Making your mind up, p.25

Making Your Mind Up, page 25

 

Making Your Mind Up
 



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  “But does he have designs on you? After all, he is your boss,” said Seb. “And you do have the most perfect bottom. It can’t be easy for him, having to work with—”

  “Actually he’s here,” Lottie blurted out. “Right next to me.”

  Seb laughed. “Lucky him. Anyhow, the reason I’m calling. I want to see you tonight.”

  Tonight! Hell. Flattered but not at all sure she could persuade Mario to take Nat and Ruby for a second night, Lottie grimaced and said, “The thing is, I’d need to find a babysitter.”

  “Or you could bring the kids along with you.” Seb was unfazed. “There’s a fair on Ambleside Common. Would they be up for that, d’you think?”

  Would they be up for a trip to the fairground? Was he serious?

  “They’d love it. If you’re sure you wouldn’t mind.” Flustered, Lottie realized that Tyler had stopped at a junction and was waiting for directions. “Sorry. Left, then second right by that blue van. Um, look, I’ll ring you back in a bit. We’re just picking up the car.”

  Seb paused. “This boss of yours. Have you slept with him?”

  “No!”

  “Did he hear that?”

  “Yes,” Tyler replied. “He did.”

  “Speak to you later.” Lottie hurriedly ended the call before Seb could cause any more mischief. “Turn left again after the flower shop. Nearly there now.”

  “Sounds like you’ve got yourself a date for tonight.” Tyler’s tone was expressionless.

  Did he care? Really care? A wave of regret swept through her, because if she had the choice she wouldn’t choose Seb. But it wasn’t a viable dilemma anyway, was it? She was a mother whose children had taken that decision for her. A squiggle of excitement mingled with fear in Lottie’s stomach at the prospect of introducing Seb to Nat and Ruby. What if they hated him as much as they hated Tyler? Aloud she said casually, “Sounds like I have.”

  * * *

  “No. No way. I can’t do it,” Seb declared flatly. “Anything but that.”

  “You have to.” Giggling helplessly, Ruby dragged him past the ringtoss. “I’m going to make you go on it.”

  Seb dug his heels in like a dog. “Won’t do it.”

  “Why not?”

  “You want to know why not? OK, I’ll tell you.” Counting off on his fingers, Seb recited, “Number one reason: because I’ll scream like a girl. Number two reason: I’ll cry like a girl. And number three reason: I’ll be sick.”

  Nat was busy tugging on his other arm. “You won’t. You have to come on it with us. Mum, tell him.”

  “You have to,” Lottie told Seb, “because someone has to sit here and look after the stuffed animals, and that really isn’t a job for a grown man.”

  Seb allowed himself to be hauled off to the Ghost Train, and Lottie settled down on the grass to wait for them. As the lights and colors of the fairground flashed and swirled around her, she breathed in the evocative smells of hot dogs, frying onions, toffee apples, and diesel. It was hard to believe that in less than two hours Seb had won over both her children so effortlessly and completely. Although in truth he had achieved it within two minutes. Somehow there had been that magical spark when she had first introduced him to Ruby and Nat. Being a father himself undoubtedly helped. He was comfortable with them, relaxed and funny and interested in what they had to say. He clearly enjoyed their company but wasn’t making the mistake of trying too hard to impress.

  And it had worked, beyond Lottie’s wildest dreams. The last couple of hours had been a revelation. She hadn’t realized it was possible for her children to have this much genuine uncomplicated fun with a man who wasn’t their dad.

  A lurid lime-green stuffed dinosaur toppled against her knee. Lottie sat it firmly back upright next to the fluorescent orange fluffy spider and the giant purple pig they’d won at the shooting gallery. How Nat’s and Ruby’s eyes had lit up when Seb had pulled out his wallet and handed each of them a tenner. When she had tried to protest he had insisted, explaining, “Otherwise it wouldn’t be fair. Because I’m not stopping until I’ve won that purple pig.”

  Nor had he. As far as Seb was concerned, failure wasn’t an option. Even if the cheap, cross-eyed pig had ended up costing him close to fifty pounds. When the stallholder had finally handed it over, Nat had said, “What are you going to call it?” and Seb had replied, “Well, I’ve got this sister called Tiffany…”

  Seb groaned, reappearing with Nat and Ruby in tow. “Oh God, never again. That was scary. There were real ghosts in there.”

