Making your mind up, p.31

Making Your Mind Up, page 31


Making Your Mind Up

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  “I’d be offended if you didn’t,” said Freddie.

  “In that case, let’s give it a whirl. You wanted Amy, but she couldn’t do it, so you’re getting me instead.” Barbara Painter’s eyes glistened as she smiled proudly at the snap on the corkboard of Amy and herself. “You know what? I think she’d be tickled pink about that.”

  Chapter 48

  Lottie’s cell phone rang, and five hundred pairs of eyes bored into her. Mouth “sorry, sorry” to all and sundry, she leaped up from her chair and made a bolt for the exit.

  It was Seb.

  “Hey, gorgeous girl. How are you?”

  “Mortified. I forgot to switch my phone off and now I’m the center of attention.”

  “Good God, don’t tell me you’re in church.”

  “Worse than that,” Lottie said gloomily. “Chess tournament.”

  “What?” Seb evidently found this hilarious. “Are you serious? I didn’t even know you played chess.”

  “I don’t. It’s Nat; he joined a chess club at school. Then his teacher entered all the kids into this Monster Chess Challenge and by some mad fluke Nat managed to get through to the second stage of the world’s third largest chess tournament. That’s why I’m here at Etloe Park School at ten o’clock on a Sunday morning,” said Lottie, “about to die of boredom. Except I’m not allowed to die of boredom because I have to be here pretending to be a supportive parent for the next six hours.” As she said this one of the organizers of the event abruptly rounded a corner and whisked past, his big bristly beard quivering with disapproval.

  “Well that’s not what I wanted to hear,” Seb drawled. “What’s the point of me flying back a day early because I miss you so much, then finding out you’ve made other plans for the day?”

  Lottie’s stomach gave a bunny-like skip of excitement. “You haven’t!”

  “Bloody have. I’m on my way down the M4 right now. I was going to arrive on your doorstep and ravish you.”

  “I’m sorry. If you want to go ahead and arrive on my doorstep anyway, you can ravish Mario if you like. He’s redecorating Ruby’s bedroom.” Oh no, another of the tournament organizers had just swept by and overheard her. Why did they have to be so nosy?

  And why did they all have such extraordinary beards?

  “I’ll save myself, thanks. How about tonight then?”

  “Tonight,” Lottie agreed, realizing that the next six hours were going to be even more interminable now. Out of all the Sundays in all the year, the bearded men had had to choose to hold their stupid tournament on this one.

  Having firmly switched off her phone, Lottie sidled back into the hall and pretended not to notice the glares of disapproval, like pointy arrows, being aimed in her direction. She sat back down, opened her bag, and took out a packet of gummy bears. More evil looks. Honestly, you’d think it was a boombox. Quelling the urge to stick out her tongue at the glarers, Lottie gave up trying to unwrap the gummy bears and put her bag under the chair.

  Time always went more slowly when there was an enormous clock on the wall. Lottie gazed at it until her eyes started to cross. The ticktock, ticktock sound it made was almost hypnotic. Oh no, mustn’t fall asleep.

  They were eleven minutes into the second game of the day. The huge vaulted school hall was silent apart from the mouse-like clicking of chess pieces being moved and stopwatches being reset. Rows and rows of numbered tables had been set up across the width of the hall and the children faced each other over their boards, engrossed in battle. Most of the parents, including Lottie, sat around the perimeter of the hall at a safe distance from the action, but a fair number of competitive dads, unable to stay seated, were prowling around the tables, checking the moves made by their genius offspring and attempting to silently psyche out the opposition. Much smirking, chin-stroking, and smug nodding was going on. From where she was situated Lottie could see Nat moving a chess piece, then hastily returning it to its original position. The father of Nat’s opponent rocked back on his heels and exchanged a grin of satisfaction with his studious son. If she’d had a slingshot in her bag, she would have shot the father with a gummy bear and screw the noise. Lottie silently willed Nat on.

  Ticktock, ticktock.

  At last the second game was over. Nat shook hands with his smirking opponent, pushed back his chair, and came over to where Lottie was hovering by the exit. She knew by the set of his mouth that he was struggling to maintain his composure.

