Making your mind up, p.15

Making Your Mind Up, page 15

 

Making Your Mind Up
 



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  “Now, I’ve been looking through my guidebook, but we don’t want to waste time on anything boring. And we’d quite like to squeeze in a visit to Stow-on-the-Wold on the way back.” Marilyn combed her fabulously manicured fingernails through her dark brown fabulously cut hair. “We’d also like to know where to eat. Somewhere special.” She looked expectant. “With Michelin stars preferably.”

  Stars, not star. Noting the plural, Lottie racked her brains. “Well, there’s Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons just outside Oxford. But I can really recommend a place in Painswick. They don’t open for lunch, but I had dinner there last week and—”

  “Somewhere in Stratford. For lunch, not dinner.” Karen, speaking for the first time, said, “I’m already going out this evening.”

  “OK. What I can do is look up some restaurant review sites, see what sounds good in Stratford and draw up a—”

  “Hello?” Cutting Lottie off in midflow again, Karen had snatched up her ringing phone. “Oh, hi, Bea. Yeah, great, I’m just feeding the ducks. No, it’s not as bad as I thought. The cottage is really sweet. Mummy’s been buying me loads of stuff to cheer me up.”

  Lottie whispered to Marilyn, “…draw up a shortlist. Then if you pop into the office before you set off, I can give you a printed-out copy.”

  Marilyn looked disappointed. “You can’t personally recommend any?”

  “No.” Lottie felt like reminding the woman that she had a job that kept her rushed off her feet and couldn’t actually spare the time to schlep around England trying out every restaurant currently in business.

  “Oh. It’s just that I always think any five-star reviews have been posted by the owners. You can’t trust them.” Pulling a face, Marilyn complained, “We went to a place in Knightsbridge once that was supposed to be spectacular and their pineapple juice wasn’t even freshly squeezed!”

  Heaven forbid. Lottie drank her coffee and admired Marilyn’s nails. Not real, obviously, but beautifully done.

  “…and you’ll never guess what. I’ve got a date tonight!” Tucking her bare legs beneath her and hugging her knees, Karen was still chattering away on the phone. “I know, can you believe it? I met him last night! Mummy and I got to chatting with him outside the local pub, then Mummy got tired and came back here, and we stayed on for another couple hours. I mean, I know I’m heartbroken over Jonty—the bastard—but this guy was just so much fun. Even Mummy thought he was charming, and you know what she’s like; she hates everyone!”

  Finishing her coffee, Lottie half rose from her seat and said, “Well, I suppose I’d better—”

  “And get this, his name’s Mario,” Karen trilled into the phone.

  Lottie abruptly sat back down.

  “I know, isn’t it a scream? I asked him if he sold ice cream!”

  Feeling as if she’d been punched in the chest, Lottie picked up her cup and swallowed a mouthful of bitter, lukewarm coffee grounds.

  “No, he doesn’t sell ice cream. He manages a car showroom. And he isn’t an oily jerk either.” Karen giggled. “Look, I’ll ring you tomorrow and tell you everything then. If you see Jonty, let him know I’m not missing him a bit, OK? Mention that I’ve found someone far better than him. And tell him I want my MP3 player back. OK, speak to you soon. Bye, honey bunny.”

  Lottie wanted to punch Mario in the chest. Thanks to him she had revolting coffee grounds clinging to her teeth and nowhere to spit them out. Slowly, unwillingly, she ran her tongue around the inside of her mouth and swallowed the acrid grains. Why was she even surprised that Mario was up to his old tricks?

  And what could she do to stop him?

  Aware that it was now or never—having finished her coffee, she no longer had any reason to be sitting out on their deck—Lottie cleared her throat. Yeurgh, those disgusting coffee grounds. Casually she said, “So…you’re seeing Mario tonight.”

  Karen perked up at once. “Oh, do you know him?”

  Lottie nodded. “Very well.”

  “Of course. He lives here in the village. You probably do too.” When Lottie nodded again, Marilyn said jokily, “Don’t tell me he’s a complete psychopath!”

  “Well, nooo…” Lottie drew out the word long enough to indicate that that wasn’t the problem.

