Exhale by Sophia Soames
I felt physically sick. Well, that feeling was nothing new since I felt sick every morning when I woke up and realised that I was still me, and that I once again lived in my childhood room in my mum’s house in Thorpeton Green, a small borough on the outskirts of London. Moving back in with my mum and going back to school was a totally ridiculous situation, since I was twenty-three and too old for all this shit. Yet starting over like this was nothing; I shouldn’t be feeling remotely nervous about it. My first day of college should be a total non-event compared to some of the things I’d so effortlessly lived through before—thrived on even. The attention, the people, the bright lights and careless fun. But it was like I’d done all those things in a different life where I was a different person—not the terrified kid who was walking around trying to find Lecture Hall B at West London Community College.
The building was all concrete hallways and colourful doors with names cleverly plucked from the locality—names that had been the foundation of my childhood growing up in the leafy suburbs of London, the spoilt, only child of perfectly amicably divorced parents.
I was back home, where I belonged. Even my mum had said that, holding me tight as she had pushed a lunch box into my shellshocked hands. I wasn’t a kid anymore. I was a grown-up, and I was trying to rebuild what had once been the life of Ryan Aspinall. Ryan Aspinall, the promising footballer and A-grade student with a handful of A-levels and opportunities galore. The nineteen-year-old Ryan had followed none of those paths; he’d followed a guy called Henry to New York and built some kind of pseudo-life, which had come crashing down on him in a spectacular fashion six weeks before his twenty-third birthday.
I had survived the birthday, crying into a glass of milk while my mother stroked my hair and my dad sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me over the phone. I had dragged myself through Christmas, mostly sleeping and crying. I had cracked the screen on my phone slamming it into the wall when Henry’s number had appeared on the screen. I wasn’t buying a new one or getting it fixed. The splinter on the screen was a reminder to me every day that my life was broken. I was broken. Everything was bloody shattered, and I didn’t know how to fix any of it.
It was now January, and my body was still not my own. My mind was a delicate place where I was constantly walking a tightrope between crying my eyes out and angry defiance. I hated Henry. I hated him with a passion I could barely understand. At the same time, I loved him so passionately that my whole body would squirm into a curled-up ball on the pavement just thinking about him. His face. His chiselled face. His beautiful eyes that no longer looked at me in awe and wonder.
He didn’t love me anymore. He wasn’t even attracted to me. He didn’t like the person I had become, and I couldn’t say I blamed him. I didn’t care much for the person he had become either, but we had been a unit for so long, I had simply forgotten who I was supposed to be when I had to stand on my own two feet.
My name is Ryan Aspinall, and I am a student.Just the thought in my head made me cackle. I wanted to cry. I hadn’t been Ryan for years, not even to Henry. He had always called me Joey, and I had called him Roo because he used to carry me around our flat like I was an overgrown baby kangaroo. He would hold me, carrying me in his arms whenever I felt low. He used to hug me, and I would cling to him until I felt better. “My little Joey,” he would soothe, stroking my back and kissing my temples, whispering that he loved me. He had always loved me.
Until he didn’t love me enough to stay and had cancelled the lease on our Manhattan condo and told me I had six weeks to move out. He had left the same day and moved in with an Instagram twink with 150K followers and an exclusive deal with OnlyFans. There had been no big argument. No major discovery of cheating or hidden agendas. No guy on the side. We had been open, anyway, right from the start. We had always been solid, and we had loved each other. I knew that. But deep down, I’d also known that he would leave one day, with or without me, because the life we’d lived had not been sustainable. One day, we would grow old, and things would have to change, but I had carelessly and naively stuck my head in the sand and decided that for now, he loved me enough to stay. He had loved me more fiercely than anything else in the world. He had been my pride and joy, heart and soul. The man who had dragged me halfway around the world and given me a life I could only have dreamt of. A lifetime, it felt like now, when I thought back on the things we had done.
