Making your mind up, p.32

Making Your Mind Up, page 32

 

Making Your Mind Up
 



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  “Or you could come with us to Pizza Hut.” Ruby turned hopefully to Lottie. “She could, Mum, couldn’t she? That’d be great.”

  Lottie and Amber exchanged glances, both acknowledging that this had been Ruby’s Big Plan.

  “Sweetie, I can’t. It’s really kind of you to think of it,” Amber said carefully, “but my friend’s waiting outside for me. My car broke down yesterday so he gave me a lift here in his.”

  Ruby’s face fell. “What kind of a friend?”

  “Well…I suppose he’s my boyfriend.”

  Lottie said, “Does he want to come in?”

  “He’s fine.” Amber shook her head. “Really. He has his laptop with him and plenty of work to keep him busy.”

  “Is he nice?” said Nat.

  “Oh yes, very nice.”

  “Dad doesn’t have a girlfriend.”

  “Doesn’t he? I’m sure he’ll find one soon.”

  Nat stuck out his bottom lip. “He said he’s waiting for Keira Knightley.”

  “Lucky old her. Anyway,” Amber went on brightly, “it’s somebody’s birthday and I’m here for the next hour, so are we going to make the most of it and have fun?”

  “Yay.” Ruby rested her head on Amber’s shoulder. “Will you do my hair in a French braid?”

  “Of course I will. Can your mum still not do them properly?”

  “No, she’s rubbish.”

  “Thanks very much,” said Lottie, picking up the scattered birthday presents. “I think I’ll open these myself.”

  * * *

  When Mario arrived at Piper’s Cottage he had to park behind a very clean imperial blue Ford Focus. As he climbed out of his car he saw a man sitting in the driver’s seat. Briefly glancing up, the man acknowledged Mario with a polite nod before returning his attention to the laptop he was using.

  Through the two-inch gap in the window Mario said, “Are you OK? Not lost?”

  The man looked up again and smiled pleasantly. “I’m fine thanks. Just waiting for someone.”

  Guests from the vacation cottages, Mario guessed. Or maybe Lottie had given one of the other children from Ruby’s class a lift home from school.

  “Daddy, you’re here! Guess who’s in the living room?” Nat dragged Mario down the hallway.

  “Keira Knightley I hope.”

  “Loads better than that!”

  Ruby was sitting cross-legged on a chair in the middle of the room, beaming and having her dark hair expertly fashioned into a French braid by Amber. Mario, his mouth dry, realized at once who the owner of the Ford Focus was. Bloody hell, what was Amber doing with someone who looked like a geography teacher?

  “Daddy! It’s my birthday!” Keeping her head still, Ruby beamed and waved both hands at him. “And look what Amber bought me! Isn’t it brilliant?”

  It took some effort for Mario to nod and admire the green sparkly top Ruby was wearing, and act as if Amber wasn’t in the room. How many weeks had it been now since he’d last seen her? She was looking fantastic in an apricot angora cropped cardigan, pin-striped orange and cream jeans, and cream, rhinestone-studded cowboy boots. Her earrings were huge gold hoops. He had always loved her idiosyncratic style of dressing. Oh God, he had missed her so much.

  “And she bought me an electric spider,” Nat chimed in, “to make up for it not being my birthday.”

  “I’ve shown her my room.” Ruby was intensely proud of her redecorated bedroom. “She wishes she had pink glittery wallpaper like mine.”

  Mario attempted humor. “Just say the word, and I’ll be around with my pasting table.”

  Amber smiled, fastened the ends of Ruby’s braid with a pink hair band, and said, “There, all done. You look like a princess.”

  How do I look? Mario longed to ask. As bloody awful as I feel? I haven’t slept with anyone else, you know. I just don’t want to. My new nickname at work is Born-Again Virgin, I’m so celibate.

  “Oh, I forgot to tell you—I won a certificate!” exclaimed Nat. “For playing chess! I’ll get it and show you.”

  Nat disappeared upstairs to peel his precious certificate off his bedroom wall to show Amber. Amber, in turn widening her eyes at Lottie, said, “Chess? Good grief, it’ll be quantum physics next!”

  “It was a nightmare. A whole Sunday at Etloe Park School, hundreds of little boys doing the Monster Chess Challenge.” Lottie shuddered at the memory.

