Making your mind up, p.13

Making Your Mind Up, page 13

 

Making Your Mind Up
 



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  Together they came clattering down the stairs, took their parcels, and said courteously, “Thank you, Mr. Klein.”

  “My pleasure.” Tyler looked as delighted as if he’d just won an Oscar. “And please, call me Tyler.”

  Lottie led them all into the living room and crossed her fingers behind her back as Ruby and Nat began tearing into the wrappings. This was all going so much better than she could have imagined a week ago; it was going to make so much of a difference to—

  Oh no.

  Oh God.

  “Of course I had no idea what to get for you,” Tyler was telling Ruby, “but there was this really helpful saleswoman and she said this would be just perfect.”

  Act, Lottie silently begged. Act like you’ve never acted before. She willed her thoughts to be transmitted to Ruby as her daughter gazed, seemingly frozen, at the Perspex case containing a rosy-cheeked china doll in ornate Victorian clothes.

  Some nine-year-old girls adored dolls, maybe some even liked the kind you kept in a Perspex case and couldn’t actually play with. The only dolls Ruby had ever shown the remotest interest in were the voodoo kind.

  “It’s lovely,” Ruby said bravely, her chin wobbling with the effort of concealing her disappointment. “Look, her eyes open and close when you tip her up. Thank you, Mr. Klein.”

  “Tyler,” said Tyler, blithely unaware that he couldn’t have chosen a worse present if he’d tried. “I’m glad you like it.”

  “She’s beautiful,” Lottie blurted out before an awkward silence had a chance to develop. “Look at her hair! And her shoes! Ruby, aren’t you lucky? Now, how’s Nat getting along?” Turning to her son who had been having more trouble with the expertly taped-down wrappings, she said brightly, “What have you got in there?”

  The last layer of paper tore open at last and Lottie’s heart plummeted into her boots.

  “Warhammer,” said Nat, his tone expressionless. “Thank you, Mr. Klein.”

  Warhammer. Oh God. Requiring superhoned concentration skills, nimble fingers, and endless patience—qualities poor Nat simply didn’t possess.

  “The saleswoman told me they sell truckloads of this stuff every week. All the kids are just wild about it,” Tyler announced with pride. “They spend hours gluing the little models together and painting them. She reckons that’ll keep you busy for weeks.”

  Nat really looked as if he might cry. Hurriedly Lottie said, “Isn’t that fantastic? You’ll love making all those little models, won’t you!”

  Nat nodded, stroking the lid of the box to demonstrate how much he loved it. In a small wavering voice he said, “Yes.”

  “Hi, I’m here.” The front door swung open and Mario announced his arrival. “Sorry I’m a bit late—Amber just rang. She’s having a great time and sends her love. Hey, what’s going on here?” In the doorway he halted at the sight of Nat and Ruby miserably clutching their presents. “I didn’t know it was Christmas.”

  “It’s not.” Abandoning her present, Ruby ran into his arms. “Daddy, can we climb trees tonight?”

  “And hunt for snakes?” begged Nat.

  “Right, we’ll be off.” Eager to get away while the going was good, Lottie grabbed and kissed each of them in turn. “Have a great time.”

  “You too,” Mario said with a wink. “Don’t be late.”

  Terrified that he might add, “And if you can’t be good, be careful,” or something equally crass, Lottie rushed Tyler out of the house.

  * * *

  It was a great evening. The smart restaurant in Painswick had been an inspired choice. Over dinner, Lottie got to know Tyler better and was liking him more and more. Considering how shamefully out of practice she was on the dating front, she hadn’t even felt nervous once.

  By eleven o’clock they were heading back into Hestacombe. Nat and Ruby would be fast asleep, Mario could leave, and she could invite Tyler in for coffee.

  Just coffee, nothing else. He was her new boss, and she didn’t want him to think she was slutty. Well, maybe a kiss wouldn’t hurt, but definitely no more than that.

  Then the front door burst open, spilling light and children into the yard, and that was the end of that idea. Just as well she hadn’t been planning anything slutty, Lottie thought with a rueful smile. If it was a natural contraceptive you were after, you couldn’t do better than Ruby and Nat.

  She glanced apologetically at Tyler. “They’re supposed to be asleep.”

