together had been so magical, worth every second he’d spent fretting over how he should go about asking her on a date. Why was it now that they were alone together that things were falling apart? She couldn’t seriously be jealous of Baz, could she? He knew she had no reason to be, it wasn’t Baz that he wanted, not anymore…
"I knew it," she stated, her voice beginning to tremble almost imperceptibly. She took a deep breath to try to strengthen her resolve, "Look Charlie, you’re right, tonight was lovely, but it’s over now…"
She couldn’t meet his gaze, she knew that if she did she would crumble. She would find herself in his arms where she would feel safe and warm, and every time it was harder to pull away. Moving slowly back to the front door, she glanced back only briefly to be sure that he was following.
He put his hand up and covered the lock, trapping her in the corner of the hallway.
"Wait. Please Duffy. I don’t know what I’d do if Baz turned up right now, die of shock probably, but the fact of the matter is that it isn’t going to happen! She’s made that perfectly clear!" He hoped that would satisfy her. He’d leave, if that was what she wanted, he’d do anything that she wanted, just as long as she knew she the only one for him.
"You just don’t get it, do you? That’s the problem!" She pushed him gently but firmly out of her way, standing away from him.
"I don’t understand…"
"She’s made it clear, she left, she’s not coming back" Duffy elaborated, "She’s gone, you’re lonely and I'm just the one who's still here."
"That’s not it at all. OK, so she left me, but I could’ve gone with her, I could have fought for her, but I recognised the same thing that she did – we were never going to happy together. I don’t know if it’s because we’re too different or because we’re too alike, but that’s the way it is. I did love her, maybe I still do…"
"Well then!" It hurt her to hear that, more deeply than she thought it would, but it would make things easier if it was true.
"No!" Charlie shook his head, realising how badly he was communicating his feelings, "Listen, maybe I still have feelings for her but I don’t want to get back together with her. It wouldn’t work; I’m under no illusions about that. She’s the mother of my son, she’s a part of my life, always will be, but that doesn’t mean she has to affect us".
Through his own blurred vision, he was sure that he could see her eyes fill up too.
"It’s not as easy as that."
"But…" she tried to explain.
"No but’s, come here."
He stepped toward her, holding out his arms, wanting nothing more than to hold her and prove to her his love. Duffy hesitated before moving into his embrace, feeling his arms enfold her, stroking down her back trying to soothe away her fears. It was a nice feeling, cosy and protecting and like always she started to convince herself that that was all she needed; someone to love her and look after her.
Unwilling to break the atmosphere, but still curious about her outburst Charlie whispered softly to her as he held her, "Are you sure that this isn’t about Andrew. Because if you think we’re moving too fast, and you need more time… Duffy?"
She sobbed gently into his chest and for a fleeting second she nearly told him what he obviously expected to hear. It would be easier to blame everything on her late husband, but Charlie deserved the truth, no matter how hard it was for her to tell him. No matter how much she wished she could change things.
She pulled slowly away from him. "It’s not Andrew."
"Not just him anyway."
"Who else is there? Max?" Charlie had a terrible sinking feeling in his stomach. He knew all about her fling with Max but had never imagined that anything of it had survived. He couldn't bear even thinking about losing her to Max, not now, not when he had allowed himself to fall for her.
"In a way. It’s everyone we’ve ever dated; all the women I’ve seen with you, all the men you’ve seen with me. Sixteen years, Charlie! Sixteen years we’ve known each other, sixteen years we’ve watched each other fall in and out of love, get married, have kids, cried on each other’s shoulders when it’s all gone horribly wrong. We know each other so well…"
He listened in bewilderment as she spoke; of course they knew each other well, it was that very fact that meant after only one date he was sure he would spend the rest of his life with her.
"Which is a good thing, isn’t it? No awful surprises, no awkward first dates where we have nothing to talk about… I even quite like your mother!"
The tears that had for so long been threatening to overwhelm her started to trickle silently down her face; she brushed them feverishly away, desperate to compose herself.
"Duffy? What’s the matter? I’m trying to understand, but you’re not making any sense…"
"You remember that deal we made, that if we were both single when you were sixty I’d marry you?"
"Yeah," he answered nervously, unsure where it was leading.
"I don’t want that, I don’t want to be settled for, Charlie. I know you like me, I know you care about me and that we get on, but I can’t help feeling that that’s it. That I’m a woman and you’re a man and we’ve just ended up together," she blurted out.
"You mean a lot more to me than that." He wanted to tell her just how much, but couldn’t seem to find the words, and she didn’t give him more than a second before she continued.
"But do you love me? Could you ever really love me the way you loved Baz? Will I ever make your heart beat that little bit faster? We’re comfortable together, content, but that’s not enough."
Charlie was about to protest when her words sunk in, piercing through his heart.
"Are we still talking about me?" he asked, the words flowing from his lips feebly; he already knew the answer.
"I’m sorry Charlie. I love you; I’m just not in love with you. I wish I was…"
He wanted to fight, to scream at her but he knew it was no use. It was clear from the look in her eyes that she was telling the truth, a truth that no amount of reasoning could change.
"So that’s it, is it? We just give up? Go back to being friends?" He fought hard to keep the emotion out of his voice.
"While we still can. I don’t want to lose what we’ve got; you’re my best friend. I don’t want that to change."
"We could be really great together Duffy. You and me, we could make it work…" As he spoke, she gently shook her head from side to side, "…you’ve made up your mind haven’t you?"
"I wasn’t sure, not completely, not until just now. But I don’t feel it, the spark I had with Andrew, that I know you had with Baz. It’s missing Charlie and there’s nothing that we can do about it. It’s better that we stop now, before we do something that we regret…"
It took every ounce of his strength, and his pride, to stop him from falling at her feet and begging her to reconsider, but he knew that if he did he would probably end up ruining their friendship forever. It wasn’t worth the risk of losing her completely. Suddenly the cold solitude of the night seemed far more appealing than staying to be tortured by what he could never have.
"I should probably go now, shouldn’t I?"
She nodded silently as she opened the door. "It’s for the best. Goodnight."
As he turned to leave she put her hand on his arm and he paused, just long enough for her to kiss him gently on the lips.
"I do love you, Charlie…"
He couldn’t answer her, he couldn’t trust what he might say if he did. The best he could manage was to acknowledge her statement with a slight, strained, smile before leaving the house and hearing the door close behind him.
"I love you too," he whispered, his words being snatched away by the icy breeze.
Inside the house, her family home, with her mother and sons asleep overhead, Duffy found herself feeling painfully alone, and wondering if she’d just made the biggest mistake of her life.