Making Your Mind Up, page 39
“I’m not bothered.” Nat shrugged. “I’m only a sheep. I get to look in the manger and say, ‘Look, it’s the Baby Jesus. Baaaa.’”
“You’ll miss my show too.” Past the age of Nativity plays, Ruby’s Christmas concerts were rather jollier affairs. “I’m singing and dancing and everything.”
“Oh, Rubes, I’m sorry.” Stricken, Mario reached for her hand.
“But we’ll be there cheering you on,” Lottie jumped in quickly. “Me and Nat. And we’ll take loads of photos, won’t we?”
Her dark eyes huge, Ruby said, “Will Seb come too? I’d like it if he was there.”
“We’ll ask him.” Lottie experienced a warm glow in her stomach because in her children’s eyes Seb could do no wrong; since his return from Dubai their relationship had gone from strength to strength. “If he doesn’t have to work I’m sure he’ll want to come and see you.”
Ruby gave Mario’s hand a consoling squeeze. “That’s all right then. Don’t worry, Daddy, we’ll have Seb instead. Do they have donkeys in Tenerife?”
Relieved, Mario said, “I’m sure they do.”
“So you’ll be able to ride them on the beach like me and Nat did when we went to Weston.”
“You might find a girlfriend,” Nat added helpfully. “Then you won’t be all on your own.”
Ruby spoke through a mouthful of tuna and baked potato. “Oh, Daddy, you might be lonely. If we didn’t have school we could have come with you to keep you company.”
“And I would’ve lent you my Game Boy.” Nat, ever practical, shook his head regretfully at Mario. “But not for two whole weeks.”
Mario had gotten away in the nick of time. Overnight, temperatures plummeted and the first snow of winter fell, sending Nat and Ruby into paroxysms of delight.
Particularly when Seb arrived on Saturday at lunchtime in his new 4x4 with two toboggans in the trunk. Ruby, lovingly stroking the sleek red toboggan, said, “All we’ve ever had before was tea trays.”
“Poor, deprived children. Come on, get your coats on,” ordered Seb. “We’re going to test these babies out on Beggarbush Hill.”
Now, screaming like banshees, Nat and Ruby were racing down the hill on their toboggans along with a cluster of other children bundled up against the cold. Beggarbush Hill was the place to go for anyone who enjoyed traveling over snow at warp speed.
“They won’t have any teeth left,” Lottie marveled as Nat, using his Wellington-booted feet as brakes, threw himself off the toboggan seconds before it collided with a bigger boy already lying spread-eagled in the snow.
“Kids are tough. They bounce. Now, are you going to be a lily-livered wimp, or will you be giving it a go yourself?” Seb was wearing an idiotic red and yellow jester’s hat and a fluorescent orange ski jacket already dusted with snow.
Beggarbush Hill was notoriously steep, and Nat and Ruby had shot down it like lightning. Hesitating for a fraction of a second, Lottie said, “I’ve never been on a toboggan like this before. They’re quite…aerodynamic, aren’t they?”
“Chicken.” Seb seized on the hesitation with glee. “Feeble female. Wimp.”
Lottie hated being called a wimp. She prided herself on giving anything a try. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it. I’m just pointing out that I haven’t ridden on a—”
“You’re probably too old anyway,” said Seb. “Too weak and feeble and downright past it. Maybe you should stick to knitting.”
“Mum, these toboggans are wicked.” Ruby had arrived, pink-cheeked and panting, back at the top of the hill. “Did you see how fast we went?”
“Uh-uh.” Seb wagged a finger. “Don’t mention the F word. Your mother doesn’t do fast. Between you and me, I think bowling might be more her thing.”
“Oh, give me that.” Having been goaded enough, Lottie seized the toboggan from Ruby. How hard could it be anyway?
“Yay!” Ruby clapped her mittened hands. “Mum’s having a go!”
“But she’s only a weak and wussy female,” Seb pointed out, “so don’t expect her to do more than two miles an hour.”
Right, that was it. Lottie threw down the toboggan with a flourish and positioned herself on it, feet either side of the runners. Fearlessly she beckoned Seb over and said, “Give me a push.”
