T H E C O F F .

chapter o n e


My face still hot, I slipped from the cool of the house into the bright morning sunlight. The sun seemed far more powerful than usual as it peeked over the tops of the trees, bathing their entire corner of the world in a golden glow. I imagined my mother gathering the eggs in the chicken coop in just a couple of minutes, and at the edge of the clearing, I nearly stopped and turned back, tempted to wait until she came out. I could say goodbye, then. But then I imagined her face as it fell, finally realizing the brown pack I had flung over my shoulder just minutes before. She would be sad at first, but then anger would take over. That seemed to happen quite a bit in my house. She would grab my backpack and toss it to the ground, and then take hold of my arm roughly and haul me back into the house, where she would reveal my plans to my father. She would regret doing it a week later, bringing me food in my room and seeing my pale, sun-starved face. But I'd lose whatever morsel of my parent's trust I'd ever had to begin with.

And so I trudged on, refusing to look back, even when I knew I could do it safely, for our house was hidden behind the dense trees behind me.

My mother was a woman of second chances. She was full of them for my father, and not so stocked when it came to me. She was still in love with him; anybody who could see her face when she looked at him would know without a doubt. Even after nineteen years of marriage, she had managed to conserve their relationship. The reason I say she is because he has never had anything to do with it.

Quarrels in my house went like this: my father would do something wrong, something that I would never let slide when it comes to even a friend, and certainly not a husband. He would stand an average of eight seconds of my mother's wrath—which shouldn't even be described as wrath to begin with—and then she would forgive him. And all would be well again. I'm always disgusted at how easily she forgives him, and even forgets the mistakes he's made, even when he makes them over and over again. My mother tells me that this is what a relationship needs; room to make mistakes, knowing that you will be forgiven in the end. But I know she's so very wrong. My father simply takes advantage of her compassionate servant's heart, and deep down, I think she knows it.

I, on the other hand, can't stand my father. I don't love him, as cruel as that sounds. I don't know how she can love such a selfish, disgusting man. He treats the both of us like dirt; I'm the only one in the family, apparently, who realizes it. I also happen to be the most problem-causing daughter in the village because of the fact that I don't stand for it. I'm sure he's told all of the other men that I am horrible and he has no idea how he could have raised such a monster for a daughter. And they believe him, because they have no idea how it is once our front door gets closed in the evening.

They know how he is, but I'm sure they can't imagine him treating such a lovely wife in a bad way. And they can't fathom that the reason I'm known as such a troublemaker is because of how he treats me.

"Where are you going?" the thick Irish brogue came out of nowhere. I immediately recognized it, as well as the hand on my hair, tugging the loose braid my trembling fingers had assembled my strands of hair into.

Jude McLaughlin is the only one who knows just how it is with me and my family. But I knew that he probably wouldn't understand why I was doing what I was doing, and so when he found me in the woods, I kept walking.

" Afton Campbell. What are you doing?" his voice sounded suspicious now.

"Walking," I replied sarcastically, shortly, if only to say something so that I wouldn't have to explain myself, so that I wouldn't have to show him that my voice was quivering. I was so tempted to stop and talk to him. I wanted to tell him all about my father. He would understand, but even so, he would take me home. Jude is the kind of man that always does the right thing, whether or not it's something that he actually wants to do or enjoys doing.

An exasperated sigh came from behind me, and his footsteps quickened to keep up with me. He'd obviously paused, thinking I would do the same. But I hadn't, and that most likely concerned him, considering most of the time I did anything he asked. "Well, can I at least join you?"

I stopped.

He had to grind his feet into the bark and leaves underneath him in order to come to a halt as well.

"I'd prefer it if you didn't, actually," I said, wincing as I noticed I'd let a slight quiver make its way into my diction.

You can't possibly imagine what I was feeling at this moment in time. I'd laid awake most of the night, not caring about my parents but thinking about Jude. I had no problem leaving my parents, but it was facing even the idea of leaving him that was intimidating. How would I get along without his advice, his comfort, his warm eyes looking down at me, his palm at the small of my back?

I slowly looked up at him, blinking languidly before meeting his eyes. I could see the tiny bit of hurt he was trying to hide behind a mask of confusion.

Without thinking, I quickly turned and threw my arms around him. "Jude," I said, my voice miserable, even to my own ears. I squeezed him tight, and he, after hesitating a moment, returned the tight hug. I knew he didn't understand. "I'll miss you so much."

Those words were the end of the hug. He pulled back suddenly, a frown on his face. Perhaps that was fear I saw in his gaze, fear and confusion. "What?" I could tell that his heart was beating fast by the pulse in his neck. I could see his blood racing in his veins.

