Making your mind up, p.22

Making Your Mind Up, page 22

 

Making Your Mind Up
 



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  “My apartment’s only a couple of streets away.”

  “Oh, right.” He shrugged, signaling that it didn’t matter. “I was going to offer you a lift.”

  Her mascaraed eyes bright, Gemma said breathlessly, “You still can.”

  After that the rest of the evening had followed its predictable course. Jerry and the lads had drunk up and departed, winking and jokily reminding Mario that he had to be at work tomorrow. The pub emptied, Gemma finished clearing up, and the two of them left together at eleven forty.

  Like Bill Clinton, Mario slept with her because he could. It didn’t make him feel any better, but by the time he found this out, it was too late—the deed was done.

  He wasn’t proud of himself. And now came the horrible bit.

  Propping herself up on one elbow, Gemma said eagerly, “Tonight’s my night off. Do you want to come over here after you’ve finished work?”

  Mario almost wished he had a raging hangover. It would be something else to concentrate on. He also wished the damn cat would stop staring at him.

  “The thing is, I don’t think I can.”

  “Oh. Well, how about tomorrow then? I can pretend I’ve got the flu and—”

  “Gemma, I still can’t do it. It wouldn’t be fair to you. You’re a lovely girl, but I just broke up with someone yesterday.”

  “So? You’ve got me now!”

  Mario couldn’t bear the look of hope in her eyes. Hating himself, he shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I can’t get involved with anyone else. I thought you understood that.”

  Gemma’s face went all blotchy. “You mean you don’t want to see me again? Ever?”

  “Well, I’m not saying ever.” Attempting to spare her feelings, Mario said, “It’s just that this is a bad time for me. Who knows, maybe in a year or two—”

  “I don’t believe you,” Gemma shouted, causing the cat to turn its head. “You had sex with me and now you’re off!”

  “You had sex with me too,” Mario pointed out.

  “You bastard! I had sex with you because I wanted to make sure you’d see me again!”

  “Sweetheart, I’m really sorry.” He’d gotten this so wrong. And it was twenty past seven.

  “Aaarrrgh!” She’d caught him looking at his watch. Gemma threw back her side of the duvet and leaped furiously out of bed. The cat, finding himself abruptly plunged into a world of darkness, let out an ear-splitting yowl and scrabbled frantically to escape. A split second later he emerged at the head of the doubled-over duvet, took one look at Mario, and, like lightning, swiped a paw across his face.

  Take that, hissed the cat. You scoundrel, you utter cad—how dare you besmirch my mistress’s reputation? And while we’re at it, get out of my bed.

  “Jesus.” Mario gasped as the scratches from the cat’s unsheathed claws began to make themselves felt. To add insult to injury, he sneezed again. The cat leaped off the bed and shot out of the room like an escaping assassin.

  “Good,” yelled Gemma, naked and struggling into her white robe. “I hope it bloody hurts.”

  Chapter 34

  It was two o’clock in the afternoon and Gemma would surely be delighted that at least one of her wishes had been granted. The three parallel scratches across Mario’s right cheekbone weren’t deep, but they were surprisingly painful. They had also caused untold amusement among his staff, who had spent the morning calling him Cap’n Sparrow. It was a relief when they’d disappeared to the café up the road for lunch.

  The next moment Mario glanced up from the paperwork on his desk and saw Amber coming into the showroom. His brain went into overdrive. Amber was here, she’d realized her mistake and had changed her mind, and the box she was carrying contained some kind of surprise—maybe a shiny helium balloon emblazoned with the words I’M SORRY, I LOVE YOU—in order to persuade him to take her back.

  “Hi.” Amber appeared in his office doorway. “What happened to your face?”

  “Well, I was wrestling with this man-eating tiger.” Mario didn’t know if he could cope with this much adrenaline.

  Amber smiled. “What happened really? It looks sore.”

  “Got scratched by a cat.”

  “You don’t know anyone with a cat.”

  Wrong, thought Mario. I just wish I didn’t know anyone with a cat.