  “Etloe Park? Oh, I know about that! One of Quentin’s friends helped to organize it.”

  Mario kept a straight face; Lottie had regaled him with details of the men-in-beards.

  “Did you hear about what happened?” Amber was gazing at Lottie expectantly. “You know, all the shenanigans?”

  “No.” Lottie was busy on her hands and knees collecting discarded lengths of silver ribbon and sheets of crumpled turquoise wrapping paper. “What shenanigans?”

  They still had Ruby with them, which hampered Amber somewhat. Tilting her head to one side, she said in a tone of voice that was simultaneously vague and meaningful, “Quentin’s friend caught this couple in one of the classrooms. Seems like there was a bit of you-know-what going on. At a chess challenge of all places!”

  Lottie’s face was hidden by her hair, but she was still busy picking up shreds of paper. Smaller and smaller pieces, Mario noted, and more and more slowly.

  “I didn’t hear about that.” Lottie sounded distracted.

  “Well, they probably didn’t want to broadcast it! But can you imagine something like that happening? And getting caught?” Turning to Mario, Amber said cheerfully, “Actually, it’s just the kind of thing you’d get up to.”

  “Actually, it isn’t.” Since his ill-fated encounter with Gemma, the barmaid with the bad-tempered cat, Mario hadn’t gotten up to anything with anyone, but since Amber wouldn’t believe him he didn’t bother saying it. Besides, he was far more interested in why Lottie was still crawling around on the floor picking up flecks of wrapping paper so minuscule she might soon be reduced to splitting the atom.

  “Here’s my certificate!” Nat charged back into the room and showed it proudly to Amber, who hugged him and told him he was a genius.

  “I won a match and got a gold star.” Nat inveigled himself onto her lap. “And Seb came to cheer me on, except there wasn’t any cheering allowed because everyone had to be really quiet. But it was like magic—as soon as Seb turned up, I started to win!”

  “That’s great, sweetie.” Amber was stroking his tangled hair. “I’ve heard all about him, but I haven’t met him yet. So you like Seb?”

  “He’s the best. He’s really funny and nice.”

  Ruby, joining in, said, “He’s the best boyfriend Mum’s ever had.”

  “Well, that’s good news.” Amber turned to Lottie. “Such a relief for you, after the last one.”

  Lottie was happy with Seb. Amber was happy with Quentin. Mario almost couldn’t bear it; the last weeks had been the most wretched of his life.

  Amber, checking her watch, pulled a face. “I didn’t realize I’d been here so long. Poor Quentin, he’ll be wondering if I’m ever going to leave.”

  Quentin. How could she bring herself to sleep with someone with a name like that? Mario glanced out of the living room window and said, “He’s gone. Must have gotten fed up with waiting and drove off.”

  Annoyingly Amber didn’t jump up and peer out of the window to check that he was still there. Instead, gathering together her things, she replied easily, “Quentin wouldn’t do that. He’s not the type.”

  Her tone might have been easy, but she gave him a certain look as she said it. What was that look supposed to mean? Filled with indignation, Mario said, “Neither am I. I’d never drive off and leave you.”

  “No, I don’t suppose you would.” Amber smiled briefly at him. “But the chances are you’d spend your t
ime out there chatting up any pretty girl who happened to walk past.”

  “I would not.” The accusation was like a slap in the face. Mario was defensive. “I wouldn’t.”

  Ruby, her expression pitying, said, “Daddy, you probably would.”

  Chapter 50

  “This is worse than the ghost train.” Seb stood back to survey his handiwork. “I’m scared to look at any of you.”

  “Raaaarrrgh,” roared Nat, barely recognizable beneath the green and red face paint.

  “My teeth are making me dribble.” Giggling uncontrollably, Ruby slurped up saliva and pushed her vampire fangs more securely into place.

  “Daddy, you have to dress up too,” Maya ordered, her own face a startling shade of purple with heavy black shadows beneath her eyes. “You and Lottie have to be scary as well.”

  “Mum can wear the teeth that are all brown and rotten,” Ruby chimed in. “And Seb can be a ghost.”