I closed my eyes, fighting tears. "I'm sorry," I whispered, wishing he would just hug me again, tell me it was okay. But most of all, I just wanted to leave… and take him with me. "I just can't stay. I can't handle him anymore." I bit my lip, opening my eyes to see his reaction.

There was only sadness in his eyes as he stared at me, his shoulders slumped, as if he was surprised but had expected it all along. He'd known this was going to happen. There was nothing he could do about it. " Afton," he whispered, sadly. He shook his head. "I can't let you just… leave."

"Yes you can," I shot back. "You can pretend as if you didn't see me here at all. I'll walk away, and you can pretend that you don't know where I went at all. It won't be lying. You have no clue where I'm going."

"Do you?"

I raised my eyes to his at the unexpected, cunning question. As it were, I wish I did know where I was going. But when I packed my sack this morning, I honestly had no idea where I was headed. I was intent on going over the hills to the west and to the nearest city the signs indicated. There, I would buy some more food. And the rest was undecided from there. "It doesn't matter." I took a deep breath, and before I could chicken out of what I really wanted to do, I stood on my toes and pressed a kiss against the side of his cheek.

When I returned to my heels, I saw the surprise on his face. I also saw the way his gaze dropped to my lips, but I tried as hard as I could to ignore it. And then I whispered, in the smallest voice I had, "Goodbye, Jude." I'll miss you. I don't know how I'll ever live without you. I'm sorry.

And then, my feet moving, I felt my body turn, and I began to move in the direction I had been going before he stopped me. Raising a hand, I waved it in the air, not looking back. I knew that if I did, I would end up going back, staying home, just for him, even though it would mean that I'd be miserable. And then I brushed a stray hair from my face and trudged forward.

A relationship like ours is harder to understand than you'd think. I doubt I will be able to explain it—I honestly don't know if I even know what's between us—but I will try, for the sake of you knowing exactly how hard this was for me to do, just walk away like that. Jude and I have been friends since I was a little kid. We used to climb trees together, play princess and the pirate or whatever else caught our fancy, and get into various shenanigans together. My parents honestly didn't care who I played with; I doubt they ever really took note of the fact that Jude and I were basically best friends. They didn't really care, I don't think. But either way, Jude and I grew up together.

It became different as we grew up. We required dates in order to go to the gatherings in the village—that was the custom, something that all the other kids in the village enjoyed doing. However, that subjected everybody's relationships with their 'dates' to a lot of scrutiny. That was when both my family and his realized that we kept going to the get-togethers together, and we never varied our date choices or found anyone else to accompany us. It was strange, really, having my mother finally tell me that I needed to get around more, instead of just sticking to Jude McLaughlin like glue. I told her I didn't want to go with anyone else, and she said, "Well, then, how are you ever going to get married?"

The thought hadn't occurred to me. I only went to those gatherings with Jude as a friend. Everybody else considered them a chance to see which boys or girls they liked, but Jude and I took them as another opportunity to hang out. Sure, we had other friends, but it had never stuck me that perhaps the reason I never dated anyone else was because they didn't ask me – because they most likely thought that I was Jude's territory, even though our relationship was nothing like that.

Nonetheless, we realized we had to grow up. I went to dances and dinners with other boys, none of them whose company I enjoyed nearly as much as Jude's mostly because every time I suggested something mischievous, their little eyes would widen and they'd shake their head. Or become so appalled that the girl they thought was nice and proper actually had a rough side that they'd run off in the other direction. Jude dated other people, too, but sometime during the course of the evening or afternoon, our dates having deserted us or gone to talk with their friends, we'd meet up with each other and talk for awhile, as long as we possibly could before being pulled away again.

However, a young man and a young woman of increasing ages cannot simply remain with a relationship like this. It wasn't so much our decision for our relationship to change, but everyone else's; it was the way they talked about us, the way they teased and gossiped and talked with our parents. Our relationship had no choice but to change.

Sometimes I wondered whether the air between us was different as well. After that, we hardly saw each other, but whenever we did, our eyes would lock. Sometimes he'd send a wink in my direction just for good measure, and I would feel my stomach twist and pull. I began to enjoy those secret meetings we had out in the woods during gatherings, where we could sit and forget about the ongoing things around us and catch up with what was going on in each other's lives.

I could tell, though, that along with our relationship, our feelings for each other had changed as well. Both of us were just so hesitant about really changing things, and talking about the fact that we were doing just that. And so, we both simply remained confused but rather content on the subject.