  He shrugged. “It was just a stray, a skinny little thing. I found it at the back of the workshop this morning. I was going to take it to the shelter, but it didn’t much like the idea.”

  Well, what else could he say?

  “Better get a tetanus shot. Anyway”—Amber indicated the box—“I thought I’d drop your things off.”

  Not a helium balloon then. Mario, who had already guessed as much, said, “What’s in there?”

  “CDs. DVDs. A few clothes. Your nice purply lambswool sweater—I knew you’d want that one back.”

  “You’re the one I want back.” The words were out; it might not be cool to beg, but he couldn’t help himself.

  “Mario.” Amber bit her lip. “Don’t. This isn’t easy for me either, you know.”

  “So change your mind.”

  “I can’t.”

  “You can. I love you.”

  For a moment Amber wavered, fiddling with the bangles on her wrist. Then she shook her head. “Maybe you do, but it still isn’t going to happen. Damn, this is why I didn’t bring the stuff to your house. I thought it would be easier here.”

  Mario took a loose CD out of the box. Guns N’ Roses—they’d been looking for it for months.

  “Where did you find this?”

  “Down the back of the sofa. What did you do last night?”

  Shagged the barmaid from the Three Feathers, since you ask. Why, what did you do?

  Maybe not.

  “Took the kids to Pizza Hut,” said Mario. There, that sounded better.

  “So you told Nat and Ruby. Were they OK?”

  “What do you think?”

  Amber’s eyes glistened. “I’m sorry.”

  “They love you. They’re upset. Nat said—”

  “Ha-ha-ha, there he is!”

  Mario looked up as the showroom doors swung open, signaling the return of Jerry and the others. From this angle they could see him but not Amber. Jerry, grinning from ear to ear, called over, “Who’s been a naughty boy then? We didn’t go to the café for lunch. Popped into the Feathers instead. Miiiaaaowww!”

  The blood drained from Mario’s face. If he slammed the office door shut, Amber would want to know why; she was already giving him an odd look.

  “Had a nice chat with Gemma,” Jerry went on, clearly delighted with his scoop. “Oh boy, is she mad with you. Called you a filthy, lying, cheating bastard and a lousy lay. Ha-ha, I just wish she’d had a video camera running when her cat shot across the bed and took that swipe at you. Think of the fun we could have had, sending that off to one of those funny video clip shows on TV.”

  Mario couldn’t look at Amber. He felt as if all the air were being sucked out of the room.

  In a soft voice Amber said, “Good-bye, Mario.” Then from the doorway, she added with barely concealed disdain, “You must be slipping. You never used to be lousy in bed.”

  * * *

  The web designer’s name was Phil Micklewhite.

  “Hi,” said Lottie when he answered the phone on the fourth ring, “I don’t know if you remember me, but we spoke—”

  “Never forget a voice,” Phil Micklewhite said cheerfully. “You’re the one who rang last week asking about Fenella Britton.”

  “That’s me. OK, the thing is, you sounded like a really nice person, kind and honest and completely trustworthy—”

  “And you haven’t been able to stop thinking about me,” said Phil. “I’ve haunted your dreams. You want to meet me in person so we can start ou
r mad, passionate love affair. I know, I know, this happens to me all the time, but before you turn up on my doorstep, I feel it’s only fair to warn you that I’m fifty years old, very overweight, and so ugly I even scare my goldfish.”

  Lottie relaxed, liking him even more. “Actually I wanted to ask you a bit more about Fenella. Is that OK?”

  “Fine by me. Not sure I can help you though. I don’t know much about her.” He paused. “Am I allowed to ask why?”

  Lottie said, “Can I trust you to be discreet?”

  “Discretion is my middle name.”

  Lottie briefly filled him in on the situation. “So basically I just wondered if you knew anything that might prove me right. Or wrong. Like if you told me Fenella was working as a high-class prostitute,” she said hopefully, “with men calling around at all hours of the day and night, that would be really helpful.”

