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'Jesus, Mats

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'Jesus, Mats. Put on some bloody clothes,' begs Oscar as he comes out onto the deck, cup of tea in hand. 'I know he was a tosser when you met, but I think you've punished him enough.'

I peer down at my strappy pink yoga bra and shorts before looking up in feigned ignorance. 'What do you mean? I've been nothing but nice to him this week' I say, with an air of sickly sweet innocence.

'Don't pull that bull on me, Mats. You have been parading around the house in your bloody underwear. I saw the look on your face yesterday when you caught him squirming. You were loving it.' He raises his eyebrows.

'It's hot!' I cry. 'I've been in and out of the lake all week. What would be more suitable swimwear? A habit? Maybe a three-piece Victorian bathing suit?'

'Seriously? You expect me to buy that crap? At least be honest with me.' He sets himself next to where I am stretching. 'You know what you've been doing to him. It isn't kind, and it isn't you. You've been acting like - like Lissie.' He says the last word hesitantly, knowing it will hurt me.

I wonder whether I've gone too far. Lissie doesn't think so - most of the things I've done this week have been her idea. It had been her who suggested that I started doing my daily stretches on the deck rather than my bedroom. She had been the one who had insisted on seeing every outfit I was torturing him with. Last night, as I retold him shaking as he rubbed my sun cream in, we had laughed until we cried. He hasn't been able to look me in the face since. Waves of guilt sweep over me and I flushed with shame. Sighing, I plop myself down in to a sea of cushions.

Pulling a thin, cotton throw off the back of the sofa, I wind it around me and loop it into a dress that covers up my bare skin.

'Fine,' I admit, raising my eyes to meet Oscar's. 'Maybe I've been trying to make him squirm a bit. I just needed to be the one with the upper hand. I don't want to be like –' I falter, not wishing to finish my sentence. Not wanting to be disloyal.

He sets down the steaming mug on the table and reaches his hand out to comfort me. 'I get it, Mats. He was an idiot.' His chocolate brown eyes are soft, filled with maturity beyond his fourteen years.

'You weren't there, Oscar. He was a complete arse, they all were. I was new and alone, and I had done nothing wrong.' A few frustrated tears smart my eyes and I take a deep breath to steady myself. 'They judged me and decided I was worth nothing, based on the colour of my hair and the length of my dress.' His arm wraps around me and pulls me into a deep, comforting hug. For a moment, I think I might crack, but I take three deep breaths.

'I felt worthless.'

I bury my head in his blue sweatshirt and, for a few moments, we sit in silence. Oscar strokes my hair while I sip his hot, sweet tea. The slow, steady beat of his heart calms me, the anger melting away. A soft creak from the decking breaks the tranquillity, and I feel Oscar's body tense as he sits up straighter.

'Sorry. I didn't want to interrupt. I just needed to grab-'

James stands by the French doors to the kitchen, fiddling with the hem of a dark grey t-shirt. Hovering in the doorway, his face drawn and eyes downcast, James is a shadow of the boy who had met me with such ferocity a month ago. A curious mixture of shame and sadness is fixed on his face.

'Grab what you must, mate,' Oscar growls. Without meeting our eyes, James crosses over the decking and picks up his towel. As he retreats into the house, he pauses, lingering on the threshold. An uncomfortable silence settles over the three of us as James becomes still. Slowly, he turns around, a look of grim determination plastered on his face.

'Look, dude, can I maybe speak to your sister alone?'

Oscar stands up, placing himself in front of me. Although he's two years younger than James and at least four inches shorter, six years of rugby have me backing him in a fight. Although the thought of my brother fighting for my honour makes me feel like a Georgette Heyer heroine, in the best way possible, I pull him back and shake my head at him.

'She can speak for herself, dude,' says Oscar, hostility clear in every word.

'Yes, I can,' I agree. 'And that means, Oscar, that I think this conversation would be best in private.' I squeeze his arm. As he pushes past James into the kitchen, I roll my eyes. Boys.

Running his fingers through his hair, James takes a few awkward steps towards me and perches on the arm of a nearby chair. 'Look, I'm sorry.'

'You sound it,' I jibe, even though I know sarcasm won't help the situation.

'I am, okay?' he mutters, annoyance creeping into his tone. 'Sorry that we judged you. I didn't think you'd care. It ain't my fault that you took it so badly.'

I bristle. 'What the hell do you mean you didn't think I'd care?' For the first time since he had come onto the deck, James raises his eyes to meet mine.

'I just wasn't aware that cheer bimbos had feelings,' he drawls, 'just a tan, a credit card and the self-indulgent belief that looking good gives them the right to walk all over people.'

'Don't drag your baggage into my life, James,' I snap. 'It isn't my fault that you've had a problem with people in the past. Not that I can blame them. You do realise you're not a ray of sunshine?'

'Wow. Who knew you could crack?' he says in astonishment, a smile turning up his lips. The bastard.

'Plus, I'm British. We don't have cheerleaders. God, could you be any more stereotypical?'

'Is it stereotypical when it's right?'

'This is the worst bloody apology I have ever heard.'

'Now now, Betty. Claws away,' he laughs.

I stand up, my breath now coming in shallow breaths. 'If you can't be contrite for you and your awful girlfriend, then I don't want to speak to you. In fact, I can't even bear to look at your smug, supercilious face.' I know that my voice has taken on a lofty tone, so I play up to it, turning on my heels and lifting my chin up high.

'Contrite? Supercilious? Jesus, Betty. What have you been reading? The Dictionary?' There's a note of genuine respect in his low, gravelly voice.

'No, Whittingham. Just the 20 books on our AP English reading list.'

A look of surprise registers on his face. Then, with no warning, he lets out a bark of laughter. The action completely changes his face, and for the first time, I can see some of Lucille and TJ's warmth and charm in his features. He looks back to me, his eyes shining as bright as the broad smile. It's the first smile I've seen from him that isn't reptilian, and it brings out deep dimples that do something strange to my stomach.

'Ok. Let me start this apology again.'

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