Making your mind up, p.20

Making Your Mind Up, page 20

 

Making Your Mind Up
 



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  “Don’t be too hard on yourself. At least you were honest about it,” said Freddie.

  “Oh, darling, and look where it got me.” Fenella shook her head. “And the really ironic thing is…no, nothing, forget it.”

  Freddie watched her wave the words away.

  “What’s the really ironic thing?” he prompted.

  Reaching for her glass of Chablis, Fenella said, “OK, but I warn you it makes me sound completely pathetic.” She paused, took a sip of wine and gazed steadily at him. “I missed you, Freddie. I loved you. I know I never told you this, but that was because I couldn’t. I’d made my bed and I had to lie in it. But I never forgot you. I never stopped comparing other men with you, wishing they could be more like you.”

  “Like me if I’d been a lot richer.” Freddie’s tone was dry.

  “No, like you,” Fenella insisted. “Look, it took me a while, but I got there in the end. When I divorced Jerry, I could have fought for a fabulous settlement, but I didn’t. I left without a penny, came back to England, and resolved to become a better person. From now on, money wouldn’t rule my life. If I met a genuinely nice man who was poor but honest, I’d settle down with him because at last I knew that happiness had nothing to do with the size of someone’s bank balance.”

  Impressed, Freddie said, “And did that happen?”

  “Only very briefly.” Sadness shadowed Fenella’s eyes. “I did meet a lovely man. His name was Douglas, and he worked in a garden center. He had no money, but it didn’t matter. We got on wonderfully well together. I had such high hopes for the future. But two months later he died suddenly of a heart attack.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “Thank you. It was a horrible time, just horrible. I felt as if I were being punished for all the bad things I’d done in the past. So much happiness, snatched away. That was eight years ago.” Fenella reached for a handkerchief in her bag and wiped her brimming eyes. “There hasn’t been anyone else since. I’d have liked there to be, but it just hasn’t happened. Oh dear, I know this must sound ridiculous, but can you understand how excited I was when I opened that letter from your friend Lottie? Discovering that you were looking for me and wanted to see me again? I felt like a teenager! This was my chance to make up for the terrible way I’d treated you before…and, less unselfishly, I thought it could be my chance to be happy again with my first love. Because that’s what you were, Freddie. I may not have been able to admit it at the time, but it’s true. You were my first love.” She stopped and gave a brittle laugh. “And now I’m here, and it’s all gone wrong again. I think I must be jinxed.”

  Bemused, Freddie said, “Why are you jinxed?”

  “Because the whole point of coming here today and seeing you again and…whatever”—another nonspecific wave of her left hand—“was to prove to you that I really have changed! But now I can’t, because you aren’t poor anymore. You have all this!”

  Freddie smiled. “I’m sorry.”

  “Not half as sorry as I am, let me tell you.” Fenella sat back in her chair and tucked a stray strand of dark hair behind her ear. “When you told me your address I assumed Hestacombe House was a block of apartments. I expected you to be a normal, not-very-well-off man leading a not-very-well-off life. And I wanted to show you that it didn’t matter a bit. When the taxi driver pulled up outside this place I almost fainted. I never imagined you ending up somewhere like this. And it means I can’t flirt with you, because if I did you’d think I was only doing it because you’re rich.”

  “I don’t know what to say.” Freddie paused, then decided he may as well come clean. “OK. If I’m honest, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to see you again. To prove to you that I’d made something of myself, against the odds and despite the fact that you broke my heart.”

  Fenella’s hand flew to her mouth. “Did I break your heart? Really?”

  “Oh yes.”

  “I thought you’d just go back to that sweet girl of yours…what was her name?”

  “Giselle.” Freddie’s heart contracted.

  “That’s it. Pretty little thing. What happened?”

  “I messed up. All my own fault. After you and I broke up, I was hard to live with. Giselle hadn’t done anything wrong, and she couldn’t understand why I was so distant. It wasn’t an easy time.”