  “I can see it would.” Phil sounded amused. “But I’m afraid I’ve never seen any gentleman callers. We’re a pretty quiet bunch here at Hutton Court. There are eight apartments, and most of the other residents are retired. They’re a pleasant enough lot. We say hello and pass the time of day, and the Ramsays in apartment three come in and feed my goldfish when I’m away, but that’s about it. I’m not much of a one for tea parties. Pretty much the only time they knock on my door is when they want to use the Internet.”

  Lottie knew she was clutching at straws. “Why do they do that?”

  “I’m the only one in the building with a computer. The Ramsays like to send the occasional email to their son in Oregon. The Barkers are crossword addicts. Eric in apartment one likes buying old cameras. They all pop over every now and again. I don’t mind,” Phil went on. “It earns me brownie points and means they can’t moan about the state of my window boxes.”

  “Does Fenella use the Internet?”

  “Hardly at all. Although she did last week.”

  “To send emails?”

  “Nooo.” Phil sounded amused. “Fenella wouldn’t know how to send an email. She asked me how to go about finding out something. I connected her to Google, showed her what to do and left her to it.”

  Not daring to get her hopes up, Lottie said, “When last week?”

  There was a pause, then Phil said slowly, “Possibly the day after you phoned me.”

  Lottie got her hopes up. “Can you find out what she was looking for?”

  “Give me a few seconds.”

  She heard the clatter of computer keys as Phil delved expertly into files. He was back on the phone moments later.

  “I don’t know what she typed into Google, but she got through to a website called Hestacombe Vacation Cottages.”

  Bingo.

  “And it was the day after you rang me,” Phil confirmed.

  The day after she’d mailed off the letter to Fenella with a first-class stamp, a letter telling her that Freddie Masterson would like to see her again. Quickly typing Freddie’s name into Google, Lottie saw the many links to Hestacombe Vacation Cottages fill the screen.

  She had written the text herself, extolling Freddie’s many qualities and charting how he had built up the business over many years. As well as numerous photographs of each of the cottages, there were several of Hestacombe House itself, looking magnificent in all its autumnal glory and not at all like a block of apartments.

  “Is that helpful?” said Phil.

  “It’s just what I needed.” Lottie nodded happily; if he’d been there she would have kissed him. “It’s perfect.”

  * * *

  Fenella went very still and looked at Freddie. “Is this a joke?”

  They were outside on the terrace.

  “No.” Freddie shook his head. “If it was, it wouldn’t be a very funny one, would it?”

  “You want me to leave,” Fenella echoed. “Because I looked you up on the Internet.”

  “Because you weren’t honest with me,” said Freddie.

  She shook her head in disbelief. “It’s that bloody girl, isn’t it? Interfering, sticking her nose in where it isn’t wanted. And you’re just going to let her win! I love you, Freddie. You love me. We can make each other happy!”

  Three days ago, Fenella had erupted into his life. Two days ago, they had driven up to Oxford and returned with three suitcases of her clothes. Yesterday, Lottie had taken him aside and relayed to him the details of her conversation with Phil Micklewhite.

  And now he was doing what needed to be done.

  “You never lied to me before,” said Freddie. “I thought I could trust you.”

  “You can,” Fenella pleaded.

  “Why would you want to stay with someone who’s dying?”

  “Because I can’t bear the thought of not being with you!”

  “Fine, then.” Freddie smiled. “You can stay.”

  Fenella’s dark eyes widened with delight. Jumping up from the table, she threw her arms around him. As her perfume filled his nostrils, she exclaimed, “Darling! Really? Oh, you won’t regret it!”

  “I hope you won’t.”

  “Oh, Freddie…”

  “Listen to what I have to say.” Freddie prepared himself. “You should know that I’ve spoken to my lawyer. My will has been made, and I won’t be changing it. Whatever happens, you won’t get anything when I’m gone. No property, no money, nothing.” He paused, allowing time for this information to sink in. “So that’s it. I’ll understand if you decide to change your mind.”

