Making your mind up, p.26

Making Your Mind Up, page 26

 

Making Your Mind Up
 



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  Lottie could have kissed him. “I’m so sorry.”

  “Don’t be daft. These things happen.” As he made his way through to the living room, Seb said, “I have had nits before, you know. So has Tiffany, for that matter. She was so traumatized by it, she’s wiped it from her memory.”

  “Why was she traumatized?” Lottie sat him down on the chair in the middle of the room and slung a white towel around his shoulders.

  “Because I teased her for about a year. And told all her friends.”

  “That was mean.” Lottie carefully parted his surfer’s blond hair into sections and began combing each section through.

  “I was ten. Besides, she was so easy to wind up. That’s what being a brother’s all about.”

  She smiled. “I thought you’d never want to see me again.”

  “Hey.” Seb slid a playful hand around her waist. “Takes more than a few creepy crawlies to get rid of me. Found any yet?”

  “All clear so far.”

  “You know, I’m quite enjoying this. It’s like you’re grooming me.”

  Lottie, who was enjoying it too, took a step back and said, “It’s like you’re groping me.”

  “Probably why I’m enjoying it so much.” Seb shifted his grip and drew her back to him, pulling her down onto his lap. “Do you realize I haven’t even kissed you yet?”

  Lottie experienced a delicious twizzle of anticipation; funnily enough, this small detail hadn’t escaped her notice either.

  Aloud she said, “That’s because you’ve got nits. Yuck.”

  “Have I?”

  “Actually I haven’t found any.” Lottie waggled the nit comb. “But you still need to buy one of these to be on the safe side. You have to—”

  “Keep combing. I know.” Shaking his head, Seb said, “First you chuck ice cubes down my back. Then your children give me head lice. And still no kiss. I have to tell you, this isn’t the most conventional relationship I’ve ever had.”

  “And is that such a bad thing?” Lottie was unable to take her eyes off his mouth; he really did have the most mesmerizing smile.

  “I’m enjoying it actually. Nobody could ever call you run-of-the-mill. But there is something I’d like to do…”

  He kissed as expertly as Lottie had imagined he would. Winding her arms around his neck, still clutching the nit comb, she kissed him back. Oh yes, this was more like it. Maybe there wasn’t quite the glorious adrenaline rush she’d experienced with Tyler, but you couldn’t expect that to happen every time, could you? And at least they were alone together, completely unobserved, not like the other week when she and Tyler had been kissing outside Fox Cottage, blissfully unaware that they were being spied on by the two small Jenkins boys lurking in a nearby tree…

  And look at the kerfuffle that had caused.

  “You’re beautiful.” As Seb murmured the words, his left hand began to wander. Lottie retrieved it just before it disappeared up inside the front of her lime-green sweatshirt.

  “No?” He gave her a quizzical look.

  “Not now.”

  “Why not?”

  Lottie wondered if she’d just lost him. Was he annoyed? Had he assumed he was here for the duration, that she was up for a night of torrid passion? Oh well, too bad.

  Aloud she said, “Nat or Ruby might wake up.”

  Seb did the Roger Moore thing with one of his eyebrows. “Is that a genuine excuse, or are you too polite to tell me you find me about as attractive as a bucket of sick?”

  Smiling, Lottie smoothed his streaky blond hair back from his forehead and kissed him again. “My kids aren’t used to finding strange men in my bed. I don’t want to…alarm them. And I wouldn’t be able to relax.”

  “So no sex. Just nits.” Seb mournfully shook his head. “I bet Mick Jagger never has this happen to him.”

  “Sorry.” Lottie hoped he wouldn’t try to change her mind.

  “Hey, not a problem.” He broke into a smile. “We’ll take it slowly, let the kids get used to the idea of me being around.”

  As she stood on the front doorstep waving him off, those words danced through Lottie’s mind. Taking things slowly and letting the kids get used to the idea of Sebastian Gill being around.

  That sounded as if he meant business.