  “Oh God, I’m so sorry,” Fenella exclaimed. “I feel dreadful.”

  “These things happen. Call it fate. Anyway, we were struggling on but we were both unhappy,” said Freddie. “Then I met someone else. And that was it. I finished with Giselle. Started seeing the other girl.”

  “Whose name was?”

  “Mary. Within six months we were married. She died four years ago.”

  “Oh, Freddie. And you were happy together? Of course you were,” Fenella exclaimed. “I can tell by the look in your eyes. That’s wonderful. I’m so glad you found the right one in the end.”

  Unable to speak for a moment, Freddie nodded.

  “Poor darling.” Fenella reached over and took his hand. “You must miss her terribly. It’s the loneliness, isn’t it? Not having anyone to share your life with. Oh, it breaks my heart to think of you being so sad.”

  “Grief is the price you pay for love,” Freddie said simply, before gathering himself and leaning forward to top up her wineglass. “Anyway, this isn’t very cheerful, is it? You’ll be wishing you’d never come to see me.”

  “Freddie, it’s heavenly to see you. I just can’t bear to think of you on your own. You’re still a very attractive man, you know.” Breaking into a smile, Fenella said, “If it wasn’t for all this wretched money of yours, who knows what could have happened? The two of us meeting up again might have…oh heavens, just ignore me, I’m a silly old woman…”

  As her voice trailed away Freddie realized he was meant to do the gentlemanly thing and gallantly contradict her. His head was still pounding and he needed his next dose of painkillers. But first he had to explain to Fenella that any kind of future together simply wasn’t on the cards.

  “Of course you aren’t silly. Or old,” he added hastily. “But I’m really not looking for a relationship. That isn’t why I wanted to see you again.”

  Startled, Fenella said, “Oh.”

  “Sorry if I misled you.” Freddie felt guilty, since he clearly had. “I just thought it would be nice to find out how you were and how life had treated you.”

  “Oh well.” Summoning a brave smile, Fenella said, “And now you know. Is that it? Would you like me to leave now that you’re all up to date?”

  “No no no.” Freddie shook his head vehemently, which did his headache no good at all. “Fenella, I’m just being honest, letting you know how things are. Any kind of romantic relationship isn’t what I’m after. It’s only fair that you know that. But I don’t want you to leave. We can still have a nice day together, surely?”

  “Handsome and persuasive. How can I refuse?” Fenella’s gaze softened as she pushed away her plate and leaned closer. “Now, tell me all about your wonderful wife.”

  Chapter 32

  There was no torture, Lottie was discovering, like the torture of working for someone you lusted after but couldn’t actually get lusty with. Being allowed to look but not touch was starting to get to her in a major way.

  Tyler was already there in the office when she arrived at nine o’clock, looking breathtaking as usual in a navy polo shirt and faded jeans, and prompting her stomach to do a quick loop the loop. He really was causing havoc with her hormones. As ever, the question buzzing around Lottie’s brain, bursting to be let out, was What are you like in bed?

  When he looked up from the computer and broke into a grin—oh hell, loop the loop the loop—Lottie wondered wildly if she’d accidentally said the words aloud.

  “Hi. How are the kids?”

  He always asked. It was the only reference Tyler
made to their over-before-it-had-begun relationship. He never tried to kiss her or persuade her to change her mind.

  Lottie threw her sunglasses and car keys onto the desk and reached for the mail. “Fine. Getting on well at school.”

  “That’s good.”

  She nodded; it certainly was. It would kill her to think she’d made all that sacrifice for nothing.

  “We’ve got a request for Walnut Lodge.” He tapped the computer screen. “For the second week in December. They want it for their honeymoon.”

  “No problem. Ooh, it’s Zach and Jenny!” Leaning forward to read the email on the screen, Lottie exclaimed, “They came down here last year with a group of friends. They’re a lovely couple, but Jenny despaired of ever getting Zach down the aisle because his parents went through the most horrendous divorce when he was young and he’d always vowed never to marry.” A lump sprang into her throat. “And now they are. Isn’t that brilliant? Happy endings still exist.”

