Making your mind up, p.18

Making Your Mind Up, page 18

 

Making Your Mind Up
 



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  He might be snickering to himself. Or filled with alarm. All the best was a long, long way from Love and hugs and a row of kisses.

  Oh hell, what to do to redeem the situation?

  Obviously she had to write back.

  Dear Tom,

  Not sure if I should be writing this (bit drunk) but I’m really sorry if I wrote “Love and hugs” at the end of my last email. Meant to put “All the best” but got confused—what’s new?—and thought you were Jojo. Well, what I mean is I thought I was finishing an email to Jojo, not you, because obviously I wouldn’t send you hugs and a row of kisses.

  Tipping her head back, Cressida emptied her glass and wiped the spilled drops of wine from her chin. Right, carry on, get the job done.

  Not that I don’t like you, of course. You’re a very nice man and I really really look forward to your emails, which is why I hope my last one didn’t scare you off. Although if I didn’t write “Love and hugs” I suppose it wouldn’t. Anyway, just wanted to explain. Sorry again. Please write back soon and let me know you don’t think I’m barking mad. Unless you do, in which case I’d rather not know.

  All the best.

  Cress.

  See? No kisses.

  (Yet.)

  Was that OK? Friendly and casual. Explanatory but lighthearted. Oh yes, it’d be fine. Completely fine. Tom couldn’t take offense. He’d probably just tease her about it, and it would become a shared running joke between them, which would be fun.

  He’d understand.

  Feeling a lot happier, Cressida pressed Send.

  There, done.

  Time for bed.

  Chapter 29

  Was something the matter with Amber?

  It was Lottie’s morning off and she was in the salon having deep red lowlights in addition to a trim, in an effort to cheer herself up and stave off the prospect of eternal spinsterhood. Normally she loved coming to the salon with its buzzy, gossipy atmosphere and comforting hairdressery smells, but the other girls were off today, which meant she and Amber were alone. And for the first time since Lottie could remember, the conversation wasn’t flowing naturally.

  What’s more, the silences between her attempts at conversation were becoming downright awkward.

  After struggling on for another fifteen minutes, Lottie said, “Amber? Is anything wrong?”

  Behind her, in the mirror, Amber shrugged. “I don’t know. Is there?” She paused. “You tell me.”

  There was definitely something wrong. Lottie shook her head and the wedges of foil around her temples flapped like spaniel’s ears. “Tell you what?”

  Amber put down the flat brush she’d been using to paint dye onto the separate sections of hair. “About Mario.”

  “Mario? He’s fine. Honestly!” Lottie wondered if Amber had heard about Mario’s brief flirtation with Karen Crane.

  “I know he’s fine.” Amber’s gaze was steady in the mirror. “I just want to know if he’s been seeing someone else.”

  Lottie shifted, her fingers twisting together beneath the dark blue cape draped over her shoulders. As convincingly as she could, she said, “No, he hasn’t.”

  “I think he has.”

  “Like who?”

  Another pause. Then Amber said, “Like you.”

  Lottie was so relieved she burst out laughing.

  “Is that what this is all about?” she said finally. “You think there’s something going on between me and Mario? Amber, I’d tell you if there was. But there isn’t. I wouldn’t, not in a million years! And that’s a promise.”

  Amber exhaled slowly. Finally she nodded, her pink-and-silver earrings rattling as she reached for the pile of foil squares.

  “OK. Sorry. I believe you. It’s just…I called into the shop yesterday and Ted was really surprised to see me.”

  “Well, that’s because you’ve been away for a couple weeks.”

  “That’s what I thought. Then he said he’d thought you and Mario were back together. Then some old dear chimed in with, ‘That’s what I reckoned too, what with him spending every night at Piper’s Cottage.’”

  Village gossips. Couldn’t you just tie them up and throw them in the lake?

  “He slept on the sofa,” said Lottie. Then she shifted again, guessing what was coming next.

  “The sofa.” Amber nodded. “That’s fine. But what I’d really like to know,” she went on slowly, “is whose idea it was that Mario should stay over in the first place.”