  Chapter 40

  It was a warm sunny Friday afternoon in late September, but as far as Cressida was concerned it felt like Christmas morning. Her stomach was jumping with excitement. This time nothing was going to go wrong. Robert and Sacha had been only too delighted to let Jojo come away with her for a weekend. In an hour Jojo would be back from school and they’d be rattling up the M5 together. She had even checked the air pressure in her tires and bought a special sachet of windshield wash by way of celebration. If the sight of her came as something of a disappointment to Tom, he could at least be impressed by her sparklingly clean windshield.

  Just picturing seeing Tom again was enough to set off the pleasurable palpitations in Cressida’s chest. With rising anticipation she consulted her watch for the fifteenth time in ten minutes, checked her reflection in the dressing table mirror, and fiddled with the lacy sleeves of her white shirt. Favorite shirt, new creamy-pink lipstick, new pink velvet tank. It was naughty, but she hadn’t been able to help herself. And who knew, maybe at this very moment up in Newcastle, Tom was tearing around the shops frantically searching for a new sweater with which to impress her or a smart new pair of shoes.

  Did men do that?

  Anyway, concentrate. Things to do. Zipping up her weekend case and lugging it downstairs, Cressida parked it in the narrow hallway and consulted her trusty list. She still had to parcel up a consignment of cards and take them to the post office. The houseplants needed watering. And she and Jojo would need a selection of CDs to play on the journey, as well as a couple of packets of gummy bears to keep them going.

  But first the concentrated windshield wash had to be mixed with water and poured into the reservoir under the hood. In the kitchen, Cressida filled a plastic jug from the tap and carefully snipped the corner off the sachet. Even more carefully she poured the bright turquoise liquid into the jug of water and stirred it in with a spoon. This was the kind of thing that had driven Robert crazy when they were married—if he were here now he’d be rolling his eyes in disbelief at the thought that anyone could be so stupid as to change into their best clothes before tackling a potentially messy task.

  But he wasn’t here now—ha!—so it didn’t matter a bit. Feeling smug, Cressida picked up the jug with both hands and made her way over to the door.

  The noise was as sudden as gunshot and almost as loud. Something hit the kitchen window with an almighty thud and Cressida let out a reflexive shriek of alarm. Her arms jerked and her brain leaped into action, yelling, “Not on the clothes, not on the clothes,” so forcefully that the jug instantly toppled away from her body.

  Turquoise water sloshed out of the somersaulting jug and cascaded over the kitchen table. Throwing out her hands in a desperate attempt to somehow catch it, Cressida screamed, “Noooo,” and saw it all happen in nightmarish slow motion in front of her. The white box containing the cards took the full force of the onslaught. The lid of the box was off because she hadn’t yet printed out the invoice to be sent with the order. The order that had—absolutely had—to go out this afternoon without fail.

  The implications were so horrible that Cressida couldn’t fully take them in. Gazing down at herself in a state of deep shock, she saw that not a single drop of turquoise water had landed on her clothes.

  But the cards…oh, the cards…were ruined. Every last one of them. Her hands now trembling violently, Cressida pushed up her sleeves and picked out the first neatly stacked pile. Each one bore the words Emily-Jane is here! in silver script. Pale pink marabou feathers, silver beads, iridescent sequins, and glitter-strewn netting had been painstakingl
y glued into place. She had drawn a baby in a cot on the front of each card, and every edge was bordered with pink velvet ribbon.

  Needless to say, they were the most intricate cards she had ever been commissioned to make. Each one had taken thirty minutes to complete, and there were eighty of them.

  But it didn’t end there. It wasn’t only the most lucrative single order Cressida had ever taken, oh no. This order had been placed by the owner of a chain of upmarket card shops in the UK, a man who didn’t take kindly to being let down in any shape or form. His wife, at the age of forty-two and after many heartbreaking attempts at IVF, had just given birth to their first baby, and Cressida had been both flattered and delighted when they had chosen her to make the cards announcing Emily-Jane’s safe arrival into the world.

  Which made pleasing them rather crucial, since she had no doubt whatsoever that failing to fulfill her part of the deal would result in him refusing to stock any of her cards forthwith.

  This would result in an instant and dramatic loss of earnings and possibly kneecaps.