  “Oh no, poor Lottie, you can’t make her wear the horrible teeth. My dad can have them. Come on, let’s get them ready.”

  Lottie sat back as together Ruby and Maya worked on her face. Next to her on the sofa, Seb was having his done by Nat. Smiling at the expressions of earnest concentration on their faces, Lottie realized that she was experiencing a moment of undiluted happiness, the kind of memory you captured in a box and treasured forever.

  It was Halloween and they were going out trick or treating, all five of them together because Maya was down from London for the weekend visiting Seb. Mildly apprehensive that Nat and Ruby might not hit it off with Seb’s eight-year-old daughter, Lottie’s fears had been allayed within minutes of them meeting each other for the first time. Sparky, blond, and bursting with confidence, Maya hadn’t been remotely intimidated by the prospect of being introduced to Ruby and Nat. In no time at all they had bonded, become a trio. Sunday lunch had been at the house in Kingston Ash that Seb shared with his sister Tiffany now that their parents were living in the south of France. The afternoon had been spent watching the new Harry Potter movie, playing a raucous game of Name That Song, and planning what to dress up as in order to terrify innocent householders on their own doorsteps.

  “There, done,” Ruby pronounced with pride, stepping back at last and allowing Maya to hold up the mirror. Lottie surveyed her reflection. She had black lips, fluorescent orange eye shadow, green mascara, and big brown moles all over her face. She looked at Seb, wearing a mad professor wig, warty false nose, and stomach-churning rotten teeth on a charcoal-gray face.

  “Why, Mith Carlyle, you’re tho beautiful.” Struggling with the teeth, Seb solemnly took her hand and, with a ghastly slobbering noise, attempted to kiss it.

  “Mr. Gill.” Lottie fluttered green lashes back at him. “At last I’ve met the man of my dreams.”

  “Ugly,” Maya pronounced, “but not quite ugly enough.” She gleefully seized the dark red makeup stick. “Keep still, Daddy. I’m just going to give you some more spots.”

  * * *

  Last Halloween it had rained, everyone’s makeup had run, and Ruby’s witch’s hat had disintegrated. Tonight the weather couldn’t have been more perfect. The air was thick with swirling fog through which lights gleamed eerily and sounds seemed muffled or distorted. It was eight o’clock and they had been back in Hestacombe for an hour, trick-or-treating friends and rival groups of ghouls. Having finished with the High Street, they were making their way toward the vacation cottages, the children zigzagging excitedly ahead of them down the lane. In the darkness Seb took out his teeth and kissed Lottie.

  “We’ll have to leave at nine,” he murmured between kisses. “I’m driving Maya back to London tonight.”

  “It’s been fun.” Lottie hoped his dark red spots weren’t imprinting themselves on her chin; she had enough moles as it was.

  “It’ll be even more fun when we trick-or-treat your boss.”

  “Oh no, we’re not doing that.”

  “Why not? He lives down here, doesn’t he?” Without the gruesome false teeth, Seb’s own gleamed white in the darkness. “We can’t leave him out.”

  “Nat and Ruby won’t want to do it,” Lottie protested.

  “Hey, the guy’s a Yank. They’re big on Halloween, right? Besides, the kids can play a trick on him. They’ll love that.”

  Encouraged by Seb, they probably would. Lottie breathed a sigh of relief when they finally reached Fox Cottage and saw that all the lights were off.

  “They’re out.”

  “Or scared. Quaking in the darkness. Or in bed,” said Seb with a wink. “Go try the doorbell, kids.”

  “I’m not,” said Ruby.

  “I’m not,” said Nat.

  “I will.” Maya raced up the path and rang the bell with all her might. Twenty seconds later she shrugged, disappointed. “No, no one there.”

  Phew, thought Lottie.

  Maya said longingly, “Shall I put a plastic spider in their mailbox?”

  “Yes.” Nat spoke with relish. “Put loads of spiders in their mailbox?”

  “Shhh.” Ruby raised a hand. “What’s that?”

  Maya said innocently, “Your hand.”

  “No, that noise. Someone’s coming down the lane.”

  They listened, heard the fog-muffled sound of voices.

  “I bet it’s Ben and Harry Jenkins.” Nat’s eyes gleamed at the thought of meeting their greatest rivals. “They said they’d be out tonight. We can scare them!”

