Making your mind up, p.4

Making Your Mind Up, page 4


Making Your Mind Up

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  Chapter 5

  “Hello? You’re miles away.” Mario was waving his hand in front of her face.

  “Sorry.” Brought back to the present with a bump, Lottie said, “I was just thinking how much nicer it is, not being married to you anymore.”

  “Not being married to anyone, you mean.” Mario enjoyed joking about her lack of love life. “You want to watch yourself—won’t be long now before you turn into a born-again spinster. It’s called getting set in your ways. In ten years the kids’ll be off and there you’ll be, all alone, stuck in your rocking chair, yelling at the TV and refusing to let anyone from the gas board into the house to read the meter because they might be male.”

  Lottie lobbed her rolled-up ball of clay at him. “In ten years’ time I’ll be forty.”

  Undeterred, Mario said, “And shaking your walking stick at any man who dares to come within half a mile of you. You’ll be the scary old woman with a houseful of dollies. You’ll make little lacy outfits for them and give them names and send them cards on their birthdays.”

  “Not when I’m forty. I wasn’t planning on doing that until I’m at least fifty-six,” Lottie protested. “Anyway, I don’t need to rush out and grab the nearest man. I’m fine on my own. In fact, I’m enjoying the rest.” Beaming at him, she said, “You should try it sometime.”

  Since this was like suggesting he might want to climb the Matterhorn in ballet shoes, Mario ignored her. “I’m serious. Since we split up you’ve been out on one date.” He held up one finger in case she was unable to comprehend the shameful singleness of the number. “And look how that turned out. Lottie, it’s just not normal.”

  Wasn’t it? Maybe not, but she genuinely didn’t let it worry her. Far easier to be free and single, Lottie felt, than have to force yourself to go out on dates like her disastrous one last year. She’d only agreed to have dinner with Melv the Twitch because he’d already asked her three times and she hadn’t had the heart to turn him down again. Besides, he was a sweet, eager-to-please man, the kind who would never treat a woman badly. And it was only dinner, after all. What could possibly go wrong?

  Sadly, lots. Melvyn’s nerves may have played a part, but it was hard to enjoy yourself in the company of a man—OK, a VAT inspector—who had a distressing nervous tic and spent the first hour of the date giving a lecture on tax returns. Lottie, who had been up most of the previous night with Nat (tummy bug, not pleasant), had almost dislocated her jaw in an effort not to yawn throughout Melvyn’s convoluted explanations of the lengths some people foolishly went to in their attempts to avoid paying the tax. When their starters had been cleared away, desperate for a proper uninterrupted yawn, she had excused herself from the table and escaped to the bathroom.

  Where, overcome with exhaustion, she had promptly fallen asleep.

  Waking up in the stall and realizing that ninety minutes had passed had been bad enough. Returning to the restaurant and discovering that Melvyn had paid the bill and left had been worse. Assuming that she’d run away because he was so boring, he hadn’t even sent a waitress into the ladies’ bathroom to see if she was still in there.

  “He kept saying it was his own fault,” the waitress had chattily informed Lottie, “because he’d been talking about work again. Between you and me, I reckon he’s had girls running away from him before. Poor chap; I did feel sorry for him. He looked gutted. But I told him straight: a bloke can’t expect to bowl a girl over while droning on and on about interest rates and VAT.”

  The final humiliation had come when Lottie, discovering she didn’t have enough cash on her for a taxi, had been forced to ring Mario and ask him to drive into Cheltenham and pick her up. Ravenously hungry, she had ended up letting him buy her a Burger King triple cheeseburger and fries to eat in the car on the way home.

  How he’d laughed at her that night.

  Oh well, at least Melvyn hadn’t asked her out again. Sometimes you just had to be grateful for small mercies.

  “One lousy date,” Mario repeated, still grinning, “with Melv the Twitch. Not even a whole date, more like half of one. Honestly, you’re a lost cause.”

  “I blame having been married to you. It’s scarred me for life,” Lottie said comfortably.

  “You’re too picky; that’s your problem.”

  “Unlike you. You’re the opposite of picky.”