  “Unless he doesn’t know he’s getting married, and she’s arranging it all in secret,” Tyler drawled. “I always feel sorry for those guys. They go along to what they think is somebody else’s wedding, then bam, find out their bat-shit crazy girlfriend’s organized the worst kind of surprise.”

  “Only a man could think that.” Lottie swiped him on the shoulder with her handful of letters. “You’re so cynical.”

  “Trust me, when it happens to you, it’s no fun at all.”

  Her mouth dropped open. “Did it happen to you?”

  Tyler winked. “And you’re so gullible.”

  “At least I’m not unromantic.” Lottie took another swipe at him with the sheaf of letters. “All bitter and twisted and—”

  “Now you’re being unfair.” Deftly catching her wrist Tyler said, “I can be romantic when I want to be. It all depends on the girl.”

  Uh-oh, dangerous. As the adrenaline skipped joyfully through her body, Lottie realized she’d gone too far. Time to pull herself together and backtrack fast.

  Oh, but she didn’t want to…

  Drop the flirting and step away from the man, ordered an inner voice scarily reminiscent of Miss Batson. Step away from the man.

  Lottie stepped away, took a deep breath.

  “Right, well, Freddie loves a happy ending. I’m going to tell him about Zach and Jenny. He’ll be thrilled. And don’t you email them,” she added over her shoulder. “Just give me five minutes and I’ll do it when I get back.”

  * * *

  Lottie let herself in through the kitchen as she did most mornings. As a rule Freddie was ensconced at the table reading the paper and enjoying a leisurely breakfast, but today the kitchen was empty.

  Lottie wandered through to the paneled hallway, then saw that the door to the study was ajar. Hearing the faint sound of a drawer being opened she realized that Freddie must be in there.

  Afterward she wondered why she hadn’t called out his name as she usually did. Instead, making her way over to the study, she saw the back of a slender dark-haired woman wrapped in an oversize robe, standing in front of Freddie’s writing desk.

  As Lottie watched through the crack in the door, the woman finished examining the papers in her hand and returned them to the right-hand drawer of the writing desk. Closing it, she then stealthily opened the left-hand drawer and surveyed the contents, pulling out a couple letters and rapidly scanning them.

  Lottie had no intention of interrupting proceedings, but the next moment a floorboard creaked beneath her foot and the woman spun around. So this was Fenella Britton.

  “I’d ask what you were doing,” Lottie said evenly, “but that would be a silly question.”

  Heavens, Miss Batson would be proud of her. Maybe she should train to become a scary spinster teacher and start wearing tweed skirts and Birkenstocks.

  “You almost gave me a heart attack!” Clapping her hand to her chest, Fenella shook her head. “I’m sorry; I know how this must look. But it’s Freddie. I’m just so worried about him.”

  Lottie had been worried about Freddie for weeks. With a jolt of fear she wondered if he had been taken ill during the night. “Why? Where is he? What’s happened?”

  “Nothing’s happened.” Fenella fiddled with the lapels of the olive-green toweling robe. “But something is wrong with Freddie, isn’t it? I saw all the painkillers in the bathroom cabinet, packets and packets of them. Some are prescription only.” Indicating the letter that now lay uppermost on the desk she said, “And this is from a neurologist. He’s talking about the results of the latest scan and the prognosis being poor…oh God, I can’t bear it! I’ve just found him again after all these years and now I’m going to lose him. My Freddie’s going to die!”

  Tears were pouring down Fenella Britton’s cheeks. She looked as if she might pass out. Clutching her arms around her thin body, she swayed against the desk and pushed the letters back into the drawer.

  “You’d better sit down,” said Lottie. “Where’s Freddie?”

  “Upstairs. H-having a b-bath. I’m so sorry. Fenella Britton.” Fenella held out a fragile, trembling hand. “You must be Lottie. Freddie’s told me all about you.”