  “Well, the kids loved having him there,” Lottie began brightly, but Amber quelled her with a look.

  “It was you, wasn’t it? You made Mario sleep at your cottage every night. Because you knew he couldn’t be trusted and it was your way of keeping an eye on him, making sure he didn’t get up to anything while I was away.”

  Amber was nobody’s fool. Lottie shrugged, signaling defeat. “OK, I thought it wouldn’t do any harm. You know what men are like, brains in their trousers. Mario wouldn’t deliberately set out to do anything wrong, but let’s face it; he’s a good-looking bloke. And some girls are shameless. I just thought he’d be safer with us than going out with the lads from work and—”

  “Forgetting he has a girlfriend,” Amber said bluntly. “Out of sight, out of mind. Or maybe what she doesn’t find out about won’t hurt her.”

  “I’m sorry. I thought I was doing the right thing.” Lottie watched in the mirror as Amber deftly parceled up the last of the foil packages and wiped her hands on a cloth. “Should I have just left him to it?”

  Amber sighed and flipped her sun-bleached bangs out of her eyes. “Oh God, I don’t know. Why did you do it?”

  “Because I want you and Mario to be happy and stay together forever. I think you make a great couple,” said Lottie. “And I don’t want anything to jeopardize that.”

  “For the sake of the monsters.” Amber’s tone was dry. “Because they like me.”

  “They love you. And that’s important,” Lottie admitted. “Of course it is. I want them to be happy. I was just trying to help.”

  Amber looked at her. “And what about me? Do you want me to be happy?”

  “Yes! That’s the whole point!”

  “No, it isn’t.” Pulling up a stool on wheels Amber said steadily, “The point is, could I ever really be happy with Mario? With someone I’m not sure I could ever trust?”

  Lottie was alarmed. “But you’ve been together for, what, eight months now. You always knew what he was like. Mario’s a charmer and a flirt, but you’ve always taken it in your stride—”

  “I haven’t.” Amber shook her head. “I just started off doing what millions of other girls do all the time. I thought that, deep down, I’d be the one to change him. I kidded myself that this time it’d be different, he’d learn from his past mistakes and realize that what we had was too special to risk messing up.” She paused and raised her eyebrows at Lottie. “I expect you thought that too, didn’t you? When you married him.”

  Yes, well. Lottie knew she had, of course she had. But she’d been nineteen. When you were nineteen it didn’t occur to you that you might not be able to change someone for the better.

  Conceding this with a shrug, she pointed out, “But he hasn’t been unfaithful to you.”

  “Thanks to you and the kids keeping him under house arrest.” Amber smiled faintly.

  “He loves you.”

  “I know. But does he love me enough?”

  “So what’s going to happen?” Lottie felt a stab of fear.

  “I don’t know. I’m still trying to decide.”

  “But Nat and Ruby—”

  “Lottie, I love them to bits.” Amber reached for a square of unused foil and began tearing it to shreds. “You know I do. But you can’t expect me to stay with a man who’s going to make me miserable, just to keep his children happy.


  “And his ex-wife,” Lottie reminded her. “You’d be keeping her happy too.”

  Amber’s mouth twitched. “You are shameless.”

  “I wish I was rich and shameless.” Ruefully Lottie said, “If I had pots of money I could bribe you to stay.”

  “Just as well you aren’t then. Now, let’s see how these are doing.” Scooting close on her stool, Amber began unfolding a foil parcel at the nape of Lottie’s neck and carefully inspected the contents. “Not ready yet. Coffee?”

  “Thanks.” Lottie nodded, relieved that at least the strained atmosphere had dissipated. Now at least the problem was out in the open and maybe between the two of them they could deal with it. Pulling a face she said, “Men, eh? Why can’t they ever appreciate how lucky they are?”

  Amber was busy spooning coffee into mugs. “Some do.”

  “I suppose. But it’s more likely to be the man who plays away, isn’t it? Or always thinks the grass might be greener.” Lottie waved her arm vaguely in the direction of wherever the greener grass might be. “I mean, if I had a gorgeous man I’d never be tempted to lie or cheat. Neither would you. So why do—?”