  “He was frightened.” Nat was proud. “I wasn’t.”

  “OK, back to the rides. That one.” Seb pointed to the contraption Lottie had been most dreading, the warp-speed upside-down spinny thing.

  “I’d love to”—she patted the stuffed toys—“but these need looking after. You lot go. I’ll stay here and watch.”

  He pulled a face at Ruby and Nat. “Your mum’s scared.”

  “Honestly,” said Lottie, “I’m not. I love upside-down spinny things. I just—”

  “I was scared of the Ghost Train,” Seb said patiently, “and look at me. I overcame my fears.”

  “But I—”

  “It’s the children I feel sorry for.” Shaking his head, he turned to Ruby and Nat. “Children, I feel sorry for you. What must it be like to have a mother who’s a wimp?”

  “I told you,” Lottie protested. “Someone has to look after everything we’ve won.”

  “Exactly. Someone does.” Seb gathered up the fluffy spider, the lurid dinosaur, and the purple pig. Marching over to the warp-speed upside-down spinny thing, he flashed a disarming smile at a couple of young teenage girls, exchanged a few words with them, and handed over the toys. Returning, he said, “But it doesn’t have to be you.”

  After the upside-down spinny thing came the Tilt-A-Whirl, the Scrambler, and the bumper cars. By ten o’clock they’d been on every ride at the fair, won many more stuffed toys, and eaten far too many toffee apples, cotton candy, and fries with curry sauce.

  “That was brilliant.” Ruby heaved an ecstatic sigh as they made their way back across the field to where they’d left the car. “Thanks, Seb.”

  “Thank you,” Seb replied gravely, “for looking after me on the Ghost Train.”

  “Can we go out again soon?” Nat gazed eagerly up at him.

  Lottie winced in the darkness; seven-year-olds could be alarmingly direct. Even if it was a question she was interested in hearing the answer to herself.

  “The thing is, I don’t know if your mother would like that,” said Seb.

  “Why not? She would!”

  “She might have decided she doesn’t like me.”

  Nat was incredulous. “She wouldn’t! She does like you, don’t you, Mum?”

  “See?” demanded Seb when Lottie hesitated, floundering around for a reply. “She’s trying to be polite because she doesn’t want to hurt my feelings, but I think she’s secretly in love with another man.”

  “Who?” Ruby’s eyes were like saucers.

  Seb lowered his voice to a stage whisper. “Tyson, is that his name? Her boss.”

  “Noooo!” Nat let out a howl of disdain. “She doesn’t like him. We won’t let her.”

  “His name’s Tyler,” Ruby chimed in with relish. “And we hate him.”

  “Ruby,” Lottie protested.

  “Well we do.”

  “Your mum might not like me,” said Seb. “We don’t know yet, do we? I mean, has she said anything to you?”

  Ruby, her eyes bright, replied helpfully, “When we asked her what you were like she said very nice.”

  “Well, that’s a start.”

  “And good-looking.”

  Oh great, thought Lottie.

  “I’m flattered.” Seb ruffled Ruby’s hair. “But she still might secretly hate me.


  “She doesn’t. Mum,” Nat ordered, “tell Seb you love him.”

  “Nat, no!” Thank goodness it was dark.

  “Why not?”

  For heaven’s sake. “Because…because it just isn’t the kind of thing grown-ups do.”

  “But we can all go out with Seb again. We can, can’t we?”

  Lottie’s skin was prickling with mortification. And Seb was laughing at her, the bastard.

  “If it’s OK with him, it’s OK with me.”

  “Result,” Seb crowed, clenching his fists and punching the air.

  “Give me a piggyback!” Nat leaped up and Seb expertly caught him on his back, racing off across the field while Nat clung on and let out whoops of delight.

  “He’s fun,” said Ruby, watching them turn in a wide circle before cantering back. “I really like him.”

  “Mm, I can tell.” Lottie’s nod was noncommittal, but inside she was experiencing a warm glow.

  “My turn,” Ruby shrieked as Nat was tipped to the ground. Seb expertly scooped her up and carted her off.