  Not slow on the uptake, Marilyn raised an eyebrow. “What, then? Is he married?”

  Now wasn’t the time to mention her own connection with Mario; it wasn’t relevant. “He’s not married,” Lottie said hesitantly, “but he does have a girlfriend.”

  “Live-in?” demanded Karen.

  “Well, no, they don’t actually live together…”

  “That’s all right then.” Karen relaxed. “Phew, you had me worried there for a minute.”

  Anxious to get her message across, Lottie said, “But it’s not just a casual relationship. They’ve been together for eight months. Her name’s Amber and she’s lovely.”

  But Karen was shrugging, supremely unconcerned. “If it was serious, he’d be living with her. He’s not.”

  “But they’re a couple. They—”

  “Not a real couple.” Karen rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to feel guilty just because he’s seeing someone. Jesus, it’s hard enough finding men who aren’t married or shacked up. Anyway, we’d better start getting ready if we’re going to Stratford.” Chucking the last shreds of croissant at the quacking, squabbling ducks, she rose to her feet and headed inside.

  Lottie watched her go. Marilyn, patting her hand, said consolingly, “I’m sure you meant well. Don’t worry; it’s just a harmless night out. Karen will be fine.”

  She might be, thought Lottie. But what about Amber if she found out?

  How could Mario be so stupid?

  Back at the office she rang him. “Hi, it’s me. What are you doing tonight?”

  “Don’t ask. Some boring business meeting.” Damn, he was good. The words tripped so easily off Mario’s tongue it was scary. He was utterly believable.

  “Liar.” Lottie wondered how many millions of lies he’d told her over the years. “You’re seeing Karen Crane.”

  “Like I said, a boring business meeting.” Blithely Mario continued, “She’s interested in the new Audi Quattro.”

  “And I’m Father Christmas. We both know what Karen’s interested in.” At her desk, Lottie doodled a spiky, furious hedgehog on her notepad. “And you must be out of your mind. For crying out loud, do you want Amber to dump you?”

  Mario sighed. “This is stupid. I suppose you’ve been talking to Merry.”

  “No, but I jolly well will now.”

  “Look, we got chatting last night. I was just being friendly. And no, I didn’t kiss her. Nor am I planning to.”

  “You asked her out tonight.”

  “I didn’t. She asked me. She just wants a bit of company,” Mario protested. “Someone to talk to. So I said yes. Is that so terrible?”

  Lottie’s eyes narrowed. “Where are you taking her?”

  “We’re meeting at the Pheasant. All above board.”

  “And after that?”

  “Maybe a pizza in Cheltenham. Maybe not. God, Lottie, will you trust me? This isn’t any big deal. Just because she happens to be female,” said Mario. “If it was a bloke, you wouldn’t be giving me this grief.”

  So reasonable.

  “I suppose not. But you lied about who you were seeing tonight.”

  “That’s because I knew you’d nag. Look, I’ve got to go now—Jerry’s trying to sell a Mazda MX-5 to some old dear of about ninety. I’ll see you soon, OK? And I promise to behave myself tonight.”

  Lottie didn’t believe him for a second—it was like a girl eyeing up a plate of doughnuts, going, “No, I mustn’t, I really mustn’t, seriously, I’m on a diet… Oh well, just the one then.”

  “Trust me,” said Mario when she didn’t speak.
I’ll be on my best behavior.”

  Hmm. Doodling a harpoon about to land on the hedgehog, Lottie said, “Just make sure you are.”

  Chapter 24

  Tyler, now settled into Fox Cottage, was busy on the phone when Lottie arrived with the file of booking figures for next year. Signaling for her to stay, he carried on talking to his accountant, leaving Lottie free to explore the living room. She checked out his collections of CDs and DVDs, relieved to see that he wasn’t an avid fan of country music and science-fiction movies. Unless he loved those so much he kept them safely tucked away in a separate box upstairs.

  Oh, please don’t let that be true.