  “I didn’t win.” Nat’s tone was studiedly nonchalant and her heart went out to him. He’d lost the first game too. Giving him a hug, Lottie whispered, “Oh, sweetheart, never mind. Don’t forget, lots of these children have been playing since they were babies. You only learned how to play chess a few weeks ago.”

  Nat surreptitiously wiped away a lone tear. “I hope I win the next game.”

  Lottie hoped so too, but the signs weren’t encouraging. Taking out her packet of gummy bears, she gave a red one to Nat and said, “It’s only a silly game.”

  “But I hate losing. It makes me look stupid.”

  “You don’t look stupid.” She gave him another hug and a kiss. “I know, why don’t we leave? We don’t have to stay here with all these nerdy types. We can go home and have a lovely day doing whatever we want to do!”

  One of the organizers went past, clutching a clipboard and shooting her a filthy look.

  “No way.” Firmly, heartbreakingly, Nat shook his head. “I’m staying. There’s six more games to play, so I’m bound to win some of them.”

  “Come on, let’s go to the cafeteria.” Lottie checked her watch; they had twenty minutes before the start of the next game, and all around them competitive fathers armed with magnetic mini chess sets were earnestly explaining to their sons where they’d gone wrong during the last match. “We’ll have a doughnut and a Coke.”

  By lunchtime Nat had played four games and lost four. A vast chart pinned on the wall out in the school corridor monitored the progress of each of the competitors with a series of gold stars and black crosses. Several of the competitive dads were videoing the chart while their offspring pointed with pride to the four gold stars alongside their names.

  “Nobody else has four crosses,” Nat said in a small voice. “Only me.”

  Lottie could barely speak. There was a lump the size of a table tennis ball in her throat.

  “But you did so well just to get here,” she managed at last. “This is the Monster Final! Think of all the thousands of children who weren’t good enough. You did better than all of them, which is fantastic.”

  Nat slid his hand into hers. “I don’t want all crosses at the end. I’d just like to win one game.”

  Cheating was utterly reprehensible and Lottie deplored it. She had never cheated at anything in her life. But if there was any way of finding out in advance who Nat was playing next, she would corner them and happily offer them vast amounts of money to throw the match.

  Except there was no way. Desperate to help, Lottie said nobly, “Do you want me to stand by your table and watch?”

  “No, Mum, I think you’d only put me off. And it’s not as if you’re any good at chess.” Nat was stoical. “We both know you’re rubbish.”

  The bell rang, calling everyone back into the hall for the fifth game of the tournament. Lottie gave Nat an encouraging hug and watched him make his way over to the table with his number on it. In his oversized sweatshirt and baggy cargo pants, he looked heartbreakingly small and defenseless. And, oh God, he was playing against a cocky looking boy with Harry Potter glasses who had his father with him. Nat and Lottie had seen them in the cafeteria, poring over a chess textbook, and Lottie had heard the father saying things like, “Now that’s where you should have moved en passant, Timothy. Remember Polonowski versus Kasparov.”

  The invigilator announced that the fifth game of the day was about to start. Lottie sat on
her chair and sent invisible hate rays in the direction of Timothy’s father, who was already strolling in a deliberately intimidating fashion around the table. All Nat needed was to win one measly game. Was that too much to ask? Damn, Timothy had already taken a pawn.

  Ticktock, ticktock.

  Thirteen minutes into the game, the double doors opened and closed at the back of the hall. By this stage, thoroughly trained in the art of not making a sound or moving a muscle, Lottie didn’t look around. But Nat, glancing up from his game, broke into a broad grin and surreptitiously waggled his fingers in greeting before gesturing to Lottie to see who was behind her.

  It was Seb, just inside the doorway, beaming at Nat and in turn being glared at by one of the organizers guarding the door. Letting out a delighted bat squeak of disbelief, Lottie beckoned him over. Seb grimaced and in turn beckoned to her. Attracting yet more waves of disapproval, Lottie rose from her seat and threaded her way between parents over to the doors.

  Once they were both safely outside in the corridor, Seb said, “You were right about it being boring in there. Bloody hell, it’s like a morgue.”

