Making your mind up, p.14

Making Your Mind Up, page 14


Making Your Mind Up

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  And she wouldn’t be allowed to forget it.

  “Eamonn, the new guy at work,” said Mario. “He’s great at voices. He can do anyone. I asked him to give Nat a call.” Straight-faced, he said, “Wasn’t that nice of me? Aren’t you going to tell me how thoughtful and wonderful I am for making the effort?”

  God, he was loving every minute of this.

  “They’re your children,” Lottie said flatly. “You’re their dad. You’re supposed to do stuff like that. It doesn’t make you a hero.”

  “You thought it made Tyler Klein one.”

  “He’s not their father!”

  “Thank God for that,” Mario retorted. “Face it, he’s nothing but a liability.”

  Lottie remembered something else about Mario that drove her mad: he loved to win an argument, any argument. What’s more, he clearly had no intention of giving up until he’d won this one.

  “But I like him.”

  “I know.” Mario’s expression softened. “And that’s the problem. Since we broke up you haven’t been out with anyone else. Now this guy’s come along, not bad-looking…”

  “Excuse me. He’s good-looking.” Lottie couldn’t allow this to pass.

  “Absolutely loaded…”

  “That’s not why I like him!”

  “But you can’t say it doesn’t help. Come on, be honest,” Mario chided. “Money, no money—which one would any of us prefer? And he’s shown a bit of interest in you, which is flattering, but what I’m saying is don’t get too carried away. Tonight was your first proper date in years. You don’t realize how out of practice you are.”

  “Bloody cheek.” Now Lottie really wanted to slap him. “So what I should have been doing all this time was putting myself out there, sleeping with everyone I meet, no matter how unsuitable they might be. Like you have.”

  “I’m not saying that. Besides, you aren’t the sleep-around type. Which is a compliment,” Mario added, getting ready to duck. “I just think you shouldn’t jump in with both feet the minute someone rolls up and starts paying you some attention. I know it’s flattering, but it doesn’t automatically make him the one who’s going to change your life. Plus, there’s the kids to think of. How are they going to feel if—”

  “OK.” Lottie had had more than enough. “Save your lectures. I’m not listening to any more of this.” Since she couldn’t win the argument and stabbing her ex-husband would only result in prison and tedious visits from lawyers, she slammed the front door in Mario’s face.

  Through the closed door she heard him laughing. As Lottie fastened the safety chain, Mario called out, “That means you know I’m right.”

  Chapter 22

  Cressida had never forgotten the day she received her first valentine. She had been eleven years old, and it was her first year at secondary school. The mail had arrived as she was plowing through her bowl of cereal and her mother, hearing it plop through the mail slot, had said, “Go get the letters, will you, love?”

  Out in the hallway Cressida had experienced a toe-tingling surge of joy mingled with disbelief when she saw that one of the letters was, in fact, a card in a red envelope, addressed to her and with SWALK written across the back. With trembling fingers she had ripped open the envelope while her mother called out from the kitchen, “Anything interesting?”

  The card had a picture of a kitten on the front, smiling coyly and clutching a huge red heart. Inside, beneath the printed inscription “You’re My Purrfect Valentine” was written: To Cressida, I love you. Will you be my valentine? Love from…? xxx

  Oh, the unimaginable thrill of reading those words! She hurriedly stuffed the card back into its envelope and tucked it into the waistband of her school skirt, pulling her sweater down to conceal it from view. Pink-cheeked, she wandered back into the kitchen and handed over the remainder of the mail.

  Her mother sighed. “Just bills. No valentine for me from Engelbert Humperdinck then.”

  “No,” Cressida mumbled, cramming the last of her cereal into her mouth and glugging down her glass of juice. “Right, I’m off, don’t want to miss the bus.”