  “I have.”

  “Have you?” Fascinated, Lottie said, “What, you’ve actually cheated on a boyfriend? Who was that?”

  Amber carefully poured boiling water into the mugs, added milk, and stirred. “Mario.”

  Lottie was stunned. This wasn’t what she’d been expecting at all. “Seriously?”

  “Oh yes, quite seriously. Sugar?”

  “Two. My God, when did this happen?”

  Amber said, “On vacation.”

  “I don’t believe it! You met someone in France! Oh my God!”

  “Actually, I didn’t.” Matter-of-factly, Amber handed over Lottie’s mug and sat back down nursing her own. “We went to France together.”

  Lottie’s brain was in a whirl. She felt as if she was at a fairground trapped on the Tilt-a-Whirl. “But…you said…”

  “I know. I told you I was going on vacation with my friend Mandy.” Cheerfully Amber said, “And no, I’m not a lesbian. I didn’t go away with Mandy. That was a lie.”

  Blimey. Lottie had to put her coffee mug down before she scalded her legs. “Who then?”

  “His name’s Quentin.”

  Yikes. Quentin?

  “OK, I know what you’re thinking. As names go, it doesn’t exactly conjure up a picture of the ultimate hunk. Men called Quentin don’t generally have movie star looks and rippling biceps, do they?” Drily Amber said, “And this one doesn’t either. He’s just ordinary. Nice, normal, and ordinary. We went out together a couple of years ago for a few months. It was one of those easy relationships, you know? Quentin phoned when he said he’d phone. He turned up whenever he said he’d turn up. He was a lovely boyfriend. Bought me flowers. Looked after me when I had the flu. He even lined up all night once to buy tickets to see Elton John in concert for my birthday.”

  “Wow. Can’t argue with that.” Lottie was openly envious. She’d have torn off her own arm for the chance to see Elton John. “But you broke up. So what happened?”

  Amber shrugged. “I got a bit…bored, I suppose. When someone’s that thoughtful, you find yourself taking them for granted. There wasn’t the adrenaline rush, you know? I thought I wanted more excitement, someone who’d make my heart race and my knees go weak every time I clapped eyes on him. So I told Quentin I didn’t think we had a future, that he was too good for me.” Her expression wry, she went on, “And Quentin said, ‘You want someone who’s bad for you, is that it?’ But being the gentleman he is, he didn’t put pressure on me to change my mind. He said he hoped I found what I was looking for and that I deserved to be happy. And the next thing I knew, he’d quit his job and moved to London.”

  “And now he’s back.” Lottie was simultaneously shocked and enthralled. She knew she shouldn’t be riveted, but she couldn’t help it.

  “He is.” Amber nodded. “He dropped in six weeks ago to say hi, but I was rushed off my feet so I arranged to meet him for a coffee after work. Just to chat and catch up. It was nice to see him again, that was all. Quentin told me about his work and what he’d been up to. I told him about Mario. He asked me if Mario was bad enough for me and if I thought I’d found the one I’d been looking for. I said I didn’t know, but I was enjoying myself. And that was it. Twenty minutes in the café down the road.” Pausing to fiddle with her earrings, Amber went on, “Then that night Mario and I went to a party, and this girl spent the whole evening chatting him up. We were there as a couple, but she just completely ignored me. I felt like Harry Potter under his invisibility cloak. And Mario was chatting away to her as if nothing was wrong. He really didn’t seem to notice what she was doing. Which made me furious. And started me thinking. So when Quentin rang my doorbell the next evening, I invited him in for a drink.”

  “Just a drink?” Lottie’s tone was mischievous.

  “Yes. He’d brought me a little bunch of freesias. Then he told me he still loved me. And I suddenly realized that there were worse things than being loved by a genuinely nice man.”

  Lottie bridled on her ex-husband’s behalf. “Mario’s a genuinely nice man too.”

  “I know he is. But will he really make me happy? Or will he break my heart?” Amber shrugged. “Because it matters. And I’m telling you now, Quentin never would.”

  “So just how serious is this thing between you?” The back of Lottie’s neck began to prickle with alarm.