  “No problem. They’re looking pretty pleased with themselves,” he observed indulgently. “Maybe they’ve been painting the Warhammer models and want to show me what they’ve done.”

  Hmm, and maybe their new favorite food was mustard and sprouts.

  Jumping out of the car, Lottie said, “It’s late! Why aren’t you two in bed?”

  “Dad said we didn’t have to because we don’t go back to school until next week. We had the best time tonight,” Nat gabbled, throwing his arms around her waist and kangarooing up and down in his excitement. “Mum, guess what happened? You’ll never guess!”

  Lottie loved it so much when he was overcome with enthusiasm that she couldn’t be cross with Mario for letting them stay up. “You’d better tell me then.”

  “No, guess!”

  “You brushed your teeth without being asked?”

  Nat looked incredulous. “No!”

  “OK, I give up.” As Nat attempted to drag her into the cottage—it was like being hauled along by a small determined tractor—Lottie called over her shoulder to Tyler, “Coming in for a bit?” Oops, that didn’t sound quite right. “I mean, for a coffee?”

  “Just try to stop me.” He locked the car and followed them up the path. “I want to know what’s happened.”

  “Two things,” Ruby joyfully cut in, squeezing Lottie’s other arm. “Two things happened tonight!”

  “My God, could life get any more exciting?” Bundling both children ahead of her into the cottage, Lottie whispered, “Sorry about this.”

  “Don’t be sorry.” Tyler’s dark eyes met hers. “I’m enjoying myself. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

  “Right,” Nat announced importantly when they were in the living room. “The phone rang and Daddy picked it up and they said it was an overseas call from America.”

  “Heavens.” Lottie looked at Mario on the sofa.

  “And then Daddy gave the phone to me and said someone special wanted to speak to me, so I took the phone and said hello and this man said, ‘Hi there, little fella, am I speaking to Nat Carlyle?’ and his voice was quite funny, like not really proper English, and I said, ‘Yes, what do you want?’”

  Lottie raised her eyebrows at Mario, who shrugged.

  “And then he said, ‘Do you know who I am, little fella?’ and I said, ‘You sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger.’” Almost bursting with exultation Nat exclaimed, “And he said, ‘Ho ho ho, well, that is very lucky because I am Arnold Schwarzenegger.’ And it was him!” Barely able to contain his glee, Nat had gone quite pink. “And I said, ‘How did you know my phone number?’ and he said, ‘Well, Nat, I had an email passed on to me by my personal private secretary, from someone who wrote to tell me about how you lost your blankie and saying how upset you were, and that maybe a call from me might cheer you up and make you feel a bit better.’”

  “Wow, that’s…unbelievable.” Lottie checked Mario again for giveaway signs. Mario shook his head.

  “And it really was him”—Ruby nodded vigorously—“because I listened as well. It was definitely his voice, just exactly like in his films!”

  Who else had been aware of the fib she’d told Nat about Arnold Schwarzenegger? In disbelief, Lottie turned her gaze on Tyler, beside her. Had he persuaded a soundalike to give Nat a call? Or—OK, she knew this was unthinkable—had he really arranged for Arnold to do it, as a way of making up for causing all the upset i
n the first place?

  There was a hint of a smile around Tyler’s mouth. Good grief, he’d just come back from America, he moved in well-connected circles—did he actually know Arnold Schwarzenegger? When you came to think about it, he was just the kind of person who would.

  “Did you organize this?” gasped Lottie, overcome with admiration and gratitude.

  “Shhh, don’t interrupt.” Refusing to look at her, Tyler nodded at Nat. “He hasn’t finished yet. Carry on, Nat. What did he say next?”

  Nat took another deep breath, ready to start again. Ask him to learn his four times table and you’d still be there at Christmas, but when it came to remembering something relevant it was a different matter; along with endless episodes of The Simpsons, Nat was able to recall every word of the phone conversation verbatim.

  Proudly he announced, “He said he knew just how I felt because when he was a boy he had a blankie, and when he was seven a cruel man threw it away and that was it—he never saw his blankie again. He said, ‘Oh, Nat, if you knew how much it hurt me. I loved my blankie so much. I cried every night, wondering where my blankie was. Then one day I thought no, I must be a brave boy, strong and powerful like Superman, and I must learn to live without my blankie, and I must grow big and build up my muscles so that nobody can ever take anything away from me again.’” His eyes shining, Nat said, “Then he told me that I had to be brave and strong too and made me promise I would and not cry anymore either. So I promised him, and then he said he was very busy and had to go, and then he said good-bye and put the phone down.”

