Making Your Mind Up, page 33
It had been an idiotic trick to play, but Lottie was damned if she’d admit it. Instead she said heatedly, “Maybe when you have children of your own, you’ll lighten up a bit and stop being so…so petty and uptight. The kids were having fun. They’d been looking forward to Halloween for weeks.”
“That’s all well and good.” Tyler raised his hands. “I’m glad for them. But they shouldn’t—”
“Enjoy themselves? Be a bit mischievous? You know what, we went all around the village last night and everyone else we met was really nice. They all got into the spirit of the occasion. Not one other person threatened to see us in court.”
“Don’t give me that bullshit. We didn’t say that. I’m just pointing out that an apology might be in order. Maybe you should have a word with your…younger contingent and make them understand that they need to say sorry. Not to me,” Tyler went on coolly, “but to Liana.”
“Maya lives in London. Nat and Ruby didn’t even know she had a water pistol, let alone one with ink in it.” This was a lie. It had transpired that Maya had shared this information with them in advance, but Lottie felt this was irrelevant. “Neither of them pulled the trigger. I don’t see why they should have to apologize.”
Tyler said, “In that case, maybe your boyfriend could do the honors.”
Oh yes, that was highly likely to happen. Struggling to regain control over her breathing, Lottie heard a car pull up outside. “Fine, I’ll tell him. In fact, we’ll both apologize. Would on bended knee be good enough, do you think, or would prostrate on the ground be required?”
“As I said, one of these days you might have kids of your own. I just hope for their sakes that you learn to be a little less pissy and a bit more tolerant.”
They glared at each other across the office. The door opened. Any paying guest walking in would instantly have been aware of the hostile atmosphere.
Luckily it wasn’t a paying guest. It was only Liana.
“Oh no, you two haven’t been arguing, have you? I feel terrible! Lottie, I’m so sorry about last night. Can you forgive me for being such a grump?”
Terrific, what was she supposed to do now? Feeling her face redden, Lottie summed up her apologetic voice and said, “You weren’t. We’re the ones who are sorry. We shouldn’t have…messed up your coat.”
Why did Tyler have to be here, listening to every word and with—she suspected—something dangerously close to a smirk twitching at the corners of his mouth?
“No, no, you mustn’t apologize. It was all my fault for being so miserable. I can’t bear to think I might have upset your children.” Liana, enchanting in baby-pink cashmere and Earl Jeans, went on, “The next time I see them, I’ll make it up to them, I promise. But here, I got them some candy. Call it a belated Halloween treat. Will you give it to them and say Liana’s sorry?”
Worse and worse. Miserably, Lottie took the expensive bags of sweets Liana had picked up in a truffle shop. “Thanks. Of course I will. You didn’t need to do that.”
“Oh, but I did. And the lady in the dry cleaners has promised me my coat will be fine. She’s dealt with disappearing ink stains before.”
“Good. Well, I’d like to pay the dry-clean—”
“Don’t say that, I wouldn’t hear of it!” Liana waved her pretty hands in protest, then glanced at her watch. “Right, I must shoot. My aromatherapist awaits.” Blowing a kiss at Tyler she said, “See you later, honey. I’ve booked that table for dinner at Le Petit Blanc.”
Lottie watched her leave and wondered what it must be like to have an aromatherapist waiting to…aromatherapize you. She wondered what it might be like to blow kisses at Tyler and call him honey. If that was Liana’s pet name for him, they definitely had to be sleeping together.
“One thing.” Tyler broke into her muddled thoughts.
“The business with the ink last night. You can argue with me until you’re blue in the face, but as soon as it happened you knew it was wrong.”
Lottie looked at him. Evenly she said, “Did I?”
Tyler smiled his “I win” smile and pinged a rubber band across the office at her. “Everyone else had jumped out at us. Remember? But you stayed hidden behind the wall.”
“Aunt Cress? It’s me.”
Only Jojo called her that, otherwise Cressida wouldn’t have recognized the voice on the other end of the phone. The words sounded as if they were being scraped across coarse-grade sandpaper.