  “I can’t believe you’re here!” Lottie was overjoyed to see him.

  “Couldn’t wait to see you.” His blue eyes sparkled as he eased her up against the wall and kissed her. “Mm, that’s better. Well, it’s a start. Tell you what, why don’t we slip away for a while? I could show you just how much I’ve missed—”

  “Stop it,” whispered Lottie as Seb’s warm hands wandered down over the curve of her bottom.

  “Spoilsport. Just checking it’s still perfect.”

  “Trust me, it is.” She unclamped his left hand. “And we can’t slip away because Nat’s game will be over soon. He’s lost every match so far.”

  “Something to be grateful for,” Seb observed drily. “If he gets keen he might want to become a chess tournament organizer. And Nat would look ridiculous in a beard.”

  The game ended and children and parents poured out of the hall. Bracing herself and scarcely able to look, Lottie waited in the doorway for Nat.

  He hurtled into her arms like a bullet. “Mum! Guess what? I won!”

  “No!” Lottie was so shocked she almost dropped him. “Seriously?”

  “I did! I really won! I was losing and then Seb came and all of a sudden I started to win!” Letting out a whoop of delight, Nat exchanged high fives with Seb. Tears of joy swam in Lottie’s eyes as Timothy and his father passed them, the father with a face like a hatchet. Nat, flinging himself at Seb, squealed excitedly, “I can’t believe I did it!”

  Seb swung him up into the air. “You’re a star.”

  “So are you! We’ve missed you,” Nat exclaimed. “Come on, let’s go see them putting up the gold stars. And, Mum, don’t come into the hall for the next game, OK? Because every time you sat there I lost, but as soon as you went out I won.” He looked seriously at Lottie. “So it’s better if you stay outside because it was probably you putting me off in the first place.”

  “Can’t give me the same excuse this time,” Seb murmured as, inside the hall, the organizer signaled the start of the next match. “We have at least twenty minutes of quality time together without interruption.”

  “You are outrageous.” Lottie stifled a smile as several other parents banned from the hall drifted past them up the corridor. “Haven’t I made enough of a spectacle of myself already? This is a respectable school.”

  “Shhh, don’t be such a grown-up. Besides, I need some help with my map reading.” Taking her by the hand, Seb pulled her down the corridor and turned left at the end, then left again. Pausing at a door on the right, he pressed Lottie up against it and kissed her before springing the door handle and ushering her inside.

  They were in a deserted classroom with maps covering the walls and the blinds drawn at the windows. With a mischievous gleam in his eye, Seb steered her to the teacher’s desk at the front of the room. “Ever done it in a swivel chair?”

  Lottie said, “Something tells me you’ve been here before.”

  “I’ll have you know I seduced my geography teacher in this very room.” Seb grinned as he began to slide his warm hands playfully beneath her pink shirt.

  “This was your school? You didn’t tell me that on the phone.” It didn’t come as a huge surprise; Etloe Park was the most exclusive private school in the area.

  “Thought I’d give you a surprise when you said where you were. I couldn’t resist it. Hey, relax, no one knows we’re in here.”

  Delighted though she was to see him, Lottie couldn’t relax; some people—OK, Seb—evidently found the idea of illicit sex in a school classroom a turn-on, but it wasn’t working for her. His fingers were exploring the zip on her jeans now. She removed his hands, placed them around her waist, and kissed him on the nose. “You didn’t really seduce your geography teacher.”

  “I did. Her name was Miss Wallis. I was sixteen, she was twenty-eight.”

  “That’s outrageous,” said Lottie. “She should have been sacked.”

  “Be fair. I was pretty irresistible.” Seb lifted her onto the desk and pulled her closer. “Every Wednesday she’d give me a detention and I’d have to stay behind. It was every schoolboy’s fantasy. And we never got caught. Sure you don’t want to give it a try?”

  “Not here. Not now.” Lottie wound her arms around his neck and smiled, gazing into Seb’s eyes. “Maybe later.”

  “So you’re glad to see me, then?”

