She pulled away from him, her anger rearing up like a riderless horse. ‘How would you know? You weren’t there?’
‘No, I wasn’t,’ he agreed. ‘But there was an inquest. People must have looked into what happened—’
‘Other people who weren’t there either.’ The skin was taut across her cheekbones. ‘They don’t know what happened. What I did.’ Her face contracted.
‘Then tell me.’ He looked at her, waiting. ‘Tell me what you did.’
The anger that had flared up so fiercely flickered and died. ‘I made my dad fly that night. He was tired, and he said it was too late, but I made a huge fuss about getting home because I wanted to go to some stupid party. I knew he didn’t want to fly, but I made him—’
The despair in her eyes made his skin sting. This was more than just grief, and the crash had robbed her of more than just her family. It had taken away her trust. Not just that childlike faith shared by everyone that nothing bad could happen to good people, but faith in herself, in the person she’d thought she was.
Shaking his head, he kept his voice gentle but firm. ‘Your dad was the pilot, Frankie. And he decided to fly. It was his decision. Not your mum’s. Not yours. His.’
‘So what are you saying? That it was his fault?’
The anger was back and he caught her wrists again.
‘It was nobody’s fault. Including yours. But you want it to be. Because your guilt is a way of holding on to the people you’ve lost.’ She stared up at him mutely and, loosening his grip, he reached up and stroked her cheek. ‘Or you think it is. But you end up losing them anyway, because you can’t bear thinking about them, talking about them.’
She took a small shuddering breath and, watching her press her hand against her mouth, he felt his throat constrict. But he carried on relentlessly.
‘And I know that’s not what you want. But if you want to remember them you have to accept that what happened wasn’t some sort of cosmic quid pro quo. They didn’t die so you could live. You have to accept that and forgive yourself for not dying.’
Her small, white upturned face was like one of the anemones that grew beneath the walls of his kitchen garden.
‘I don’t know how,’ she whispered.
‘But I do, sweetheart. Trust me.’ His fingers tightened around hers. ‘You do trust me, don’t you, Frankie?’
‘Yes,’ she whispered. ‘I do.’
‘Then you’ve taken the first step.’
Her face dissolved into tears and, wordlessly, Arlo pulled her against his body, his own eyes burning, his whole being focused on the aim of making the infinite expanse of her grief measurable.
Stroking her hair, he talked soothingly, and finally she breathed out shakily.
‘I’m sorry. I always seem to be crying all over you.’
‘You need to cry.’ Lifting her chin, he kissed her softly on the lips. ‘And I have plenty of shirts.’
She folded her body against his trustingly and he tensed inside. He had asked her to trust him, but why? He didn’t want her trust. He didn’t need that burden. He knew he should move, only his hand kept caressing her hair, and he could feel her soft warmth taking him to a place where cynicism and loneliness didn’t play any part.
But even if that place existed it was not for him, and he lifted his hand as she tilted her head back to look at him.
‘You’d better go and change, then, before we go down to lunch,’ she said, her fingers lightly touching the front of his shirt. ‘I seem to have covered this one in mascara.’
‘Are you sure you want to stay?’
The shaky smile that accompanied her nod was something he couldn’t bear to look at, and he pulled her closer.
‘You’re not responsible for what happened. No one is. Life is cruel and random, but you’re not alone. I meant what I said. I’m here.’
Not for ever, of course. But that was a given. They both knew what this was, and how it would end. And it would end...
TAKING A STEP back from the mirror, Frankie held a breath, her eyes meeting her reflection with silent satisfaction.