“Jojo? Sweetheart, what’s wrong?” Oh no, please don’t say what I think you’re going to say.
“I’m not very well,” Jojo croaked, “but you mustn’t worry, OK? My teacher’s just rung Dad and he’s on his way to pick me up and take me home. I think it’s the flu.”
Cressida blinked. Of course it was the flu. What else could come along to so comprehensively decimate their plans for the weekend? It was the afternoon of Friday, November 5, and she had splashed out on two return easyJet flights from Bristol to Newcastle. Tom, in turn, had bought four tickets for the biggest firework extravaganza Newcastle had to offer. How could they not have guessed that something like this would happen? It would be a miracle if it didn’t.
“Oh, sweetheart. Poor you.” Poor me, thought Cressida, appalled by her own selfishness.
“I know. I’ve been feeling worse and worse all morning. But the thing is, you can still go to Newcastle without me.”
Could she? Heavens, could she really? Her spirits lifting, Cressida said automatically, “Sweetheart, it wouldn’t be the same. Really, you mustn’t worry about—”
“Aunt Cress, I have to go. My dad’s here.” Jojo coughed and spluttered for a few seconds, then rasped, “I still don’t think you should cancel. I know it wouldn’t be the same without me, but it might still be good.”
Feeling terrible and shameless and as guiltily excited as a teenager, Cressida phoned Tom at work and explained about Jojo being ill. Then she paused.
Tom sounded gratifyingly disappointed. “We must have done something really bad in a previous life to have this much bad luck.”
Was she doing something really bad now? Taking a deep breath, Cressida said, “Or I could come up on my own.”
This offer was greeted by a nerve-racking silence.
Then Tom said, “Would you?” and there was an unmistakable note of delight in his voice.
Like the brazen hussy she evidently was, Cressida said breathlessly, “Of course I would. I mean, we can still go to the firework thing, can’t we? It won’t be so much fun for Donny, but—”
“Don’t worry about Donny, he’ll be fine. So I’ll meet you at the airport as planned? Minus your chaperone.”
“Minus my chaperone.” Cressida clapped a hand over her wildly beating heart and felt naughtier than ever. It was confirmed now; she was officially a selfish and self-centered person. Oh, but this could turn into the kind of weekend she hadn’t even dared to dream about.
Sounding happy and relieved, Tom said, “Can’t wait.”
* * *
According to a piece in last week’s Phew! magazine, shaving your legs was, like, sooo last century. The only way to get your legs silky smooth these days, evidently, was with Veet. Jojo, yet to enter the traumatic world of surplus hair removal but passionately interested in the subject nonetheless, had frowned and said, “Aunt Cress, which do you think’s best?”
Cressida had then realized that in all her years she had never once tried any method of leg depilation other than with her trusty razor. Was that some kind of world record? She had always shaved. Waxing hurt, surely. And plucking was downright ridiculous—just one leg had to be the equivalent of five hundred eyebrows’ worth of pain. As for dissolving the hair away with cream, someone had brought a tube of Immac into school once when she was fourteen and they had all had a go
But that had been over twenty-five years ago and Immac wasn’t Immac anymore; it was Veet. The chances were that it no longer smelled funny. Looking forward to the weekend ahead and deciding that the time had come to climb out of her rut and be adventurous, Cressida had treated herself to an aerosol can of Veet mousse. It even described itself on the packaging as pleasantly fragranced. And guess what? It actually was.
She was sitting on the edge of the bath with her legs covered in white foam like Santa’s beard when the doorbell rang.
Honestly, were there hidden cameras in this house? Did people do it on purpose? If it was Ted from the shop calling to offer her a second chance with him she might have to attack his beard with pleasantly fragranced Veet.
But since she was mentally incapable of leaving the door unanswered, Cressida clambered out of the bath and gingerly wrapped herself in her full-length robe so as not to scare whoever might be on the doorstep and send them screaming off down the street.