  Lottie didn’t say that she’d heard all about her too. This was the woman who had discarded Freddie because he hadn’t been rich enough to keep him in contention. And here she was, having discovered that he was now very wealthy indeed, snooping through Freddie’s private papers. What’s more, she’d stayed the night.

  “Wouldn’t it have been more polite to ask him if there was anything wrong?” Despite the copious tears, Lottie couldn’t bring herself to warm to Fenella Britton.

  “If he’d wanted to tell me, he could have. But he didn’t mention it. Typical Freddie,” said Fenella, wiping her eyes. “He wouldn’t want to upset me. He’s always been so thoughtful and considerate.”

  “Well, you can talk about it when he comes downstairs. Are you leaving this morning?” Lottie checked her watch. “Because I can give you a lift to the station if—”

  “Leaving? How can I leave, now that I know the truth?” Vehemently Fenella shook her head. “Oh no, I let Freddie down once before. I’m not going to do it again. He’s all on his own. He needs me.”

  “You only met him again yesterday,” said Lottie. Incredulity mingled with suspicion. Was Fenella actually planning to move into Hestacombe House?

  “I’ve loved him for forty years,” Fenella said simply. “Freddie has no family. He can’t be on his own at a time like this.”

  Lottie wondered if the no family bit was significant in other ways. Was she a truly horrible person for thinking this?

  Aloud she said, “He won’t be on his own.”

  And then she saw the glint in the older woman’s eye and knew she was right.

  “You don’t want me here, do you? You’d rather deny Freddie the comfort of having someone he cares about take care of him. Why is that exactly?” Fenella’s voice was as smooth as cream but the underlying challenge was unmistakable.

  “I don’t know. Were there any bank statements floating around in that desk drawer?”

  “No, there weren’t.” Fenella tilted her head to one side. “But that’s what you’re worried about, isn’t it? Freddie doesn’t have anyone to leave his money to. And you were hoping to keep it all for yourself.”

  “Stop this.” Freddie’s voice rang out behind them. “What’s going on here?”

  “I caught her snooping in your desk drawer,” said Lottie. “She was reading the letters from your doctor, and God knows what else.”

  “Because I was so worried about you!” Fenella, rushing past Lottie and throwing her arms around Freddie, burst into a fresh torrent of tears. “And now I know the truth. Oh, my poor darling, I can’t bear it! How can life be so cruel?”

  Freddie actually looked relieved. Lottie watched the tension go out of him as he
cupped Fenella’s heart-shaped face between his hands. “It’s OK. Shhh, don’t cry. I’m sorry.”

  Don’t comfort her, Lottie longed to yell. Shoot her!

  “Oh, Freddie, my Freddie,” Fenella sobbed into the front of his brown-and-white-checked shirt.

  Hang on, I’ll get the gun!

  “Now you know why I said I wasn’t looking for another relationship.” Freddie’s voice cracked with emotion. “How could I do that to anyone? It would be too unfair.”

  “Oh, darling, don’t you see? It’s already too late,” Fenella whispered. “You can’t control how you feel about other people.”

  I certainly can’t control how I feel about you, thought Lottie.

  “It’s already happened,” Fenella went on. “Whether we want it to or not. And it may not be the easy option and it might not be sensible, but we’re in this together. You and me, whatever it takes, for as long as it takes.” Lovingly she stroked Freddie’s face. “Because I’m going to look after you. Right to the end.”

  There’s always the lake, Lottie thought longingly. We could just tie her up and tip her in.

  Visibly pulling herself together, Fenella said, “Darling, OK if I have my bath now?”

  “Go ahead.” Freddie smoothed her hair. “Take as long as you want.”

  Fenella’s smile was tremulous. “I will. And you can have a chat with Lottie. Explain to her that I’m not the Wicked Witch of the West.”

  Lottie brightened. Witches, now that was an idea. Didn’t they used to burn witches at the stake?

 
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