  It had been a glorious morning. Actually, a glorious week, and possibly the start of a glorious new life. Cressida had spent hours secretly poring over her valentine, hugging it to her like the most marvelous secret. She had sniffed the ink, run her fingertips over the words, and fantasized endlessly over who might have sent it. Because somebody loved her, really loved her, and wanted her to be their valentine. It was frustrating in one way that they hadn’t signed the card, because if someone wanted you to be their valentine it would help to know who they were. On the other hand, not knowing allowed her imagination more scope to run wild. It could have come from anyone, anyone at all, which was a lot more exciting than discovering that it had been sent by spotty, weedy Wayne Trapp who was always staring at her on the school bus.

  Sometimes it was just better not to know.

  Heavens, that had been almost thirty years ago. If she closed her eyes now, Cressida discovered, she could still picture every detail of that card. Was every woman able to do that, or was it just her? Well, why not? she thought indulgently. It had been an important part of her life, a defining moment. Even if she never had discovered who’d sent it and had long suspected that it had, in fact, come from her mother.

  And now it was happening all over again, but this time she was almost certain her mother wasn’t the perpetrator. For one thing, she was dead. But Cressida was pretty sure that even in the afterlife her mother never would have gotten to grips with the logistics of email.

  Tom had sent her an email, though. And her toes were curling with pleasure just as they had curled thirty years ago when she had opened that gaudy valentine. She was already reading his email for the fourth time, and it had only arrived in her inbox a few minutes ago.

  Hi Cressida,

  Just a quick note to let you know how much my mother appreciated the card. She has been showing it off to everyone and it occupies pride of place on her mantelpiece. So thanks again for coming to the rescue.

  It was great to meet you last week and I really enjoyed the time we spent together. I’m sure Donny did too, but he would of course rather amputate his own feet than admit it. Or throw himself to the lions, maybe?! Hope you and Jojo enjoyed the trip to Longleat as much as we did.

  Well, I’m now back at work and wishing I wasn’t. That’s the trouble with vacations, isn’t it? To add insult to injury, it’s raining here in Newcastle. Maybe I should contact Freddie at Hestacombe House and see if the cottage is free for the next fortnight! [Reading this bit had caused Cressida’s heart to give a foolish leap of hope.] Seriously, I hope we’ll be able to book it for a week next Easter. [Cressida’s heart plunged; next Easter was almost eight months away.] If we do, I very much hope we’ll be able to meet up again then.

  Better go now, work calls.

  All the best,

  Tom Turner

  Glimpsing her reflection in the computer’s screen, Cressida saw that she was grinning like an idiot. It was so lovely to hear from Tom; the last week had dragged horribly now that he was no longer around. And he’d started off by saying “Just a quick note,” but it hadn’t ended up being quick, had it? As quick emails went, it was actually quite lengthy. It hadn’t even been necessary for him to write and thank her for his mother’s card—he’d already done that in person.

  So all in all, Cressida couldn’t help feeling, it was a very promising sign, indicating that Tom didn’t want to lose touch with her, and that maybe he—

  “Aunt Cress, someone wants to order some wedding cards.”

  Cressida jumped a mile as the door flew open and Jojo came in waving the cordless phone. Heavens, she’d been so enthralled by Tom’s email that she hadn’t even heard the phone ringing in the kitchen. Hurriedly, guiltily, she clicked on the Back button to remove his words from the scr
een, took the phone from Jojo, and forced herself to concentrate on the wedding plans of an overexcited prospective bride in Bournemouth.

  When the call ended—and with Jojo safely back in the kitchen—Cressida returned Tom’s email to the screen and read it again. The thought of losing it was so alarming that she switched on her printer and printed a copy out. There, that was better; it was a proper letter now, on real paper. She’d write back, of course, but not yet. Replying to a casual friendly email within minutes of receiving it would be far too keen. Which was fine, because it gave her plenty of time in which to painstakingly compose a suitably casual and friendly reply.

  Then she could send it tonight.

  The door opened again and Jojo, this time with flour on her nose and in her bangs, poked her head around. “Good news?”

  “Excellent news,” Cressida said happily.

  “How many?”

  “How many what?”

  “Wedding invitations!”

  “Oh! Um…twenty.”