  Since the living room didn’t take long to investigate—Tyler evidently wasn’t one for clutter—Lottie moved outside into the garden. Bees buzzed and hovered from one flower to the next, butterflies darted around like “It” girls at a party, and the scent of honeysuckle hung heavy in the air. The small lawn was studded with buttercups and daisies, and a pair of chaffinches were hopping around in search of food. Burying her nose in a tall spear of hollyhock, Lottie almost inhaled a wasp and leaped back. Batting away the wasp, she whacked the hollyhock at the same time. The wasp flew off and the hollyhock promptly bounced back like a punchball, spraying the front of her shirt with bright yellow pollen.

  Her pale pink shirt, naturally. Nature.

  “Problem?” Phone call over, Tyler materialized in the garden behind her.

  “Just doing battle with a vicious plant.”

  Tyler said gravely, “Looks like you lost.”

  “Wait until I get my hands on a machete, then I’ll get my own back.” Vigorously Lottie brushed herself down, only succeeding in squashing the pollen more indelibly into the thin cotton. “I’ll have to go home and change. The booking file’s on your coffee table.”

  “Thanks. Don’t go yet.” Putting out a hand to stop her, Tyler said, “Look, I know we haven’t done very well so far, but what are you doing this evening? I thought maybe we could drive into Bath, go see a—”

  Lottie stopped him. “I can’t. There’s something I have to do tonight.”

  “OK.” Tyler paused. “Is that a polite way of telling me to get lost?”

  “No, no. I really do have something else to sort out.”

  “Because I realize it isn’t easy for you, what with your kids hating me so much, but I thought maybe if I steered clear of them for a while it might help.” Tyler’s smile was crooked. “In fact, make sure I don’t see them at all. Then with a bit of luck they might get used to the situation and in time we can try again. How does that sound?”

  Like banning certain types of food from your diet, thought Lottie, then reintroducing them to find out if you’re allergic to them. The trouble was, the human body wasn’t a sympathetic entity. It was unlikely to take pity on you and decide to change its mind about being allergic to red wine and chocolate just because it knew how much you liked them.

  And neither were Nat and Ruby.

  But she didn’t have the heart to tell him this. Instead Lottie nodded and said, “That sounds…fine.”

  “Sure?” Tyler raised an eyebrow.

  “Sure.”

  “So how about tomorrow night?”

  God, she’d love that, she really would. “Um…could we leave it for a few days?” Dry-mouthed and willing herself to stay strong, Lottie said, “It’s just that I’m pretty tied up for the rest of this week.”

  There, talk about noble. It felt like turning down a fabulous five-star vacation in Mauritius in favor of a week in a leaky caravan in Cleethorpes. Like saying, “Oh no, you have the fillet steak and fries. I’ll be fine with the cold porridge.” Like being given the choice between a brand-new Porsche and a gross old moped…

  “If this is you playing hard to get,” Tyler remarked, “you’re doing it very well.”

  “I’m not.” Lottie almost blurted out that where he was concerned she would, in fact, be ridiculously, shamelessly easy to get. With a surge of longing she said, “Next week would be great.”

  “OK. So long as you aren’t messing around.” His smile held a hint of challenge. “Next Monday, then?”

  Relief flooded through her. Lottie nodded vigorously. “Next Monday.”

  “Come here, you’ve got pollen on your nose.”

  Moving obediently closer, she allowed him to brush it off.

  “And here.” Tyler gently rubbed her left eyebrow, causing her stomach to contract with pleasure.

  “And a bit more here,” he went on, stroking her right cheekbone. This time her toes began to tingle. Heavens, wherever next?

  “All gone now?” Lottie murmured.

  “Not quite. Just one last…” He touched her mouth, lightly tracing the outline of her lips. Then, closing the small distance between them, he moved his fingers aside and kissed her. Lightly and thrillingly. Phew. Eyes closed, Lottie felt his hands move to the back of her head. Her arms found their way around his neck. It had been years, years since she’d been kissed like this. She’d forgotten how glorious it could be.

  “There, that’s better.” Tyler pulled away in order to study her face. His mouth twitched at the corners. “Well, it’s a start anyway.”

  Nodding, Lottie struggled to regain control of her breathing. It was a hell of a start. Behind her she heard branches swaying as squirrels leaped playfully from tree to tree. Birds sang overhead and a pair of tortoiseshell butterflies pirouetted in tandem across the grass. All of a sudden she was in the middle of a Disney movie; at any moment she half expected flower buds to explode into bloom and a family of rabbits to burst into a rousing chorus of—

  “I’ve been wanting to do that for weeks,” said Tyler.