  Lottie thought of Tyler and Liana and drew him toward her, wiggling forward on the edge of the desk so that Seb’s hard denim-clad thighs were either side of hers. “Oh yes, I’m definitely glad—”

  The door crashed open and one of the tournament organizers burst into the classroom. Lottie jumped and tried to push Seb away, but her legs remained clamped between his. Guiltily she attempted to smooth her ruffled-up hair, refasten her shirt—God, how had that happened?—and wipe smudged lipstick from her mouth.

  “What do you think you’re doing?” the organizer demanded icily.

  “I’m sorry. We—”

  “I was just showing Lottie my favorite classroom,” Seb drawled. “We were admiring the…er…”

  “I think we can all guess what you were admiring. Out you go. Come on, shoo.” Making sweeping gestures, the organizer indicated that they should vacate the room like the shameless animals they were.

  “Shoo?” Seb raised an eyebrow in amusement. “Can’t say I’ve ever been asked to shoo before.”

  “First time for everything. I’ve been asked to escort you off the premises.”

  Escort them off the premises? Horrified, Lottie blurted out, “I can’t leave! My son’s in the chess tournament.”

  The look on the organizer’s face told her that he was already aware of this fact.

  “Then maybe you should return to the hall with the other parents.” Turning to Seb he added coolly, “And you can leave.”

  “Fine by me.” Seb gave Lottie a kiss, eased himself away from her, and said, “I’ll see you later. How about if you come over to my place around eight?”

  “OK.” Struggling to keep a straight face, Lottie realized that he had just deftly and single-handedly unfastened her bra.

  “One thing.” Seb addressed the disapproving organizer on his way to the door. “How did you know we were in here?”

  The man nodded up at the corner of the room. “CCTV.”

  “God, can’t get up to anything these days.” Shaking his head in wonderment, Seb said, “Just as well they didn’t have hidden cameras here when I was sixteen.” Then he paused, thought about it, and chuckled to himself. “Or maybe they did.”

  Chapter 49

  “Mum, I’m trying really hard to be nice to Ruby, but she won’t stop singing,” Nat complained. “And it’s getting on my nerves.”

  “I know, sweeth
eart. She’s just excited.” Lottie gave him a cuddle as the kitchen door flew open and Ruby came dancing in.

  “I’m ten, I’m ten, I’m ten ten ten.”

  Nat rolled his eyes in disgust. “See?”

  It was Thursday. Far more important, it was Ruby’s tenth birthday, and nobody was being allowed to forget it. Since the party to which all her school friends were invited was being held on Saturday, Mario was coming around straight from work this evening and the four of them were going out to Pizza Hut.

  In fact—phew, relief—wasn’t that his car pulling up outside now?

  “Sounds like Dad’s here,” said Lottie, prompting both Nat and Ruby to let out whoops of joy and cannon off each other as they raced down the hallway to the front door. Lottie checked her watch; it was twenty to six. Mario must have left work early and—

  “Yaaaaay!” A scream of delight echoed down the hallway, prompting Lottie to follow Nat and Ruby out of the kitchen. Kneeling there with a child clamped to each hip and a slew of wrapped presents on the floor was Amber.

  “You’re here,” Ruby cried ecstatically. “I thought we weren’t ever going to see you again, but you didn’t forget.”

  “Oh, Monster Munch, how could I forget your birthday?” Kissing each of them in turn, Amber said, “And I told you I’d be here, didn’t I? When I phoned.”

  Ruby instantly looked sheepish and glanced over her shoulder to see if Lottie had overheard.

  Lottie, who had, said, “Is this something I don’t know about?”

  “God, sorry.” Amber pulled a face. “I rang on Tuesday night and Ruby told me you were in the bath. I just wanted to know if it would be OK for me to pop over this evening and she said it was. I thought she’d pass on the message.”

  Ruby said quickly, “I forgot.”

  Lottie knew at once that she hadn’t. “It’s fine by me.” She looked at Amber. “It’s just that Mario’s coming over. We’re going into Cheltenham for dinner.”

  “Well, I can’t stay long. I’ll probably be gone before he gets here.” As Amber said it, Lottie realized that she had been banking on Mario having to work his habitual Thursday evening late shift.

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