  “Well.” Flabbergasted and impressed—whether Tyler had arranged for Arnie himself or a talented soundalike to make the call scarcely mattered—Lottie swung Nat up into her arms and showered him with kisses. “That is fantastic. You are such a lucky boy, do you realize that? Fancy getting a phone call from Arnold Schwarzenegger!”

  “I know,” Nat said ecstatically. “And he knows my name!”

  Over the top of Nat’s tousled head, Lottie looked at Tyler and silently conveyed her gratitude. What a thoughtful thing to have done. They exchanged a secret smile, and she felt her heart expand like a balloon. This was the kind of man she could fall in—

  “Mum, that’s not the only thing that happened!” Ruby was tugging at her arm now, demanding her share of the attention. “There’s something else!”

  Chapter 21

  “What else, darling?” Beaming happily, Lottie stroked her excited daughter’s cheek. God, it could be anything. Had Tyler arranged for Beyoncé to drop by this evening? Was Orlando Bloom waiting outside in the backyard?

  “It’s another surprise,” Ruby gabbled, “in the kitchen.”

  Oh, wouldn’t that be lovely, Orlando Bloom in the kitchen. Better still, Orlando Bloom doing the dishes. “I can’t stand the suspense,” exclaimed Lottie. “So are you going to show me or—”

  “Jesus Christ!” shouted Tyler, his leg kicking out. Startled, Lottie blinked and saw something dark whip past her field of vision. Before anyone could move, the object hit the opposite wall with a noise between a slap and a thud. Faster than the speed of light, Tyler reached out and grabbed Ruby and Nat, pushing them toward the door. “OK, kids, get out of here. Close the door and run upstairs.”

  “What is it?” shouted Lottie, because whatever it was had slid down the wall and disappeared behind the bookcase.

  “Oh fuck.” Mario sighed, raking his fingers through his hair and heading toward the bookcase.

  “Daddy, Daddy, was that Bernard?” Ducking back under Tyler’s arm, Ruby’s voice reverberated with fear. Having rushed over to join Mario, she began furiously hurling books willy-nilly from the shelves. “Bernard, where are you? It’s all right, you can come out now.”

  “I don’t believe this,” muttered Tyler. Lottie saw that he was pale beneath his tan.

  Bewildered, but with an ominous sense of foreboding, Lottie said, “Who’s Bernard?”

  “My surprise.” Ruby was too busy burrowing through the bookcase to look up. “I was just going to show you him. We found him in the woods tonight, and Dad said I could keep him… Oh, why hasn’t he come out? Bernard, where are you? It’s OK, don’t be scared.”

  “Will somebody please tell me who Bernard is?” Lottie demanded.

  “A snake.” Tyler shook his head. “I felt something on my foot, and when I looked down I saw a snake. Kicking out like that was a reflex; I just had to get it away from me. When I was growing up we spent a lot of time in Wyoming—if you get bitten by a rattler you can die.”

  “We don’t have rattlers here,” Mario said evenly. “Bernard’s a slowworm. Slowworms are harmless,” he went on. “They don’t bite. In fact, they’re not even snakes; they’re legless lizards that live in—ah.”

  Lottie didn’t need to ask what that ah meant. She knew. In disbelief she clutched Nat to her side as Mario reached behind the lowest shelf of the bookcase and slowly withdrew Bernard. The slowworm, seaweed brown and twenty inches long, was clearly dead. Kneeling on the floor next to her father, tears sprang into Ruby’s dark eyes and a cry of anguish escaped her lips. She reached for Bernard and cradled his limp body in her lap.

  “Oh shit,” murmured Tyler, ashen now. “Not again.”

  Lottie couldn’t bear it. Just when she’d thought everything was going to be all right, something else had to happen. Was she jinxed or what?

  “Look, I’m sorry.” Tyler heaved a sigh. “But when I looked down I wasn’t expecting to see a snake on my foot.”

  “He shouldn’t have been on your foot,” Lottie declared. “He was supposed to be in the kitchen. Why wasn’t the kitchen door shut?”