  “I haven’t slept with him, if that’s what you mean.” Her eyes bright, Amber said, “Not this time, anyway.”

  “But…but you’ve just been on vacation together! For a whole fortnight!”

  “Separate bedrooms. The vacation was Quentin’s idea. He knew how torn I was. I needed some time away from Mario before I could make up my mind.” Amber paused, lost in thought. “So technically I suppose I haven’t been unfaithful. Does it count when you go on vacation with another man but don’t actually do the deed?”

  Wild with impatience, Lottie said, “And now? Have you made up your mind?”

  “Nearly,” said Amber.

  “Nearly? Tell me!” Lottie squealed.

  “No. That wouldn’t be fair. I have to tell them first.” Amber inspected Lottie’s magenta lowlights again. “You’re ready. Come over to the basin.”

  As the basin filled with discarded foils and warm water cascaded over her tilted-back head, Lottie said, “I still can’t believe you did it. You’re worried that Mario might cheat on you so you go away for a fortnight with some other guy. Isn’t that a bit…unfair?”

  “Probably.” Energetically, Amber began to massage almond-scented shampoo into Lottie’s hair. “But if Mario cheated on me, he’d be doing it because he was flattered or bored or just fancied a bit of hanky panky. I went away with Quentin because I need to make a decision that’s going to change the rest of my life.”

  “So you didn’t sleep with Quentin. But you kissed him?”

  “I did.” Standing behind Lottie, Amber sounded as if she was smiling. “Lots of times. And I know what you’re thinking. I’m a hypocritical bitch. But I wasn’t just doing it for fun. So I do have an excellent reason for being a hypocritical bitch.”

  Chapter 30

  It was eleven o’clock in the morning. Cressida winced and clutched her aching head when she saw there was a new email from Tom waiting in her inbox. This was all Lottie’s fault, coming over here last night with bottles of wine and getting her drunk. Then swanning off into the night, leaving her alone in a house with a computer connected to the World Wide Web.

  And that was another thing. She’d had the whole world to choose from. She could have sent embarrassing emails to people living in Alabama or Fiji or Tbilisi or Tokyo, and they would have been complete strangers, so it wouldn’t have mattered one bit what lunacy she might
have spouted.

  But that hadn’t happened, had it? She hadn’t written to any of the other billions of Internet users on the planet—oh no, that would have been far too sensible. Instead she had sent her disinhibited outpourings of drivel to the man she liked most in the world, the man she was most keen to impress, and the man she least wanted to conclude that she was a complete idiot.

  Cressida mentally braced herself. Too late now to wish she hadn’t done it. And what was the worst that could happen, anyway? Tom could be writing back to tell her that she was a sad deluded loser and he’d be obliged if she’d never darken his inbox again.

  Then she could just go quietly drown herself in Hestacombe Lake.

  OK. Click.

  Hi Cress.

  Well, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning, but you’ve already brightened my day. Your email was wonderful. You say you look forward to mine, but I look forward to yours more, I promise you. No need at all to apologize for sending “Love and hugs” (which you did, by the way, followed by several kisses). I’m flattered. And definitely no need to be embarrassed.

  Oh, thank heavens for that. Cressida exhaled slowly, giddy with relief. No need to drown herself after all.

  And there was more…

  Now, a suggestion. Donny mentioned Jojo last night. Despite feigning indifference, I think he’s quite fond of her. When I asked if he’d like to see her again, he grunted and said, “Dunno,” which for a thirteen-year-old boy is pretty positive. (If I asked Donny if he’d like Keira Knightley for his birthday, he’d grunt and say, “Dunno.”)

  So I was wondering if you and Jojo would like to come up to Newcastle next weekend. I could show you the sights, and there’s plenty here to keep the kids happy. Donny has never had a female friend before, and I think it would be good for him to keep in touch with Jojo. She’s such easy company and a genuinely nice girl.

  Anyway, just a suggestion. I know it’s a long way to travel, but if you and Jojo are free next weekend and would like to visit, we’d love to see you again. Let me know what you think.

 

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