  Jojo frowned. “That’s not many.”

  “I know. They’re just having a tiny intimate wedding.”

  “So why’s that excellent news?”

  “Because tiny weddings are so romantic.” Cressida slid Tom’s printed-out email into a drawer. “And…because she sounded so happy!”

  “Sounded drunk to me.” Jojo gave her an odd look. “Are you all right?”

  “Me? Yes, fine, great!” Gosh, it was hard to concentrate when you were mentally composing a casual friendly email in your head. “How are you getting on with those cupcakes?”

  “They’re in the oven. Nine minutes to go. When I’ve finished the icing, d’you want chocolate sprinkles or glacé cherries on top?”

  Hi, Tom, how lovely to hear from you! Never mind booking one of Freddie’s cottages. Why don’t you come down this weekend and stay with us? Donny can have the spare bedroom and you can bunk up with me. How’s that for an offer you can’t—

  “Aunt Cress?”

  “Oh, um…” Snapping herself out of that fantasy, Cressida said recklessly, “How about both?”

  * * *

  When Merry Watkins had taken over the Flying Pheasant in Hestacombe two years ago she had been determined to make a roaring success of the venture. With a clear vision of how a country inn should be, she had set about transforming it with vigor. And to the relief of the locals Merry had achieved it, thanks largely to her charm and can-do personality. Every visitor to the pub was welcomed like a long-lost friend. The refurbished, but still traditional, bars were a comforting haven from the world, the draft beers were sublime, and the beer garden was family-friendly. Cleverest of all, Merry had transformed the area in front of the pub from a haphazard parking lot into the coolest place to sit, with tubs of greenery and flowers, rustic tables, comfortable chairs, and hidden lighting that illuminated the outside of the pub and gave the impression that those people drinking outside were on a stage, appearing in a play any passersby would want to see.

  Shamelessly, Merry made sure the most attractive customers occupied this position. Less-than-glamorous walking types, the kind with woolly beards and rucksacks, were served their drinks at the bar and strongly encouraged to take them through to the beer garden. The farming locals preferred to stay inside anyway, in their murky corner of the bar. Anyone well dressed and physically appealing—basically those Merry termed desirables—were ushered out to the prized area at the front to attract more passing trade and further boost the image of the Flying Pheasant. And it did. Merry had created her own version of the VIP enclosure, and people loved to drive over to Hestacombe and be seen out in the coveted stage-lit area in front of the pub.

  Picking up his drink and his change, Mario said, “I’ll just take this through to the beer garden.”

  “You bloody well will not.” Merry wasn’t a woman to be trifled with. “Get yourself out the front there this minute, you gorgeous creature, and bring me in some more business.”

  Mario made his way outside, greeting and briefly chatting with people he knew before settling himself on a chair at the last empty table and pulling out his cell phone. He rang Amber’s number, reached voice mail, and hung up. It was eight thirty: she and Mandy were probably in a restaurant with a no-phone rule. He’d try again later.

  One week down, one to go. Putting his phone away, Mario realized how much he was missing Amber. It was like giving up smoking and suddenly not knowing what to do with your hands. He’d been good, though. On his best behavior. When Jerry and the lads from work had announced they were off into Cheltenham for a night of beer and clubbing, they had urged him to join them and he had said no, prompting good-natured jeers and pronouncements that he’d be wearing an apron next.

  But he hadn’t changed his mind, chiefly because his coworkers were a seriously bad influence and, coupled with serious amounts of alcohol, Mario wasn’t entirely sure he wouldn’t succumb to temptation should it happen to come along. Knowing himself of old, it was safer to say no.

  A voice to his left said hesitantly, “Excuse me, are these seats taken?”

  Looking up, Mario saw a fragile brunette in a sea-green summer dress, accompanied by a chic older woman who had to be her mother. Couldn’t get safer than that.

  Taking off his sunglasses and gesturing toward the empty chairs, Mario flashed them both an easy smile. “Help yourself.”

  * * *

  “Just the two drinks this time?” Merry beadily inquired.