  “We put him in a cardboard box with straw in it.” Nat’s bottom lip trembled. “He wasn’t supposed to climb out. I just opened the lid a tiny bit so he could breathe.”

  “Ruby, I’m sorry.” Tyler tried again. “I didn’t mean to kill him.” In desperation he said, “Do they sell snakes in pet shops in this country? Listen, I’ll buy you another snake. Any kind you like.”

  Tears were dripping from the end of Ruby’s nose onto the dead slowworm in her lap. With a huge sniff she turned to look at Tyler. “I don’t want you to buy me another snake. You’d probably buy a really horrible one with a china face and a lace bonnet on its head and old-fashioned clothes. And even if you bought me a real python I wouldn’t want it because I hate you, and I hate that stupid doll you gave me and you killed Bernard. So I don’t want you to come to our house ever, ever again.”

  Tyler thought about this. Finally he nodded. “You know, I don’t think I want to either.” Turning, he murmured to Lottie, “I’ll see you at work tomorrow.”

  Numbly, Lottie nodded.

  “And I don’t want you going out anymore with my mum,” Ruby flung at him.

  Tyler didn’t reply.

  “And Nat hated his Warhammer models too,” she bellowed after him as he headed for the door. “But that’s all right, because Dad says we can always sell them on eBay.”

  Lottie didn’t bother following Tyler out the door. Tonight probably wasn’t the night for that all-important first kiss.

  * * *

  At Ruby’s insistence, Bernard was buried in the backyard. Mario dug a very long, very narrow grave, and the brief but emotionally charged candlelit ceremony was conducted by Ruby herself. If the neighbors were looking out of their bedroom window they’d wonder what the hell was going on. Then again, they’d had years of practice at living next door to the Carlyles. Interring a slowworm at midnight barely registered on the scale of out of the ordinary goings-on.

  Finally Nat and Ruby were put to bed and were asleep within seconds of hitting the pillow. It was time for Mario to leave.

  But, being Mario, he couldn’t resist getting a dig in first.

  “Sure you want to work for that guy?”

  Lottie bristled. “Why wouldn’t I?


  “Oh, come on, surely you’ve noticed. Can’t say he isn’t accident prone.” Mario’s eyes glittered with amusement. “Say the phone rings in the office when you’re both there. You make a move to answer it. John Wayne there thinks you’re reaching for your gun and with his lightning reflexes grabs his and shoots you first. Well, I can tell you now, he can be the one to dig your grave because you’ll be needing a damn sight bigger one than Bernard.”

  “It was an accident,” Lottie said impatiently. Compelled to defend Tyler, she said, “He thought it was a snake, and Americans are used to snakes being dangerous. Anyway, it was thoughtful of him to arrange the phone call.”

  “From Arnie?” Mario’s grin broadened. “You don’t think it was really Arnie on the other end, do you?”

  “No, of course it wasn’t. I know that.” Hastily Lottie deleted those few moments when her disbelief had been magically suspended. “But it was still nice of him to think of doing something like that, wasn’t it? And you can’t say it didn’t cheer Nat up.”

  “Oh, it definitely did that.” Nodding in agreement, Mario reached for his keys.

  “So why can’t you admit that it was a good thing for Tyler to do?”

  “Because I just can’t, OK?”

  “Exactly!” Lottie was triumphant. “Because you’re too proud, too stubborn, too damn Italian to cope with somebody else appearing on the scene and getting on with your children.”

  One eyebrow went up. “Getting on with them? Is that what he’s doing?”

  Frustrated, Lottie said, “But he would be if things didn’t keep going wrong. He’s making the effort. And that’s what’s important, isn’t it? It means a lot to me.”

  “I think we can all see that,” Mario drawled. He opened the front door to let himself out, then paused on the step and turned back to face her. “Oh, just one more thing. What makes you so sure it was Tyler who arranged the call?”

  Lottie’s fingernails dug into her palms. Dammit, she hadn’t known Mario for eleven years without learning what that particular tone of voice implied. Bugger, bugger. He might not be looking unbearably smug right now, but she knew for certain he was feeling it. How could she have been so stupid, leaping to the wrong conclusion like that? Just because the call had purportedly come from America and Tyler had just returned from New York. Talk about gullible.

 

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