  “I like Seb,” Nat confided, sliding a warm grubby hand into Lottie’s. “He’s nice. Almost as good as Dad.”

  “Yes.” A lump sprang into Lottie’s throat. Maybe this time they’d all found the man of their dreams.

  Chapter 39

  The following evening Nat did something that caused Lottie’s heart to contract in alarm. He and Ruby were stretched out on their stomachs on the living room floor playing a fiercely contested game of Uno when Nat, pausing to study his cards, absently scratched behind his left ear.

  Lottie stiffened, realizing belatedly that it wasn’t the first time she’d seen him do it this evening, but until now the awful significance hadn’t registered.

  “Ow, Mum, geddoff.” Nat tried to wriggle free as she dropped to the floor and grabbed his head between her hands. “I’m winning.”

  Lottie ignored his protests. Her mouth dry, she began frantically parting his dark hair, hoping against hope that the scratching didn’t mean what she thought it…

  Shit.

  “Mum!” Delighted, Nat said, “You said the sh word!”

  “Sorry, sorry, I thought I’d only said it in my head.” Still kneeling, Lottie leaned back on her heels and let out a wail of dismay. “Oh, Nat. You’ve got nits.”

  Nat shrugged, concentrating on his hand of Uno cards. “Thought so.”

  Lottie paled. “You thought so? Why didn’t you say so!”

  Another shrug. “Forgot. Some of the people in my class have nits. We had a letter about it from school last week.”

  “Last week! You didn’t give me any letter!”

  Nat was indignant. “I found that squashed beetle on the playground, remember? I had to use the letter to wrap it up and bury it.”

  “Have I got nits?” Eager not to be left out, Ruby crawled across the carpet and thrust her head into Lottie’s lap. This time it took less than five seconds to confirm the worst.

  “Yes.” Lottie wondered if bursting into tears would help.

  “Great! Does that mean we don’t have to go to school?”

  “No, it does not. It just means hours and hours of combing.”

  Helpfully Nat said, “Mummy, you might have nits too.”

  Oh God.

  Leaping to her feet, Lottie rushed upstairs. The old metal nit comb was in the back of the bathroom cabinet. Ten minutes of heart-in-the-mouth combing finally reassured her that her own hair was free of uninvited guests. But it wasn’t that reassuring, because she still had to face up to the possibility that Seb might be another unwitting host.

  Actually, it was less of a possibility and more of a likelihood. Lottie briefly closed her eyes, picturing him with Nat and Ruby last night at the fair. When they had been crammed together into the seats on the various rides. When Seb had been crouching beside Nat, showing him how to take aim and fire at the targets in the shooting gallery. When he had given Ruby a piggyback and Ruby, screaming with delight, had clung on to his neck, her long curly hair falling over his forehead.

  Lottie flinched. She had to tell Seb. Oh hell, how was he going to react to this? He was a man, and a glamorous one at that. He would recoil in horror, be utterly repulsed, assume she and her nit-ridden children were dirty. He might never want to see her again. And frankly, who could blame him?

  Two hours, three baths, and a family-size bottle of conditioner later, Lottie had combed everyone’s hair so exhaustively that her arms were ready to drop off. But for tonight, at least, they were bug-free. Despite Nat having begged to be allowed to keep the captured head lice in a matchbox.

  Now, with the children safely in bed with clean sheets and pillowcases, came the part she had really been dreading. The necessary evil, thought Lottie, feeling slightly sick but determined to go through with it. Tightening the belt of her white robe and curling up on the sofa, she called Seb’s cell phone.

  OK, here we go.

  “Hello?”

  The line was crackly and not particularly clear, but the voice definitely belonged to a female. For a split second Lottie wondered if Seb had been lying to her and was married. Then as the female chirruped distractedly, “Hello, hello, who is this?” she realized who had answered the phone.

  “Oh, hi. Could I speak to Seb please?”

  “Actually he’s a bit busy right now. Is that Lottie?”

  “It is.” Lottie felt ridiculously flattered that Seb’s sister knew her name.

  “Hi, Lottie! This is Tiffany! Is it urgent?”

  “Well, yes, it is quite. Um…”

  “The thing is, we’re on our way down the M5 and Seb’s driving. I won’t let him speak on the phone while he’s in charge of the car, you understand. Otherwise we’d be killed. So you just tell me what it is, Lottie, and I’ll pass the message on.”