I could have stayed. I could have rebuilt. I could have asked my agent to find me a flat, one I could easily afford. Instead, I’d packed my bags and fled, hauling myself on the first flight back to London with my heart in pieces and my agent screaming down the phone. Well, that was a lie. My agent had put my arse on that plane, threatening me with all sorts if I didn’t get out of her goddamn sight, and I had willingly gone, my head raging with the insanity that came with heartbreak and despair.
I didn’t want to be me anymore. I didn’t want to face the world. I didn’t want to have to explain things to the 300K followers that dogged my Instagram account. I wanted to shut down my tipping account and my Amazon gift list and delete every damn file bearing my name on the whole goddamn internet.
I was ashamed. For the first time in my life, I had found shame, and it had bloody destroyed me.
At least, it had destroyed whoever Joey had been. Now I was back being Ryan, and Ryan would have to lead a different life. I’d decided that the day I finally unpacked my bags, dug out my passport and threw it into the back of a drawer. I would be normal now. Stay at home. Study. Get myself an education. Forget I had ever been someone called Joey. Joey Hole. I squirmed at the thought. The name had never been my choice, a stupid joke that had somehow stuck. A prime sales pitch that had taken off like a song people couldn’t get out of their heads. A suitable name for someone like me. A slut who would do anything. Well, almost.
I would do anything to have my old life back now, wandering through a building that smelled of dust and fear. I had looked at medical careers. I had thought about teaching—solid good employment and work that would make me feel useful—but I had been late with my application to every damn course that sounded like something I could do.
In the end, the careers advisor from the local college had called me to say she had one place left on a one-year course to become a personal trainer. I had laughed out loud because with my skinny frame and non-existent workout routine, I would be a complete fraud trying to get other people fit. I couldn’t do it, and I had told her so, only for her to laugh back at me and launch into her spiel about how the course had elements of nutrition, first aid and some interesting psychological aspects to consider. Taking this course would give me goals for the future, she said. The industry was booming; with a degree in personal training as a backbone, and perhaps an additional business management degree, the world of personal fitness would be my oyster.
The world had already been my oyster. This grey building with its worn-out laminate flooring and out-of-date flyers on the walls, advertising last year’s Christmas parties and some New Year’s Eve ball? This world was a defrosted prawn at its best, and one likely to give you E. coli or worse. This was no oyster. This was me completely out of place. This was me being a fraud.
I felt like I was fighting the universe, steering my life onto some ill-thought-out sidetrack that would lead head first into failure. I scrolled on my phone to see when the next flight to New York left Heathrow. I could make it onto the two o’clock flight and be in Manhattan by the time the sun rose over the skyline. I could check into a hotel and call for a takeout. I could be back on set, watching my bank balance rise, reclaiming my place in the spotlight within days.
But I couldn’t go through with it.
Finally locating Lecture Hall B, I stumbled through the doors and glanced around the sullen people wearing scarves and grim January expressions. They were a mix of ages and genders, some older, others looking like they should still be at school. There were the obvious fitness freaks, with muscles and hoodies and ‘health nut’ screaming from their protein shake beakers and water bottles neatly lined up in front of them. Others, like the girl at the front, with her black hair neatly tucked into a perfect bun, looked like she belonged here as little as I did.
“Inez,” she said as I tentatively took the seat next to her, nodding almost apologetically as I shook her hand. Her skin was cold, but her smile was warm. I sat, shivering as I took my jacket off. I wasn’t used to the cold hitting my skin. I wasn’t used to being me, again.
“Ry…Ryan,” I replied, fishing a pen out of my bag as my laptop slid to the floor with an almighty crash.
I was nervous. Nervous and unprepared. Yet I laughed, looking around the room, even as my hands trembled.
“Why personal fitness?” Inez asked, grabbing a pair of glasses and putting them neatly on her perfect little nose. She stared at me like this was an interrogation. Or a job interview perhaps?
“Didn’t have enough credits to get into nursing. Also, I was late with my application.”
She nodded. “I’ve been training since I was twelve. Two times UK Kettlebell champion. Need to make some kind of career out of this, otherwise my dad will make me retrain as a pharmacist. The only decent way forward, apparently. So, I have one year to prove I can get myself a job from ‘playing with metal balls’, as he so elegantly describes it.”