  It was ten thirty and the third time Mario had come inside to order another round of drinks.

  “Just the two,” Mario agreed. “They’re staying at one of the cottages. The mother’s tired so she’s gone back for an early night. Is that OK with you, Merry?”

  She gave him a look. “Fine by me, darling. Money in the till. Is it fine by Amber, that’s what I’m wondering.”

  Village life, didn’t you just love it? “I don’t know. I’ll give her a ring and ask her permission, shall I?” Pocketing his change and picking up the drinks, Mario said, “Anyway, I’m not doing anything wrong. We’re out there in full view of everyone. Her name’s Karen, she broke up with her fiancé, and she’s been a bit down lately. Her mother booked one of the cottages for a week to give her a break and take her mind off the ex.”

  “Hmm.” It was a hmm loaded with meaning.

  “They’ve never visited this part of the country before,” Mario continued evenly. “Today they went shopping in Bath, which is why Marilyn, the mother, is exhausted. Karen isn’t exhausted, so she decided to stay for one more drink. We’re not having sex out there, Merry.”

  “Delighted to hear it,” said Merry. “Seeing as we don’t have a license for that kind of thing.”

  “We’re just talking. Harmlessly. It’s what people in pubs do. They were the ones who started the conversation, not me.”

  “She’s a pretty girl.”

  “Yes, well.” Exasperated, Mario said, “We have you to thank for that, don’t we? Seeing as you won’t allow any ugly ones to sit out front.”

  “Apart from that one in the orange trousers who looks like a horse.” Merry grimaced across the bar. “But she’s with the Ballantyne crowd so I couldn’t stop her.”

  “You’re slipping.”

  Merry said pointedly, “So are you.”

  “I’m just being sociable! Does Amber being away mean I’m not allowed to leave the house? Should I maybe handcuff myself to the sofa”—Mario raised an eyebrow—“and sit there for a fortnight watching crap TV? Surviving on Cup-a-Soups and not daring to pop out for some takeout in case I accidentally hurl myself in a frenzy across the counter at the girl serving me?”

  Merry said, “Now there’s a mental image to treasure.”

  “Well, I’m not doing that. I’m here, I’m behaving myself beautifully, and I don’t need keeping an eye on.”

“Off with you then. Don’t want her wondering where you’ve gotten to. You said that really well, by the way,” Merry called after him. Amused, she added, “Almost as if you meant it.”

  Chapter 23

  Marilyn and Karen Crane were staying at Pound Cottage, down on the lakeside. Lottie, arriving at the cottage at ten o’clock in the morning with a fresh supply of towels, found mother and daughter sitting out on the deck enjoying breakfast in their expensive silk robes, Karen was throwing bits of croissant to the ducks and sipping freshly squeezed orange juice. Marilyn was flipping through the latest edition of Cotswold Life. The sun was blazing down and classical music drifted elegantly through the open windows. The scene could have come straight from a Ralph Lauren ad.

  Feeling hot and busy and not very Ralph Laurenish at all, Lottie hoisted the fresh towels out of the car and climbed the wooden steps leading up to the deck. For breakfast she’d had Ruby’s leftover strawberry milkshake and Nat’s discarded toast crusts. In fact, she wasn’t that different from the ducks. How the other half lived.

  Brightly she said, “I’ve brought your towels.”

  “Oh, lovely. Just pop them inside, would you?” Marilyn greeted her with a warm smile and patted the empty chair beside her. “Then come and sit down. We’re planning a trip to Stratford today and we want to know what’s worth seeing. Apart from the shops, obviously!”

  Having deposited the towels in the bathroom, Lottie joined them.

  “Coffee?” Marilyn reached for a spare cup.

  “Thanks.” Real coffee. It smelled heavenly. Lottie wondered if she might be offered the last buttered croissant too, but her hopes were dashed as Karen picked it up, tore it into flaky strips, and began throwing them to the attention-seeking ducks. How about if she leaped up and intercepted a piece as it flew through the air, catching it in her mouth?

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