“Cressida.” If her ex-husband was taken aback by the sight of her in her robe at three o’clock in the afternoon he didn’t show it. Looking her straight in the eye, Robert said, “Favor.”
It was a tone of voice Cressida knew well: announcing, rather than asking, that the favor be granted.
“Sacha and I have an important meeting in Paris. And I do mean important. Can you take care of Jojo?”
Cressida gripped the lapels of her toweling robe. “Robert, I’m sorry, I can’t. You see—”
“No, you have to see.” Firmly, Robert shook his head. “You asked us if you could have Jojo for the weekend. We generously said you could. And now we’ve made other arrangements. Just because Jojo’s ill doesn’t give you the right to change your mind and decide you don’t want her anymore. We have people flying into Paris to meet us at the Four Seasons. Can you comprehend how vital this is?”
“Cressida, believe me. It’s not the kind of appointment you can cancel.”
Anger welled up in her throat. For years Robert and Sacha had treated Jojo like an inconvenient pet. Well, this time they’d gone too far.
“No, I’m sorry, I can’t do it,” Cressida said bravely. “Jojo’s your daughter. She’s sick and she needs you. Besides, I’ve made other…other…” Her voice trailed away as she detected movement on the backseat of Robert’s car, glimpsed a chalk-white face and disheveled hair. “Who’s that?”
“Who do you think?” Robert looked at her as if she were a moron. “Jojo, of course.”
“What’s she doing in the car if she’s ill?” Cressida knew the answer to this before the words were even out of her mouth. It was Robert’s version of a fait accompli.
“I brought her over here. What was I supposed to do, make her walk?”
“How ill is she?” Cressida looked at Jojo in the back of the car, hollow-eyed and miserable.
“The doctor says it’s the flu. She’s pretty rough.” Blithely unaware of the irony, Robert said, “All she needs is some TLC.”
Oh, the temptation to slap his horrid self-important face. But Jojo was watching them, and Robert clearly had no intention of backing down. Imagine having to witness two adults arguing because neither of them wanted you. Overwhelmed with shame and remorse, Cressida said, “Bring her in then. You can’t leave her out there.”
“I’m so sorry,” Jojo whispered when Robert had carried her into the house wrapped in a blue, white-flowered duvet. He went back out to fetch her overnight bag from the trunk.
“Don’t be silly. You can’t help being ill.” Kneeling down next to the sofa, Cressida stroked Jojo’s sweat-soaked bangs away from her forehead.
“But I’ve spoiled everything now. You could have gone up to Newcastle and had a nice time with Tom and Donny.” Jojo began to cough helplessly again, her thin shoulders heaving and arms trembling with the effort. “It’s such a waste of plane tickets.”
Robert reappeared in the living room, dumping Jojo’s bag by the door. He stared at Cressida. “Good grief, what’s happened to your legs?”
Cressida had forgotten all about the Veet. White foam was trickling down to her ankles and puddling on the floor.
“It’s hair remover,” Jojo croaked, peering over the edge of the sofa.
Robert snorted. “You always used to shave your legs when you were married to me. I remember the stubble.”
“I remember yours,” Cressida retorted, stung.
When Robert had left, Jojo said weakly, “I really am sorry, Aunt Cress.”
“Oh, just ignore him. I do. Men can’t help saying rude things.”
“Not that. I meant about the trip to Newcastle.” Hot and shivering beneath her duvet, Jojo rested her head on Cressida’s arm. “And it’s the firework thing. Tom bought the tickets for it, remember? I couldn’t have picked a worse time to be ill.”
“Don’t say that. I wouldn’t have gone without you.” Stroking Jojo’s burning forehead, Cressida realized that she would have to sneak upstairs and phone Tom without being overheard. “Who wants to go to a silly fireworks party anyway?”
Freddie was sitting in front of the fire when Lottie burst into the drawing room of Hestacombe House and greeted him with a kiss on the cheek.
It was like being nuzzled by a big, boisterous dog.
“You’re cold,” Freddie protested.