Ruby, unfastening her cycle helmet, said, “Mum, do you want to borrow—”
“No!” Ha, safety helmets were for sissies. “Come on, big push, as hard as you can…wheeeeeeeeeee!…”
It was nothing like sitting on an old-fashioned wooden toboggan. This one was made of sleek molded plastic with go-faster stainless steel runners. And it was going faster, Lottie discovered. Yikes, her eyes were streaming, the icy air was whistling in her ears, and her hair was whipping across her face. Clinging onto the steering rope for grim life, she juddered over a patch of bumpy ground and whipped past a Labrador having a pee against a tree. This was like being on a scary fairground ride without the safety bar across your lap. She was zipping past people so fast, they were little more than a blur… OK, it was only Beggarbush Hill. Any second now she’d reach the bit where the ground began to level out and you gradually reduced speed before coasting to a halt at the bot—
THUNK. The toboggan hit a rock sticking out of the snow. Lottie, catapulted into the air, discovered how it felt to be fired from a cannon. Arms and legs flailing wildly, she let out a scream that echoed all the way across the valley before coming to an abrupt halt as she landed and all the air was knocked—whoosh—from her lungs.
But only the scream came to an abrupt halt. Lottie continued to tumble over and over, the world cartwheeling dizzily past her eyes until with a final flump she landed—and stayed—facedown in the snow.
“Oh fuck.” Lottie let out a groan, spitting snow and blood from her mouth and feeling sick with the pain. Everything hurt so much she didn’t know where to start.
“Mummy! Are you all right?” Nat was the first to reach her. Kneeling at her side, he said, “Are you hurt?”
“Just a tiny bit.” The pain in Lottie’s lower back was excruciating. Turning her head to smile weakly at Nat, she said, “Is Seb on his way down?”
“Yes, he’s coming now with Ruby.” Nat reached out and stroked a strand of wet hair away from Lottie’s eye, a gesture that brought a lump to her throat. “Poor Mummy, you should have worn a crash helmet.”
Lottie nodded. Ironically the one part of her body that wasn’t screaming in agony was her head.
“Mummy!” This time it was Ruby, skidding to a halt with her hand in Seb’s. “You were flying!”
“I know.” Lottie winced. “I was there.”
“Talk about attention-seeking.” Crouching beside her, Seb said cheerfully, “I think your mum’s hoping someone’s caught it on video so she can sell it to one of those TV programs.” He gave Lottie a hearty pat on the back. “OK now? Need a hand getting up?”
“I hate to sound like a feeble female,” said Lottie, “but I think you’re going to have to call an ambulance.”
* * *
By the time Lottie was finally settled in her hospital bed and the doctor had left to write up his notes, it was six in the evening. Seb and the children, allowed back onto the ward at last, clumped in in their snow clothes and Wellies. Nat and Ruby, eyeing the intravenous drip and the plaster cast, treated Lottie with new respect.
The pain radiating from Lottie’s back was still intense, but hospital-strength painkillers were doing their bit to take the edge off it. She kissed Ruby and Nat, then looked at Seb. “The doctor’s just told me I’m probably going to be in here for a week. The tests showed a hematoma on one of my kidneys. It’s a kind of bruise or bleed or something. Anyway, I have to stay in bed until it clears up.”
Seb looked surprised. “A week. Bloody hell.”
And a partridge in a pear tree.
“The problem is, the kids.” Lottie had been unable to think of anything else since discovering she was being admitted. “Mario’s in Tenerife. Cressida’s up in Newcastle, so she isn’t able to look after them. If you could go back to the cottage and find the phone number Mario left, I can call and tell him to come home, but I don’t know what’s going to happen tonight.”
“Hey, don’t panic.” Seb sat on the edge of the bed. “There must be someone else you can ask. How about the other mothers from school?”
“I had a few phone numbers in a notebook I kept in my bag.” Lottie cursed herself for not being more organized. “But then my bag was stolen last year and I never got around to collecting the numbers all over again. I didn’t expect this to happen… Oh God, what a time for Mario to be away.”