  “Thanks a lot. I’ll tell Amber you said that. In fact”—Mario turned his head at the sound of a car pulling into the drive—“I’ll tell her right now.”

  “Apart from Amber,” said Lottie. In the three years since she and Mario had separated, a constant stream of girlfriends had passed through Mario’s life. Which would have been fine as far as Lottie was concerned—it was allowed, he was a free agent now—but for the fact that there was Nat and Ruby to consider. Most of these girlfriends had been wildly unsuitable. Lottie didn’t want to come across as the Wicked Witch of the West or as some jealous ex-wife hell-bent on breaking up every new relationship her husband dared to enter into, but how could she pretend to be delighted to meet them when there was even an outside chance they might end up becoming involved in her children’s lives?

  Not that these girls were bad, cruel, or deliberately unkind, nothing like that. They were just thoughtless, careless, or simply not up to the task. Invariably they pretended to adore Ruby and Nat because they were so keen to impress Mario. In order to court popularity and win their friendship, the girls were always buying them sweets and ice creams. One ditzy blond had offered to highlight Ruby’s hair—cue tears and tantrums when Lottie had swiftly informed Ruby that that wasn’t going to happen. Another girl had bought Nat an industrial-strength slingshot. Last year, without thinking to consult Lottie or Mario first, a chirpy brunette called Babs had promised Ruby faithfully that on her ninth birthday she would take her in to Cheltenham to have her belly button pierced.

  After that it had been bye-bye Babs. God knows what she might have had planned as an encore. Sneaking Nat off to a tattoo parlor, possibly, for a G.I. Joe tattoo.

  But Amber was the longest lasting girlfriend to date, and Amber was different. She genuinely liked Mario’s children, and Lottie in turn liked her. A lot, in fact. If she could organize everyone’s lives—God, wouldn’t that be great?—she would choose Amber to settle down with Mario, tame him, marry him, and become stepmother to Ruby and Nat. Of course she might also have to arrange for Mario to be neutered like a dog, but what the hell. Anything to keep him on the straight and narrow.

  Still, she could certainly do her bit to encourage the relationship. Anything to prevent another Babs wiggling onto the scene and becoming the next Mrs. Carlyle.

  The front door opened and banged shut, and Amber appeared in the kitchen. Blond and petite, with a perky smile and a penchant for short skirts and vertiginous high heels, she wouldn’t immediately strike anyone as ideal stepmother material, but beneath the low-cut tops beat a heart of gold. Amber was feisty, hardworking, and addicted to sparkly jewelry. She and Mario had been seeing each other for seven months now, and she wasn’t the type to put up with any nonsense. So far, he’d managed to keep himself in check. For her own sake, Lottie could only hope he’d continue to do so.

  “Hi there. Monsters in the yard?”

  “Don’t worry; I’m taking them home now.” Lottie offered her the lager she’d barely touched. “We’ll leave you in peace. Good day?”

  Amber ran her own busy hairdressing salon in Tetbury, employed four part-time stylists and had earned herself a wide-ranging and devoted clientele.

  “Interesting day. I’ve been offered a free vacation in the south of France.”

  Mario said, “That’s nothing. When I opened my mail this morning I was offered twenty-five grand and a trip to Australia. Sweetheart, it’s called junk mail. They don’t really give you all this stuff for free.”

  “You’re hilarious. This is a genuine offer.” Her many
bracelets jangling as she delved into her pink diamanté-studded rucksack, Amber produced a travel brochure and pulled up a chair next to Lottie. “Come on, I’ll show you. One of my clients booked a fortnight in St. Tropez for herself and her boyfriend, but they broke up last week. She asked me if I’d be interested instead. Here we go, page thirty-seven. It looks fantastic, there’s a private pool and everything, and it’s only five minutes from the harbor where all the billionaires moor their yachts.”

  “Wow. Flashy apartment too.” Lottie was poring over the photographs in the brochure. “And how about that view over the bay?”

  Interested now, Mario leaned across to take a look. “I’ve never been to St. Tropez. When’s it booked for?”

  “The beginning of September. Apparently it’s very crowded in July and August, so that’s a better time to visit.”