“That’s because it’s freezing out there!” Her nose pink and her eyes bright, Lottie peeled off her gloves and unwound the blue glittery knitted scarf from around her neck. “There’s ice on the puddles. We’re all going to be slipping and sliding down to the beach tonight. Are you sure you won’t come?”
“You make it sound irresistible.” Freddie gave her a dry look. “Bloody hell, two broken legs. That’s all I need.”
“We could wheel you down, dipstick.”
“No thanks.” Now that his balance was iffy and his left leg increasingly weak, Freddie had acquired a wheelchair for outings, but tonight he was more than happy to leave the intrepid ones to it. “We’ll stay in the warm and watch it from here.”
The bonfire and fireworks party down by the lake was an annual event in the village. Freddie and Mary had begun the tradition twenty years ago. There had been so many happy times…
“What are you thinking?” Lottie’s gaze searched his face.
“Just wondering about this time next year. Whether Tyler will carry it on.”
“He will. I’ll tell him he has to.”
Freddie smiled; he didn’t doubt it for a second. “You never know, you might not be here by then either. Seb might have whisked you and the kids away from Hestacombe. You could be living in Dubai.”
From the look Lottie gave him, he gathered the prospect didn’t appeal. “I don’t know about that. I can’t imagine not living here.” Then she relaxed. “But I’m glad you like Seb.”
“Of course I like him.” Lottie had brought Seb over one evening the previous week. He’d seemed a nice enough chap, possibly a bit feckless, but with buckets of charm. And Lottie was clearly keen. Freddie wouldn’t put money on it being a happily-ever-after scenario, but then who could ever make that kind of prediction with any confidence? He’d had a pretty rackety past himself, hadn’t he? Talk about a lousy track record when it came to relationships. Let’s face it, nobody who’d known him forty years ago would have bet tuppence on his marriage to Mary lasting the course.
It just went to show that you never could tell. Love was a lucky dip. Maybe he was wrong now and Lottie would end up being deliriously happy with Sebastian Gill. Just as Tyler might be equally happy with Liana. OK, so things hadn’t turned out as he’d secretly hoped they might for Lottie and Tyler, but—
Freddie watched as Lottie jumped up to help. Just as she had needed his approval of Seb, so he had desperately wanted her to get along with Barbara when she had arrived at the house to take care of him. And to his relief she had. Lottie and Barbara had liked each other at once. There had been no eye-narrowing this time, none of the mistrust that had existed between Lottie and Fenella.
“You’ll have a great view of the fireworks from up here,” said Lottie. “They’ll light up the whole lake. If our feet freeze to the ground you may have to chip us free in the morning.”
“Have a quick scotch before you go,” Barbara urged, “to warm you through. It’s only some cheap muck of Freddie’s.”
Freddie loved her irreverence; it was actually a Glenfarclas, a thirty-year-old Speyside malt.
“Oh well, in that case. Just a quick one.” The grandfather clock out in the hall chimed seven, reminding Lottie that she had to be on her way. “The main reason I popped in was to say I got through to that guy at the tracing agency. He hasn’t had any luck yet.”
Freddie was disappointed but not surprised. If the man had been able to locate Giselle, he would have been on the phone to them at once.
“How about if you try another agency?” Barbara was eager to help. “Maybe they’d have more luck.”
“This chap’s doing everything he can,” said Lottie. “It’s just that these things, well…”
“Take time.” Freddie supplied the missing words. “It’s OK, you can say it.”
“I told him to do his best. He knows we want a result as soon as possible.” Knocking back the scotch in one gulp, Lottie gasped and clutched her throat. “Yeesh, it’s like swallowing gas.”
“My darling girl.” Freddie shook his head fondly. “You are so unrefined.”
* * *
Down by the lake the bonfire burned merrily and the party was well under way. Having opened the sash windows just enough to hear the shrieks of the children and the oohs and aahs that accompanied each fresh explosion of fireworks, Freddie and Barbara sat together in the drawing room and watched the display light up the star-spangled sky.
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