“Could be worse.” I laughed again, stopping myself in time to not blurt out some crap joke about having already tried that…making a career from playing with balls. I wasn’t Joey anymore. I was someone else. I just hadn’t quite figured out who Ryan Aspinall was this time around. Football was out of the question: my training had completely gone out the window. I didn’t have the stamina or strength to run as I used to, and my skills… Well, I hadn’t been that good to start with, despite playing on the junior team all through school. I had dreamt of greatness, and it had truly found me. It had been good—really good—for longer than most people in the social media business.
“I also need to get myself a boyfriend,” Inez added. “Before my mum starts talking about finding me a nice boy to marry. ‘Someone who will share my goals and ambitions, so I can make my family proud’. I do want kids, though. But I also want a career.”
“Cool.” I didn’t want a boyfriend. I didn’t want a career. I wanted to figure out how to survive heartbreak. I wanted to learn how to live. I needed to know how to wake up in the morning without feeling that life was about to implode on me. I didn’t tell Inez any of this. I pretended to be busy and took notes on the notepad next to me, even though the rest of the room all seemed to use their laptops. Mine still lay on the floor.
I sat through introductions and schedules, walkarounds and teambuilding exercises that made me squirm. I wasn’t a child anymore, and the expectations to be enthusiastic about the free gym and exam boards were suddenly overwhelming.
I felt like I was drowning in fog, surrounded by people I couldn’t see. I replied when spoken to but couldn’t form my own words. I smiled and shook hands with people whose names I couldn’t remember. I ate my lunch alone on a bench. I could function better when it was just me. When there was no one in my space. When there didn’t seem to be so little oxygen left to breathe.
I went home to my bed, the one that smelled of nothing at all. I cried. This was a life I hadn’t wanted in the first place. This was the life I had left all those years ago, and yet here I was, starting over. I was walking in those very footsteps I had left behind, and I felt like a failure.
I was a failure. A failure through and through. I had tried to see the light through the darkness, but there was no light there anymore. I wasn’t excited about the future. I was drained.
I threw my phone on the floor, fielding another call from my agent in New York. She wasn’t happy with me, sending me text after text begging me to return her calls. She made empty threats. She proffered ideas. She tried to bribe me with a couple more weeks away before I had to come back. Award season was coming up and we needed to talk nominations. I didn’t give a fuck anymore.
She told me she had changed my password on Instagram, so I couldn’t post any more ridiculous crap.
I couldn’t even figure out something snarky to text back.
Instead, I fell asleep still wearing my clothes. I didn’t set an alarm; I barely slept anyway. All I could do was let myself drift until the darkness and pain woke me up, and another day began.
Finn Christensen doesn’t do feelings. He doesn’t do relationships. When he has an itch to scratch, there are always clubs and hook-ups. Quick, dirty encounters in dark places that feed the need that brews in the pit in his stomach. He works every hour of the day as the front office manager for the Clouds Westminster Hotel in central London. He’s a good boss, and he knows his shit.
Then Mark Quinton swans in like he owns the bloody place, and Finn’s carefully managed world starts to fall apart.
Mark Quinton is impulsive and stupid and childish. He’s the last person in the world who should be allowed to run the food and beverage department at the Clouds Westminster, however many brilliant ideas he has and somehow miraculously pulls off. He needs…something. He needs Finn Christensen.
It’s a match made in hell. A recipe for disaster. There will be a bloodbath one day. They both know that. Everyone knows.
* * *
The prologue contains a scene with a slight non-con undertone, which is explored and explained later on. This story also features brief off page mentions of domestic violence, depression, kleptomania, ADHD and culinary crimes involving cheese. HEA.
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The Scandinavian Comfort Series
In this Bed of Snowflakes We Lie
The Naked Cleaner
The Chistleworth series
Custard and Kisses
Ship of Fools
This Thing with Charlie
The London Love Series
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