  He knew what Fenella’s answer would be before he’d even finished the final sentence. Her shoulders had tensed at the mention of the word lawyer. Her breath had caught in her lungs. By the time he’d reached no property, no money, nothing, her fingers had slipped from his shoulders, her arms dropping inch by inch along with, it seemed, the temperature of the air on the terrace.

  Freddie gently disentangled himself from her limp grasp.

  Finally, Fenella spoke. “So who gets it all? You can’t take it with you, you know.”

  Take it with him. Freddie considered this. If he could convert the money into high quality diamonds and swallow them, would that count as taking it with him?

  Irritated by his lack of response, Fenella said, “Don’t tell me you’re leaving everything to some miserable animal sanctuary.”

  He shook his head. “It’s all been taken care of.”

  “Well, I think you’re making a mistake. We could have been happy.”

  “I don’t think we could,” said Freddie. “Not really.”

  Fenella gazed steadily at him. “When I got that letter, I thought you’d come back into my life to rescue me.”

  He had no intention of feeling guilty. “Sorry.”

  She took a step away from him, turned to gaze at the wondrous view of Hestacombe Lake, then visibly collected herself. “I’m sorry too. I’ll go pack my things. Do I at least get a lift to the train station?”

  Freddie smiled faintly and nodded. “Of course.”

  Chapter 35

  Fundraising for charity was always laudable, of course it was. Being lectured to about the desperate need for further research into such a distressing medical condition was boring but understandably necessary. Everyone in the room had their serious caring faces on and was dutifully paying attention. Lottie, clutching her glass of fizzy water, wondered if they were all battling to control their Oh-God-this-is-gross faces as desperately as she was.

  Seriously, much more of this and she might actually be sick.

  It was the opening night of Jumee, a glamorous new restaurant in the upmarket Montpellier district of Cheltenham. Deeply impressed by the invitation, a silver 3-D hologram printed on Mediterranean-blue Perspex, Lottie had been delighted to come along and check out the glamour firsthand on behalf of future visitors to Hestacombe. And the food, of course. She had even celebrated by going out and treating herself to
a slinky new black and gold dress.

  So far so good.

  The bad news was, she hadn’t counted on having to listen to an earnest gray-haired woman doctor in a fawn, buttoned-to-the-neck cardigan and bristly looking tweed skirt droning on and on and on in stomach-churning Technicolor detail about the horrors of…

  Eczema.

  Half an hour ago Lottie’s stomach had been rumbling away in joyful anticipation of the evening ahead. The cooking smells wafting through from the kitchen had been sublime. She deliberately hadn’t eaten anything since a KitKat at lunchtime. But her stomach had undergone an abrupt change of heart; instead of rumbling happily away, it had squashed itself into a tight, hard little knot, sullenly daring her—in true teenage fashion—to try to make it accept any food at all.

  It clearly wasn’t an ideal scenario. Lottie felt sorry for the young couple who had plunged their life savings into this new venture. Having spoken to Robbie and Michelle earlier, she’d learned that it had always been their dream to run their own restaurant. Duly selling their house and emptying their savings accounts, they had been dismayed to discover that they still didn’t have enough money to make the business viable. Step forward Michelle’s Uncle Bill, a hugely wealthy man, who had generously offered to back them to the tune of eighty thousand pounds. Thus, relieved and grateful, they had accepted the offer, and work had duly been completed on Jumee.

  When Uncle Bill had suggested using the opportunity of the opening night to raise money for his favorite charity, it would have been churlish to refuse. Even though they already knew his favorite charity was Clearaway UK. Uncle Bill’s beloved son Marcus suffered dreadfully from chronic eczema to the extent that he still spent months on end in the hospital, his life blighted by the painful, disfiguring disease. Uncle Bill had long made it his mission to do as much as humanly possible to eradicate it.

  Which was noble and admirable, and just went to show what a wonderful, compassionate human being he was. But it also had to be said that inviting Dr. Edwina Murray of the Clearaway Research Institute to speak at Jumee’s opening night possibly wasn’t the smartest idea Uncle Bill had ever had.

 

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