  Lottie blanched at the prospect.

  “It’s OK, don’t worry, nothing that won’t keep.” She managed to inject a note of sangfroid into her voice. “Tell Seb I’ll give him a call later, OK? Bye.”

  With the connection broken, Lottie buried her hot face in her hands. How typical that something like this had to happen to her. After three long arid years of singledom she’d finally met a man she liked who not only appeared to like her in return but also, miraculously, got on brilliantly with Ruby and Nat. Last night they had all shared a memorable evening together at the fair and Seb had lavished them with money and affection.

  And what had they given him in return?

  Nits.

  The phone was ringing.

  “Oh ya, hi, me again. Seb says you can’t keep him in suspense like this. You know how impatient he is. He says he needs to know what’s so important right now.”

  For the life of her Lottie couldn’t think of a convincing lie, a substitute reason for phoning him so urgently. Oh well, maybe it was easier telling him via a go-between, a kind of “my friend really fancies you, he wants to know if you’d go out with him” scenario.

  “Hello? Hello? Are you still there?” warbled Tiffany.

  “Yes, still here.” Lottie took a deep breath and plunged in. “The thing is, I’m really sorry, but my children have nits. Which means Seb may have them too, so he’ll need to get himself…um, checked out.”

  “Sorry? Hang on, just gone under a bridge. Say again?”

  “NITS,” said Lottie.

  “What’s that? I don’t know what that is.” Tiffany sounded baffled; she had evidently never heard the term before. Too posh, undoubtedly. Far too well brought up ever to have encountered such an undesirable accessory.

  “Head lice,” Lottie reluctantly explained. Lice sounded so much worse than nits. Bigger and crawlier and—

  “What? Are you SERIOUS? OH MY GOD, THAT IS DISGUSTING!” bellowed Tiffany, accompanied by a bashing sound as if she were shak
ing the phone in case hordes of head lice were at this very moment crawling out of the mouthpiece. “UGH, HOW COULD YOU DO THIS? IF SEB’S CAUGHT THEM FROM YOU, DOES THAT MEAN I’VE CAUGHT THEM FROM HIM?”

  In the background Lottie could hear Seb, mystified, saying, “What? What?”

  “Please…let me speak to Seb.”

  “No, you can’t speak to Seb,” Tiffany yelled back. “I told you, he’s driving the damn car! Oh God, I’m going to be sick. I feel so dirty. I can’t bear it—”

  “Lottie?” It was Seb’s voice. “Bloody hell, what’s going on here? Tiff’s practically climbing out of the car. What in God’s name have you just told her?”

  “UGH, UGH, UGH,” Tiffany wailed in the background.

  “Tiff,” Seb said sharply, “give it a rest.”

  Lottie quavered. Was this how it felt when you had to tell a new boyfriend you’d accidentally given him syphilis? Or genital herpes? Or AIDS? “Look,” she blurted out, “I already said I’m sorry. Ruby and Nat have nits, which means you might have them too.”

  “Nits?” said Seb.

  “Not nits!” Tiffany bellowed. “Head lice!”

  Oh God, that hideous word again. Feeling terrible, Lottie said hurriedly, “Really, it’s not that bad. You just need to—”

  “Head lice?” Seb echoed in disbelief. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”

  That was it then. Lottie, her palms slippery with humiliation, stammered, “I only found out tonight; otherwise, I’d never have let them near you.”

  “I don’t believe it. You mean to tell me all this fuss is over a few nits? Tiff, you have to get a grip here. It’s not what’s generally considered a calamity.”

  Lottie, holding her breath, heard the irritation in Seb’s voice and Tiffany in the background whimpering, “But I feel so dirty.”

  “Lottie?” He was back. “I do apologize on behalf of my sister. Now, what time do you go to bed?”

  * * *

  Seb arrived at eleven thirty, having dropped Tiffany off first. Lottie opened the front door and there he was, wearing a sea-green linen shirt and jeans, all twinkly-eyed and grinning at her.

  “Hey, gorgeous, I just happened to be passing and I wondered if you had a nit comb I could borrow.”

 
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