  “Me too.” Lottie’s heart was banging against her rib cage.

  “And I can’t think of anything nicer than carrying on doing it.” His gray eyes flashed. “But I suppose we should try to be faintly professional about this.”

  Lottie nodded vigorously, shaking herself out of the daze that had enveloped her like a goose-down duvet. “Absolutely. Professional. Sensible.” She floundered; what was the word she was searching for? Ah, yes. “Businesslike.”

  “I’ll have to behave myself. Until next Monday,” said Tyler.

  “Next Monday.” Lottie couldn’t wait for him to misbehave.

  “No Ruby, no Nat. Just me and you.”

  “Yes.” Oops, now there was a bright yellow pollen stain on the front of his shirt from where she’d been pressed against him. Rubbing at it ineffectually, Lottie said, “Look what I’ve done to you.”

  Tyler’s eyebrows lifted with amusement. “That’s the least of what you’ve done to me. But I suppose I’d better go change my shirt. Bit of a giveaway otherwise.”

  The goose-down duvet slid away. Was he ashamed of her?

  “You don’t want anyone else to know?”

  “Touchy.” He sounded amused. “Not at all. I just thought maybe you’d prefer it if Nat and Ruby didn’t know. In case they give you a hard time.”

  Lottie swallowed with relief. She nodded. “That makes sense.”

  Inside the cottage, Tyler’s phone began to ring. “I’d better get that.”

  “Then change your shirt. And I must go change mine.”

  He gave her hand a brief squeeze, then headed into the house. Smiling to herself, Lottie made her way back along the path. They’d just shared their first kiss.

  Roll on Monday night.

  When she was out of sight, the branches of the sycamore tree quivered again as the Jenkins boys, Ben and Harry, nudged each other and snickered quietly. Sometimes when they hid in trees nothing much exciting happened and they spent their time carving rude words into the trunk. Other times they amused themselves dropping twigs, leaves, and insects onto the heads of hapless passersby.

  But this was great. Actually watching grown-u
ps kissing was tons better than dropping beetles on unsuspecting heads. And not just any old grown-ups either. This was the new bloke from America, ha, and Nat and Ruby Carlyle’s mother, ha ha.

  Double-checking that the coast was clear, Ben and Harry dropped from the tree like mini ninjas and scooted off through the undergrowth. When they reached the safety of their den they punched each other and collapsed laughing on the dusty ground.

  “They were making out!”

  “Yeurgh, making out!”

  “If we hide there on Monday night we might see them doing it.”

  “Doing what?”

  “It, you idiot.” Harry wiggled his hips to demonstrate.

  “Oh, right.” Dancing, Ben realized. He might be only seven, but he knew that girls kissed boys when they danced with them.

  “This is fantastic.” Harry, whose mission in life was to get one over on their rivals, punched the air triumphantly. “Wait until Nat and Ruby hear about this.”

  Chapter 25

  “Hi there!” Spotting Mario and Karen at a corner table, Lottie waved and threaded her way toward them.

  Mario, instantly suspicious, said, “What are you doing here?”

  “Now there’s a welcome. Just as well I’ve already bought myself a drink!” Waggling her fingers cheerily at Karen, Lottie pulled out the third chair and sat down. “Don’t mind if I join you, do you? How was Stratford, by the way? Buy anything nice?”

  “Uh, well…yeah.” Clearly mystified by this intrusion into their privacy, Karen looked at Mario.

  “Where are the kids?” asked Mario.

  “Locked up in a police cell.” Lottie pulled a face at him, then beamed. “Cressida’s babysitting. I just really fancied a night out.”

  Mario gave her a measured look. “I’ll bet you did.”

  “Well, why not? It’s a beautiful evening.” Taking a sip of her drink and sitting back, Lottie heaved a sigh of contentment. “What could be nicer than being out here, the three of us?”

  “Hang on. Excuse me.” Her shoulders very straight, Karen demanded, “Are you Mario’s girlfriend?”

 
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