  “All the women go topless on the beaches.” Lottie glanced sympathetically at Mario. “You’d hate it.”

  “Actually,” Amber began, but Mario had pulled the brochure toward him.

  “You know, I could manage a fortnight then. I’ve still got three weeks to take before Christmas. Could be just what we need.” He looked at Amber. “I’ll have to brush up on my French before we get there. Voulez vous coucher avec moi, mon ange, ma petite, mon petit chou…”

  “Mon petit chou.” Lottie pulled a face. “You know, I’ve never understood that. If someone called me a cabbage I’d box their ears.”

  “Actually,” Amber broke in hurriedly, “she invited just me, not you.”

  Mario looked confused. “But you said—”

  “Mandy broke up with her boyfriend, but she’s still taking the vacation. She asked me if I’d like to go with her in his place.”

  “Oh. Right.” Crestfallen, Mario shrugged. “And she’s just one of your clients?”

  “Well, yes, but she’s a friend too. Mandy’s been coming to the salon every week for the last three years. We never run out of things to talk about. The vacation’s all booked and paid for and she’s been looking forward to it for months. But she doesn’t want to go on her own and none of her other friends can take time off work at such short notice. So she asked me,” Amber said brightly. “And I thought, hell, free vacation, why not?”

  Mario looked taken aback. “So you’ve already said yes.”

  “I have.” Amber nodded, her long silver earrings dancing around her shoulders. “Well, I’d be mad to turn down an offer like that, wouldn’t I? Patsy and Liz are going to work extra hours in the salon. There’s no reason not to go. God, I’m excited already!”

  Lottie was pleased for Amber, who worked her socks off and deserved a break, but she could think of a reason why she shouldn’t go. If Mario was to be abandoned, left to his own devices for an entire fortnight, who knew what he might get up to? Without realizing it, Amber could be putting their whole relationship at risk.

  But much as Lottie didn’t want that to happen, it wasn’t her place to interfere. She could hardly tell Amber that if she wanted to make sure Mario remained faithful to her she should cancel the vacation. Or arrange to have him arrested and slung in jail for that fortnight—so long as there wouldn’t be any female prison warders.

  “Eurgh! Yuck, monsters!” Feigning horror and disgust, Amber shielded herself with the vacation brochure as Nat and Ruby exploded into the kitchen. “Eurgh, don’t let them near me; they’re so ugly.”

  “You like us really.” Nat beamed and leaned against her chair. “You promised to play Uno next time you came over.”

  “I did. But sadly your mum has to take you home now. Phew, what a relief,” said Amber. “I mean, oh dear, what a tragedy, I’m sooo disappointed.”

  “We can play it next time. Did you bring us any sweets?”

  “No I did not. Sweets make all your teeth go rotten and fall out. You’re scary enough as it is.” Amber began to tickle him in the ribs, expertly reducing Nat to a shrieking, giggling heap, then clapped her hands and exclaimed to Ruby, “Oh, you’ll never guess who came into the salon today.”

  “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

  “Not quite. We don’t tend to get too many vampires in Tetbury. No, this lady happened to mention that she taught at Oaklea Primary School. And I said, ‘Hey, poor you. I know a couple of monsters who go there.’”

  Ruby said excitedly, “Who was it?”

  In a conspiratorial voice, Amber whispered, “Mrs. Ashton.”

  “Mrs. Ashton? She’s my teacher!”

  “I know! She told me she was your teacher! I said you’d spent the whole of the summer vacations doing homework and practicing your tables.”

  Ruby giggled. “Did she believe you?”

  “Not for a minute. She said I must be talking about a different Ruby Carlyle.”

  Entranced, Ruby said, “What did you do to her hair?”

  “Well, it took ages to dye it bright pink. Then I had to put in about a million white-blond extensions. I crimped some of them and braided others,” Amber explained, “and by the end of the afternoon she looked fantastic, just like Christina Aguilera in Moulin Rouge. But she made another appointment for two weeks’ time because it all has to go before school starts again. When you see Mrs. Ashton next time she’ll be back to normal: short brown hair and bangs. Just as if it had never happened.”