  In a daze, knowing what this meant but still not able to face up to it, Cressida left the water drip-drip-dripping off the table and headed outside into the backyard to see what had caused the almighty crash that had prompted her to spill the water in the first place.

  A starling lay on the stone path, quite dead. Its eyes were open, its head bent back at a horrible angle. Flying along happily, it had crashed into the kitchen window and been killed in an instant. One minute your neck wasn’t broken, the next minute it was. Boom, gone.

  Cressida bent down and picked up the limp, still-warm body. It had caused so much trouble she should resent it. On the other hand, if the bird were still capable of thought, it would undoubtedly resent her for having killed it. She had, after all, spent an hour at lunchtime cleaning her windows for the first time in a year. The starling, fooled by the lack of surface dirt, simply hadn’t realized the glass was there.

  She was a bird murderer, and there was a lesson to be learned from this. Cleaning windows—on either houses or cars—was asking for trouble.

  Hot tears squeezed out of Cressida’s eyes as she cradled the soft little body in her hands.

  Bang went her weekend.

  Again.

  * * *

  Tom said at once, “Well how about if we come to you instead?”

  “There’s no point. It’s going to take me all weekend to redo the cards. I’ll be working nonstop.” Shaking her head, Cressida said, “I had to ring the man who placed the order and tell him he wouldn’t be getting them before Tuesday and he wasn’t thrilled, let me tell you.”

  “If we came down to Hestacombe, couldn’t we help you make the cards?” Tom sounded hopeful. “Then you’d be finished in less than half the time.”

  Oh God, it was so nice of him to make the offer, but Cressida knew she couldn’t say yes. People assumed it was so easy to glue a few bits and pieces onto a card. No skill required. Yet producing an end product that was of consistently professional quality and didn’t look as if it had been made by a child was far more difficult than everyone imagined. Whenever Jojo offered to help her with an order, Cressida had to feign delight with the end results then quietly file them in the trash can after she’d left. But Tom wasn’t twelve, and he wouldn’t be so easy to fool.

  “Tom, that’s kind of you, but it wouldn’t work. We’re just going to have to forget it. I’m really sorry.”

  “Don’t worry.” Over the phone Tom sounded distant and cool, but that was probably because she’d called him at work. “No problem. Maybe some other time.”

  “We were looking forward to seeing you.” Cressida hoped he knew she meant it.

  “Yes, well.” He cleared his throat and said, “We were too.”

  There was that offhand tone again. Was he cross with her for spoiling his plans? Feeling more miserable than ever, Cressida realized that for all her foolish fantasies, she didn’t actually know Tom Turner well enough to be able to tell.

  * * *

  “Aunt Cress? It’s me. Sorry to interrupt when you’re busy.”

  Cressida sat back and eased her aching spine. It was nine thirty on Friday evening, and so far she had completed eight cards. Only seventy-two to go.

  “That’s all right, darling. Where are you?”

  “Up in my bedroom. Mum and Dad have friends around for dinner. Well, not real friends,” Jojo amended. “People from work. You know the kind.”

  Poor Jojo, relegated to her room while the grown-ups sat downstairs earnestly discussing sales targets. Robert had sounded distinctly put out when Cressida had rung to let him know that she and Jojo wouldn’t after all be away for the weekend.

  “Have you eaten?” She knew it was ridiculous to worry about such a thing, but Robert and Sacha could be thoughtless sometimes.

  “There wasn’t enough dinner party food, so I had a pizza up here. Much better than what they had,” Jojo said cheerfully. “Anyway, I wanted to tell you that Tom was a bit worried in case you’d made up the story about the cards being ruined, but it’s OK now because he knows it really happened.”

  Cressida was stunned. “What?”

  “He thought you might be making an excuse, like, ‘Sorry I can’t see you tonight; I’m washing my hair.’ That kind of thing. Because you couldn’t be bothered to drive up to Newcastle or you’d had a better offer or something. Men can be funny like that, can’t they?”

  “Hang on,” Cressida blurted out. “How do you know all this?”