So when he ran to catch up with me, spun me around by the shoulders, I really wasn't surprised. I had been really, truly hoping that he would. " Afton, spend the day with me at least."

I saw the way his eyes were pleading. He didn't even need to use those beautiful green orbs—I was already sold, and had been before he'd run and caught up with me. Actually, I had been about to turn back around and ask him, but now I was so glad he'd taken matters into his own hands. "I'll do that," I said, feigning slight reluctance. But the way we both smiled said that we'd both known that I'd say yes. Perhaps, knowing me as well as he did, he'd known that I'd wanted him to ask.

"C'mon. I know of the perfect place for this," he said, taking hold of my hand.

Right now I'd like to take a moment to describe Jude for you. I don't even know if you have an accurate idea of what his personality is like, so I doubt that you have an inkling when it comes to his looks. Jude's got ear-length shaggy brown hair, a somewhat large nose that isn't at all unattractive on him, and fairly thin lips. His green eyes can change shades sometimes, from light green to dark green, and all tones are equally appealing. He's rather skinny, but has got a good amount of muscle on him as well.

But his hands… well, his hands are my favorite. In fact, I think I've told him this numerous times, in the most 'friendly' way possible. You see, they're soft yet hard at the same time. They aren't like my father's hands, which are huge and dry and cracked and callused. My father's hands sometimes seem overly manly. Jude's hands have a few calluses that give way just enough—so that they aren't too firm yet aren't pudgy, either. They are warm to the touch, even when it's cold outside. I can't stand people with cold hands. They're big, but not huge, and they envelop mine in the most perfect manner.

I would almost say I have a crush on Jude's hands, never mind the guy himself. So when his fingers slipped in between mine, I couldn't help the broad grin that spread across my face. It was going to be a great last day here.

We jogged for awhile, and then slowed our pace to a slow meander. I was disappointed when he slid his hand from mine, but there was no excuse to hold it any longer anyway. He was walking by my side, guiding me that way instead of jogging ahead of me and tugging me along. Still, my hand felt dreadfully empty, and I couldn't help but wonder how it had possibly gotten along without him before. I tried to push one thought from my mind: the thought that after today, I might never get to feel his hands ever again, not in my whole entire life.

"I found this a couple of weeks ago," Jude was explaining to me, pushing strands of hair out of his eyes. He really did need a haircut, although I think we both would have denied the fact. He loved his hair long, and if I were honest with myself, I would have to admit that I loved it, too. I liked the way it curled around his ears, flipped out a bit at the neck. And more than anything, I wanted to touch it, perhaps even run my fingers through it, although the idea seemed positively scandalous… and impossible. Still I silently made a resolve to have reached that goal by the end of the day. I was breaking the worst rule I could possibly break by running away, why couldn't I break any of the other rules? I might as well.

We had trudged through the undergrowth for quite a long time, uphill. I had begun to wonder if we'd arrive at our destination at all that day, and I didn't want to do much unnecessary walking. I would be walking far more in the next couple of days, and last night's rest was probably the best sleep I'd get in the next few weeks. I didn't want to waste it all on a pointless journey to some less-than-impressive destination.

But when he tugged me into a slight clearing, I realized just why we had been hiking uphill for the better part of an hour, perhaps more than that. We'd gone far into the hills, which was the opposite direction that I'd wanted to go. However, one look at the place that we'd arrived at, and I knew it was well worth it. I looked at Jude in awe. "My gosh! This is beautiful!"

It was hard to believe that this place wasn't teeming with little children and midday picnickers. The trees echoed with the sound of hundreds of gallons of water pouring over the side of the cliff above us into the deep pool before my feet. It was a large pool, possibly the size of three or four of my cottages, and there were several smaller pools surrounding it, separated by tree trunks and plenty bark, leaves, and large quantities of moss.

"The river curves miles north from here before heading back down near the village. I would imagine that's why not very many people have found it—and if they have, it's most likely a well-kept secret. I certainly don't plan on telling anyone else."

For a short moment, I imagined him tugging on the hand of another woman, a beautiful smiling blonde with a curvaceous body and a low-hanging neckline, bouncing along behind him and giggling. I wiped the image from my mind, again determined to enjoy the day as much as I possibly could.

I nodded, and then immediately tossed off my shoes. As I skipped closer to the enormous pool, my feet sank into the moss that covered the banks. The water was cool, but felt good against my tanned feet. I'd begun to get hot, even in the shade of the trees, on the jog to reach the pool. I dipped my toes into the shallow cold water and shivered with excitement. It had been a long time since I'd gone swimming, and even then, it had been in the shallow waters of the river. I couldn't think of the last time I'd been able to actually immerse myself fully in water, and the idea thrilled me.

