Second Best

by Charmaine Pauls

The first time that Molly sees Malcolm is in Oudtshoorn, South Africa in 1978, when he jumps from the back of an army truck to challenge her through the school yard fence. Little did she know then, when she boldly gave him the middle finger, how their lives would become intertwined.

Surviving the secret horrors of an industrial school, juvenile delinquent Molly van Aswegen grows into a tough and troubled woman who has sworn never to love anyone enough to be vulnerable. When Malcolm McLeod, rebel journalist and soldier, comes home from the Angolan border war to save Molly from her institution, he starts fighting a different war altogether—the battle for both of their souls.

Molly's fight for survival and Malcolm's moral struggle will expose them as anti-conformists, at risk of being branded and outcast from society during a politically turbulent time when South Africa is in the midst of a twenty-three year long war.

Second Best is a tender story about the scars of the human soul, and the road that leads to healing.


NABE Pinnacle Award 

"Second Best" was awarded the NABE Pinnacle Book Achievement Award in the summer of 2014.


Chapter One

The smell of burning human flesh was unmistakable. He knew it from his days in the army, when men were torched during the Angolan war. Instinct took over. Two steps brought him to the sofa. Slowly, he reached for the hand that held the candle and wrapped his fingers around her wrist.

“Easy, Molly.” He moved her hand, clutched around the candle, away from her scorching skin and extinguished the flame between his thumb and forefinger.

He wordlessly commanded her, moving her arm this way and that, his head bent low to study her injury. He did not allow emotions to affect him. Not yet. Reason kept him calm as he let go of her to walk to the end of the room that served as a kitchen, his metal pointed boots sounding angry on the wooden floor. He found a dishcloth and filled it with ice cubes from the freezer. His actions were economical, efficient. He crossed the floor and knelt down in front of her to press the ice on her red skin.

Only then did he lift his eyes to meet hers and allow his feelings to surface. “Damn, Molly.” Sighing, he sat down next to her and hugged her to him.

They sat like that for a second before she pulled away.

“Do you have ibuprofen?” he said.

She shook her head.

“You’re going to need some. I’m going to the emergency pharmacy.”

“I won’t need any.”

Instead of arguing, his lips set in a determined line as he fixed her with a brooding stare. If she hadn’t known him better, she would have found him terrifying. The darker skin tone under his eyes gave them a demonic look. An olive skin tainted with stubble, a square jaw and straight nose contributed to his wild appearance. But it was the waves of emotions that couldn’t be named or described, drifting in and out of his dark irises that had people most on guard. If it weren’t for the long lashes softening his features, he would have looked like the devil himself. Malcolm wasn’t a man to be crossed. Although, he did allow her to defy him more often than not. This time, he turned and left.

* * * *

When Molly woke up, she smelled cigarette smoke. Her wrist ached. Ignoring the pain, she padded barefoot to the backdoor where Malcolm stood on the landing in the drizzle, staring into the distance. The end of his cigarette burned red as he inhaled. A pharmacy bag lay on the counter. She leaned against the doorframe.

“How’s your arm?” he said without turning.

She shrugged. The night was fresh from the summer rain and her skin broke out in goose bumps under the thin T-shirt and denim shorts.

As if sensing her tightening flesh, he flicked his butt into the yard and removed his coat. He turned and held it to her. “Here.”

She shook her head and hugged herself.

“Then come back inside.” He walked past her and stood waiting, a silent command for her to follow.

Once she had obliged, he threw the coat onto a chair and inspected the contents of the fridge. Molly watched as he prepared a sandwich and a cup of tea, which he handed her with two painkillers. She swallowed the pills dry, but took the cup anyway. It warmed her hands.

“I suppose you’re here for the next chapter,” she said.

He didn’t answer. His gaze was focused on her face for so long that her fingers involuntary lifted to her scar. Seeing his expression change, she dropped her hand to tug a few stray wheat-blonde strands behind her ear.

He cupped her head. “What happened, Molly?”

“Don’t you want to hear the next chapter of my life?”

“I didn’t come here for that.” He twisted a wisp of hair around his finger.

She stepped back and saw his expression darken as he watched the lock slip from his grasp.

“Why are you here?”

“I was at the club. Thought I’d come and see why you weren’t.” His voice softened. “What happened?”

She turned away to stare at a window. “He fired me,” she finally said.

“It’s not your fault.”

Her laugh sounded tinny to her own ears. “How do you know?”

“I know you.”

She spun around, desperation creeping into her voice as she said, “I can’t go back, Mal. If they find out I’m without a job, so soon, they’ll take me back in.”

“I know.”

She picked up his coat and pulled it on with jerky movements. “You’re here now. Do you want the story or not?”

“No. Not tonight.”

“I want to do this.” She recognized the look in his eyes when he advanced slowly, stopping short of her. It said that he knew what she was trying to do, and he would let her. Those knowledgeable eyes held hers as he leaned over and slipped his hand into the pocket of the coat. Inside the intimacy of the leather pouch, his fingers felt for an object, and brushed her thigh through the leather as it closed around what he was looking for. She held her breath. He saw that too. The comprehension contracted his pupils, a flickering movement as slight as a whisper, as he withdrew a hand-size tape recorder. When she moved away, defying her reaction to him, he played along. He flashed her an indulgent smile and put more space between them. He placed the recorder on the table and switched it on.

Second Best by Charmaine Pauls


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Contemporary Romance

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