“OK. No problem,” said Seb. “I’ll take them.”
“What?” Lottie’s heart leaped—Seb had already told her he had an important business dinner tonight, which was why she hadn’t dared ask him before. “But what about…?”
“I’ll just have to cancel it, won’t I? These two can come stay with me.” He ruffled Nat’s hair and broke into a grin. “How about it then, kids? Fancy that? Or would you rather spend the night in some old bus shelter?”
“We’ll stay with you,” Nat said happily. “Can we play Monopoly?”
“Maybe. Ruby, how about you?”
Ruby looked hopeful. “Scrabble?”
Oh, the relief. Feeling the weight of responsibility fall away, Lottie smiled up at Seb and whispered, “Thank you.” Then, turning her attention to Nat and Ruby, she added, “And you two have to promise to behave yourselves.”
Nat was offended. “We always do.”
“OK. Now you’ll need the key to the cottage.” She indicated the bedside locker where her bag was stowed. “And could you drop by Hestacombe House and let Tyler know what’s happened? And Mario’s phone number is on a piece of paper in the kitchen somewhere. I think it’s on the dresser.”
“I’ll give him a call,” said Seb. “You get some rest now. We’ll be in to see you in the morning.”
“What would I do without you?” Lottie tried not to flinch as he leaned over to kiss her, his hand brushing her badly bruised shoulder.
Seb winked. “I know. I’m a saint.”
* * *
This was above and beyond the call of duty. As he drove back to Kingston Ash, Seb mulled over the problem; basically, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Lottie was great, and he was extremely fond of her kids, but to have this happen today of all days was just a complete pain. Karina—heavenly Karina—had flown in from Dubai for the weekend, and he’d already made his excuses to Lottie, explaining that he had a meeting tonight to secure sponsorship for the next polo tournament.
And now he’d told her he’d cancel the meeting in order to look after Nat and Ruby instead. Well, what else could he have done under the circumstances? Called social services and asked them to take the kids for the weekend?
Plus, what with being the one who’d brought along the toboggans and persuaded Lottie to have a go, he couldn’t help feeling slightly responsible.
At that moment a plan began to unfold in his mind. Seb tapped his fingers against the steering wheel and smiled to himself; the night might not turn out to be a complete washout after all.
“Seb?” Next to him in the car Nat said excitedly, “This is like an adventure, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be brilliant if Maya could come and stay too?”
“It would be brilliant, but she’s in London with her mum. Maybe next time,” said Seb as he pulled into the snowy driveway. “OK, here we are. Don’t forget your bags, kids.”
“Seb?” Nat exchanged a hopeful look with Ruby. “Do we have to brush our teeth at your house?”
Seb grinned, because Maya was just the same. “Are you serious? Of course you don’t have to brush your teeth.”
* * *
Nat and Ruby were in the living room setting up the Monopoly board and painstakingly sorting out the money. Making sure the kitchen door was shut, Seb rang Karina’s number. She answered on the third ring.
“Change of plan,” Seb announced before briefly explaining what had happened.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” Karina wailed. “I don’t believe it! I’ve come all this way—”
“Hey, hey.” Seb’s tone was soothing. “Let’s not get our panties in a twist.”
“Easy for you to say, you bastard. I’m not wearing any. I’m in the damn bath, getting ready for you.”
“Listen.” He shook his head. “What other choice did I have? There wasn’t anyone else to look after them.”
“Isn’t that what children’s homes are for?”
“They’re terrific kids. We’re just about to play a game of Monopoly.”
“And then I’ll be putting them to bed.” Seb paused, then added meaningfully, “Up in the spare bedroom, right at the top of the house. They’ll be going to bed at…ooh, around nine o’clock, at a guess.”
Karina perked up in an instant. “And then you’ll come over to the hotel?”
Seb shook his head in amusement. “Bloody hell, darling, you can tell you don’t have kids. Abandon them like that and you tend to get arrested. But like I said, they’ll be fast asleep by nine thirty. And there’s nothing to stop you hopping in a taxi and coming over here.”