  “It says so in my new copy of Phew! There’s a piece in it about how boys get nervous about—”

  “No, no. I meant how do you know that’s what Tom was thinking?”

  “Oh, Donny told me.”

  Bemused, Cressida said, “He called you?”

  “Texted me. In his own grumpy way.” Jojo sounded amused, like a mother accustomed to indulging a truculent teenage son. “Said it was no skin off his nose, but was it true about the cards being wrecked. So I texted back and said of course it was true, was he calling you a liar, and he said no, it was just that his dad was gutted and wondering what was really going on. So I said you were pretty fed up too and when I came over to your place after school you’d been crying—”

  “Oh, Jojo, you didn’t!” Every muscle in Cressida’s body contracted in horror like a slug doused in lemon juice.

  “Why not? It’s the truth, isn’t it? You had been crying.”

  Didn’t it say anywhere in Jojo’s wretched magazine that it wasn’t the done thing to let members of the opposite sex know you’d wept over them? Sobbed helplessly at the thought of not seeing them?

  “I was crying because the starling was dead,” Cressida floundered.

  “Aunt Cress, you know that’s not true. And you don’t have to worry, because Donny’s dad was really pleased when Donny told him. So that’s all straightened out,” Jojo said briskly, “and we talked about fixing another date. Donny’s got a boring school trip to Belgium next weekend, but the weekend after that should be OK.”

  “Er…fine,” Cressida said faintly.

  “Well, I’ll leave you to get on with your cards. Oh, by the way,” Jojo remembered as an afterthought, “we thought maybe they should come down to us this time. Might be easier. I said you had plenty of room to put them up.”

  Chapter 41

  It was the beginning of October. Autumn had arrived. The air was distinctly cooler now, there was a blustery breeze, and chestnuts, falling from the trees, were scattered like balls across the broad terrace.

  Freddie, standing at the drawing room window of Hestacombe House, gazed out at the yard where Nat and Ruby were racing up and down the leaf-strewn lawn competing to collect the most chestnuts. He smiled at their endless enthusiasm, tangled hair, and rosy cheeks.

  “What are you thinking?” Lottie came into the drawing room b
ehind him carrying a tea tray.

  “Me? How lucky I am.” Freddie turned and made his way over to the leather sofa. “I’ve just seen my last summer. You know, I’d hate to have just dropped dead without any warning. I like knowing I’m seeing things for the last time. Gives me the chance to appreciate them.”

  They had shared enough conversations by now for Lottie to have overcome her squeamishness on the subject of his future. Or lack of it.

  “It might not be your last time. Tumors can stop growing.”

  “Maybe, but mine hasn’t. I had another scan yesterday.” Taking the cup of tea she’d poured for him, Freddie said, “My doctor told me I must start to expect things to go wrong. In fact, he said I was bloody lucky to have gotten this far without more signs and symptoms. Which I’d already pretty much worked out for myself. Particularly after sitting in that waiting room yesterday, waiting for my scan.”

  Lottie looked at him. “I don’t want to hear it, but you’re going to tell me anyway.”

  “There was another man in with his wife. His name’s Tim, and he has a tumor like mine,” said Freddie. “He’s in a wheelchair because he’s lost the use of the right side of his body. His speech is badly affected too. And he’s incontinent.” He paused. “He’s also thirty-one years old and has two children aged two and four. Which is why I’d call myself lucky.”

  “Oh, Freddie. Life isn’t fair.” Shaking her head in frustration, Lottie blurted out, “Why didn’t you tell me you had another scan? I could have come with you.”

  “I’d still have a tumor though, wouldn’t I?” Freddie’s voice softened. “You couldn’t go Abracadabra and make it disappear. Anyway, you can’t keep taking time off work. And there’s something else I want you to do for me.”

  “Anything,” Lottie replied at once, her back very straight. Freddie sensed that if he were to ask her to swim the Channel or climb Everest she’d give it her best shot.

  “Have another go at finding Giselle.” As he said it, a lump sprang into Freddie’s throat. Time was running out; yesterday had brought that forcibly home to him. But the longing for closure was still there.

 
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