  Ruby and Nat looked at each other, torn between delight and disbelief. “Really?” said Ruby.

  “What, you don’t believe me?” Amber’s eyes widened. “All the teachers do it. They have to have ordinary teacherish hair during term time. But when it comes to the school breaks, let me tell you, they go completely mad.”

  “Mr. Overton can’t go mad,” Nat pointed out. “He hasn’t got any hair.”

  “Ah, but you should see his vacation wigs.”

  Watching the three of them interacting so effortlessly, Lottie felt her heart expand with love. All she wanted in the world was for her children to be happy. If she were to die and Ruby and Nat were living full-time with Mario, she couldn’t ask for a better potential stepmother than Amber.

  God, please don’t let Mario mess everything up. Maybe she should consider breaking both his legs, forcing him to spend the fortnight flat on his back in traction while Amber was away.

  Chapter 6

  How to lose friends and really annoy people, thought Cressida, her skin prickling with embarrassment at what she could be about to do.

  On the other hand, she’d clearly be doing this man a favor. Plus there was something about him that made her want to fall into conversation with him, even if he was sounding pretty frazzled just now.

  So long as he didn’t think she was some kind of deranged madwoman. Hastily running her hands over her flyaway light brown hair—yes, even here in a Hestacombe village shop it was making a valiant attempt to fly away—Cressida mentally rehearsed what she would say.

  Ted, who ran the shop, was busy serving someone at the counter, ringing up items on the till and grumbling good-naturedly about the latest cricket scores. At the back of the shop, the man Cressida was currently stalking sifted dispiritedly, yet again, through the collection of greetings cards on sale and murmured to his son, “It’s no good, there’s nothing here. We’ll have to drive into Stroud, find something decent.”

  The boy looked distraught. For the second time he whined, “But, Dad, we’re supposed to be fishing. You promised.”

  “I know, but we just have to do this first. It’s Gran’s birthday tomorrow and you know what she’s like when it comes to cards.”

  The boy, who was about eleven, said with frustration, “Well, get her that one then,” and whipped a card from the rickety carousel.

  From the corner of her eye, Cressida saw that the card he’d chosen featured a cuddly overweight bunny clutching a bunch of flowers. The boy’s father said flatly, “Gran would hate it. She’d think I couldn’t be bothered to cho
ose her something decent. Look, if we drive into Stroud now, we can be back by midday.”

  “Dad, we won’t be though, will we?” The boy rolled his eyes in disbelief. “You always say things’ll be quick and they end up taking ages, and then you’ll say it’s not worth going fishing because it’s too late now—”

  “Ahem.” Clearing her throat and double-checking that Ted was still otherwise occupied at the far end of the shop, Cressida said in a low voice, “I might be able to help you out.”

  This was it, then. The point of no return. She’d just approached a complete stranger in a public place and shamelessly solicited her wares.

  The man and his son both turned, clearly startled. The man said, “Excuse me?”

  Oh dear, bit loud. Pulling a keep-your-voice-down face, Cressida moved a couple steps closer.

  “Sorry, I shouldn’t be doing this, bit of a cheek. But if you like I could make you a card.”

  The boy said, “What?”

  Now they really did think she was barking. The door clanged as the other customer left the shop. Lurking back here furtively whispering together like a couple of secret agents was bound to rouse Ted’s suspicions.

  “Making greetings cards is what I do.” Faintly annoyed by the boy’s manner, Cressida said, “I live just up the road. I’ll be out of here in two minutes if you’re interested. Otherwise, no problem. There are plenty of good card shops in Stroud.”

  Ugh, now she felt disloyal to Ted and embarrassed for herself. Aware that her cheeks were burning, Cressida grabbed a bottle of dishwasher liquid from the shelf and slipped away from them. Reaching the refrigerated section, she helped herself to milk and butter, then moved toward the counter.

  “Bloody vacationers,” grumbled Ted as the door jangled shut behind the man and his son. To come into the shop and leave without buying anything he regarded as a personal affront.

  Cressida reminded herself that there was really no need to feel racked with guilt; the man hadn’t been about to buy one of the sad little collection of cards on the carousel anyway.

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