Jude grinned, winking at me from where he still stood on the dry ground. He had obviously heard my thoughts, for he slipped off his shoes as well and then stripped himself of his shirt. For a moment, I thought his pants would join it down near our shoes, but it didn't. The view was good enough for me. I studied him as he made his way over to me.

He stood there for a moment, looking down at me. Then he said, "Aren't you going to swim?" He nodded to the clothes that I was still wearing.

I thought about the breeches and simple undershirt that I was wearing underneath my clothes, and wondered whether it would be appropriate. But why do you care? I thought to myself. This is the last time you're going to see Jude. And nobody else is around. It's not like it's going to matter, even if there were. You'll be gone by tomorrow morning.

Smiling mischievously, I sloshed out of the water and over to where he'd just discarded his clothing. Then, I began to discard my own. I slipped the shirt over my head, revealing the flimsy white shirt underneath. I was glad for the camisole I wore beneath that. When I was down to my under-layers, I looked over at Jude to find him looking at me. His eyes twinkled, and I knew he'd been watching me the entire time. His face broke into a grin.

"Come on. I'll show you the best way to do it," he called over the rushing of the water as it pummeled the pool below it. He gestured with his head for me to follow him.

We made our way around the mossy banks of the pool, toward where the vines grew against the rocks that formed the cliff towering above us. He stopped as the ground began to turn into stone, sloping dangerously upward. Then, he began to climb. He'd take hold of a strong-looking vine and use it to support half of his weight as his fingers and toes found cracks in the stone.

"We're not going to climb this?" I asked, appalled. I wonder if he knew that I was mildly afraid of heights.

"You'll do fine," he said, not looking back at me. "I've climbed this several times."

"But I haven't!" I said, my voice transforming into the sort of whine I only dared use around Jude and my good friends. My father would most likely flinch and then double my chores for a week for taking that tone with him—and sounding like a wimp.

The thing is, my father's the sort of guy that has an ego that's overwhelming to everyone that knows just how much of one he has. He can't bear the thought that he only has one child who's a daughter and not a son, and a wife that has lost almost every child that they'd attempted to have since then. He hates that I'm a woman, and you can't imagine his fury whenever I stress that fact, whether it's intentionally or not. I try to be as manly as possible.

So when Jude twisted his head around just before taking another great leap to the next ledge his feet could find, I knew I had to do it. Plus, this was my last day here… I might as well take a few more risks, right?

For the next few minutes, I concentrated on watching every crack Jude slid his hands and feet into, every vine he used to support his weight, and on not looking down below me. I knew if I did, I would either fall or lose whatever breakfast I still had in my stomach. "I can't believe you're making me do this," I mumbled at one point during our ascent, my fingernails scraping against the rock as I fumbled for a handhold.

"I can't believe you're leaving me," he grumbled in return, and that was enough to keep me quiet. I tried not to let guilt overwhelm me as I followed him to the top of the cliff.

When he took my hand and pulled me over the edge of a small landing about three-quarters of the way up the waterfall, I took a deep breath and looked down in amazement. Below me, water hitting water created mist that formed a glorious rainbow against the sun. The water seemed a perfect sort of blue that you wouldn't normally find in river water. He'd been right; this was the perfect spot.

I looked over at him to find him gazing at me instead of the view. "How could you possibly have found this?" I gasped.

He simply shrugged. Then, he took my hand and led me to the edge of the landing. "The proper way to do this is…" he gestured downward.

My eyes widened. "You're kidding, right?"

"Nope," he said, a smug grin on his lips. When he saw the look of disbelief on my face, he added, "Do this for me. On the last day you're ever going to see me."

My lips fell, and his soon followed suit. I looked down at my feet, unsure of what to say to him. He wouldn't understand the misery I was when I was at home with my father. He made me feel so guilty… and guilt was certainly something I could not stand. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I was just creating more for myself, but at least now I wouldn't be a steady disappointment to my parents. This way, I didn't have to live with someone telling me, as if my own conscience was not enough to condemn me.

"Jude, I…" I said, quietly. I knew he probably couldn't hear me over the waterfall, but the general gist of what I was trying to say, without even saying it, was communicated.

He took hold of my hand and squeezed it gently. "Just jump with me, okay?" he said kindly. I looked him in the eye and saw only a tinge of sadness there, but mostly compassion. Perhaps he did understand. He, after all, was the only other person that knew everything about me. I had hoped that he, of all people, would know why I would make this decision.

Again, I couldn't deny him yet another request.

He gripped my hand tight and pulled me off the edge.