  “OK, everyone hide,” Seb instructed.

  Everyone hid, melting into the darkness behind trees and bushes. Lottie and Ruby tucked themselves out of sight behind the wall bordering the garden of Fox Cottage. Above them, pale clouds drifted across an almost full moon. At ground level the fog was swirling like dry ice, so dense and impenetrable that Lottie couldn’t even see her own feet.

  They heard a burst of laughter and approaching footsteps. Lottie whispered, “Doesn’t sound like the Jenkins boys.”

  “Mum, shhh.”

  Lottie did as she was told. Seconds later she heard a voice that definitely didn’t belong to either Ben or Harry Jenkins, partly because it was a couple octaves lower than anything they could hope to produce, but chiefly because she knew who it did belong to.

  “Raaa-AAARRRGH!” roared Seb, Maya, Ruby, and Nat, leaping in unison from their hiding places and waving their arms in scary monster fashion.

  “Jesus Christ!” wailed Liana, leaping back in fright and cannoning into Tyler.

  “Trick or treat!”

  “You scared the life out of me.” Clutching her front, Liana said testily, “I don’t have anything on me.”

  “Trick then!” Maya gleefully took aim and fired her water pistol.

  Liana let out a high-pitched shriek as something dark sprayed the front of her cream coat. “My God, are you completely mad? You can’t do that!”

  “It’s okaaay.” Maya rolled her eyes at the overreaction. “It’s disappearing ink. In two minutes it’ll be gone.”

  Behind the garden wall, Lottie cringed and let out a low groan. She hadn’t even known that Maya was carrying a pistol of disappearing ink. And Seb, who undoubtedly had, was only a man so wouldn’t understand that while the blue coloring might disappear in a matter of minutes, there was a good chance that a still-discernible mark like a grease stain would remain on the coat forever.

  “This coat cost thousands of dollars.” Liana was still shaking her head in horrified disbelief.

  “Hey, it’s Halloween,” Seb protested. “We’re just having a bit of fun.”

  Peering over the top of the wall, Lottie saw Tyler looking less than amused. Belatedly realizing who it was beneath the makeup, he surveyed Nat and Ruby in silence before addressing Seb. “Does Lottie know what you’ve got her children doing?”

  Ruby and Nat were eyeing Tyler with dislike. Seb, placing a prot
ective arm around each of their shoulders, said, “I don’t know. Why don’t we ask her?” Raising his voice he turned toward the wall and mimicked, “Lottie? Do you know what I’ve got your children doing?”

  Oh God, this was awful. Slowly Lottie rose to her feet, hideously aware of her black lips, drawn-on wrinkles, and the big witchy moles all over her face.

  “OK, now look.” Tyler sounded resigned. “I’m not trying to be a killjoy here, but this is beyond a joke. You could give someone a heart attack jumping out of the fog like that. You could kill one of our guests.”

  “They’re a bunch of kids.” His eyebrows raised, Seb indicated Maya, Ruby, and Nat. “At the risk of repeating myself, it’s Halloween. And we heard your voice,” he added casually, “so we knew who was coming down the lane.”

  So he had known. Lottie didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

  Liana, clearly upset, demanded, “And if my coat’s ruined?”

  “Then we’ll pay for a new one, of course. Come along, kids.” Seb ushered them protectively past Tyler and Liana. “Have to start saving your pocket money. Thanks to some people having no sense of humor, you could find yourselves landed with a hefty bill.”

  * * *

  Monday morning. Lottie was a bundle of defiance and guilt. Ordinarily always the first to apologize, she was finding it impossible to do so now. Last night Tyler and Liana had demonstrated their contempt for her and her children. This morning Liana had taken her superexpensive coat into Cheltenham to see if having it dry-cleaned would get the marks out. They clearly regarded Nat and Ruby as no better than out-of-control savages and her as an irresponsible mother. But if she tried to point out that Maya had been the one with the water pistol, she would sound as if she were distancing herself from Seb and his daughter. And under the circumstances that was something she quite simply couldn’t bring herself to do.

  Oh please, God, let the dry cleaners get the stains out.

  “Look, it was an idiotic trick to play,” Tyler repeated. “You have to admit that.”

 

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