Karina sounded as if she was smiling. “You drive a hard bargain, babe.”
“It’ll be worth it.”
“Got any stuff?”
Seb grinned. He’d paid a visit to his dealer only yesterday. “What did I just tell you, sweetie? I said it’d be worth it.”
Ruby couldn’t sleep. Playing Monopoly with Nat and Seb had been brilliant, especially beating Seb, but as soon as nine o’clock had come around, he had put them to bed in the attic bedroom, and now she was feeling a bit funny. It was sheets and blankets for a start, not a duvet like she was used to. And Seb had said he was going to bed, but he wasn’t. Earlier, a car had pulled up outside, and she could hear noises and voices downstairs that didn’t sound like the television.
It was ten fifteen. In the twin bed next to hers Nat was fast asleep. Propelled partly by thirst and partly by curiosity, Ruby slipped out of bed and silently opened the bedroom door. On the way downstairs it occurred to her that maybe the visitor was Maya, that Seb had arranged for her to join them for the weekend as a surprise.
The hall floor was cold beneath her bare feet. The living room door was firmly shut, but there was definitely someone else in there with Seb. Tiptoeing over to the door in her blue pajamas, Ruby crouched down and peeped through the keyhole.
Oh no, no, that couldn’t be right. Jerking away in horror, then needing to double-check to prove to herself that she hadn’t imagined it, Ruby looked again. Seb was on the sofa with a woman, and the woman was wearing her underwear, and Seb, who didn’t have his shirt on, was leaning forward over the coffee table with something that looked like a straw up his nose.
This was drugs, Ruby was almost sure. She’d seen people doing that sniffing thing on television. Then she froze in horror as she stepped back and one of the floorboards creaked.
Inside the room, the woman said, “What was that noise?”
Ruby, her heart thumping, melted into the dark space beneath the stairs. Moments later she heard the living room door open. Finally Seb said, “It’s OK, there’s no one out here.”
The woman giggled. “If it’s those kids, just lock them in the cellar.”
“Don’t worry. They’re asleep. Unlike me…” Seb purred before closi
From where she was hiding, Ruby saw Seb’s cell phone on the spindly-legged table diagonally across the hall from her. Darting out, she grabbed it and raced up the staircase.
“Mummy…Mummy…” Back in the safety of the attic bedroom, rocking on her knees, Ruby managed to find Lottie’s name on the list of favorites and rang her mother’s number. “Answer the phone; oh, please answer the phone…”
But the message service kicked in and Ruby felt her eyes fill with hot tears. Clutching the cell phone tightly she waited for the beep then whispered, “Mummy? Are you there? I wanted to…it’s just…” She broke off, wiped her wet cheeks with the back of her hand, and said in a wobbly voice, “I want to go home.”
* * *
Lottie couldn’t work out if she was dozing off or actually dreaming when she heard a female voice saying, “He won’t go away until he’s seen you.”
Lottie opened her eyes and saw the nurse beside her bed. “Excuse me?”
“Your boss. Tyler, is that his name? I told him visiting hours were over but he’s quite insistent. I said he could pop in for five minutes if it’s all right with you.”
The nurse had a furtive look on her face, indicating that she was bending the rules.
“Do I look terrible?” said Lottie.
“Oh well. Fine, send him in.”
When Tyler made his way up the ward, Lottie guessed how he’d been able to persuade the staff nurse to bend the rules. He was wearing a dinner jacket and a dazzling white dress shirt, and a bow tie was dangling from his jacket pocket.
“Hey, you look awful,” Tyler announced.
The silver-tongued charmer.
“Thanks. You too. Still working as a nightclub bouncer, I see.”
“We only got home thirty minutes ago.” Keeping his voice low so as not to disturb the other sleeping patients, he pulled up a chair. “Found the note pushed through the mail slot, but all it said was that you’d had an accident and were in the hospital, and that you’d be off work for a few weeks. I was going frantic, not knowing which hospital you were in or what was wrong with you.” He paused. “What is wrong with you?”
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