Making your mind up, p.5

Making Your Mind Up, page 5

 

Making Your Mind Up
 



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  But her conscience wasn’t about to let her off that easily.

  “I know, they’re a pain, aren’t they? I’ll have a packet of gummy bears as well, Ted.”

  “And a walnut cake? Fresh in this morning.” Nodding encouragingly, Ted was already reaching for a patisserie box.

  “Go on then.” Cressida caved in; resisting sales patter was another of her weaknesses. “And a walnut cake.”

  Outside in the sunshine the man and his son were loitering awkwardly some twenty yards away from the shop. Joining them, Cressida said, “Sorry, I know you must have thought I was a bit strange, but I promise you I’m not. That’s my house just up there, overlooking the village green.”

  “Well, this is all very James Bond.” The man made a feeble stab at humor as Cressida glanced both ways before unlocking her emerald-green front door.

  “Ted can be a bit touchy. I’d hate to be banned for life from the only shop in the village. Come on through, my workroom’s at the end of the hall.” Cressida showed them into the large sunny ex-dining room, painted yellow and white and cluttered with piled-up boxes. Against one wall was a desk containing her computer; thanks to the Internet, this was how she attracted most of her business. Next to it, the work she was currently making a start on was spread out over a ten-foot-long table.

  “Right, I won’t keep you long, I know you’re in a hurry to go fishing.” Cressida glanced at the boy, who was shuffling his feet, evidently counting every second under his breath. “But if you tell me what your mother would like, I can do you a card right away. I make them to order.”

  The man moved toward the table, the vibration from his footsteps on the wooden floor causing the computer screen to shimmer into life. Having taken in the sheets of heavy card, the reels of silk and velvet ribbons, the bowls of dried petals, feathers, and colored glass beads, he looked again at the VDU and read, “Cressida Forbes Cards. Is that your name?”

  “That’s me.” In an attempt to do what any self-respecting businesswoman would do, Cressida said in a too-jolly voice, “Perfect cards for every occasion!”

  The boy, whom she was fast beginning to dislike, gave the kind of under-his-breath snort that clearly translated as: You are such a dork.

  “Cressida. Nice name.” His father valiantly attempted to make amends.

  “Not when you’re at school and everyone calls you Watercress.” Cressida spoke with feeling.

  Another snort reached their ears. With a smirk the boy said, “Or Mustard and Cress.”

  “Oh yes. That too. Anyway.” Grasping the mouse, she clicked from her website’s home page onto a sample of greetings cards and rapidly scrolled through them. “I can make any of these and personalize it for you.”

  The boy looked dismayed. “How long’s that going to take?”

  “Not long. Because I’m very clever. Less than half an hour,” said Cressida to wind him up.

  “Half an hour!”

  “I like this one.” The man was pointing to a lilac card with an impressionistic garden design composed of pale green iridescent gauze, rose quartz beads, silver ribbon, and drawn-in metallic green trees. Turning to Cressida he said, “And could you put ‘Mum, have a wonderful 70th birthday’ on the front?”

  “Of course I can.” Did he think she couldn’t write? “Anything you want.”

  “Half an hour!”

  “Here.” Reaching past the grumpy boy, Cressida took a ready folded A5 sheet of lilac card and matching envelope from one of the stacked trays on her desk. Opening out the card, she handed his father a black fountain pen and said, “Write inside it and address the envelope. Go off and do your fishing. I’ll have the card finished and in the mail by lunchtime.”

  “Yeah, but how do we know you’ll send it?”

  This was a boy sorely in need of a slap. With a sweet smile Cressida said, “When you ring your grandmother tomorrow to wish her a happy birthday, you could ask her if she likes her card.”

  “Donny, behave yourself. I do apologize.” Having finished writing inside the card and addressing the envelope, the man pulled out his wallet. “This is very kind. And my mother will love it. Now, how much do I owe you?”

  * * *

  Cressida watched from the window as the two of them made their way down the High Street, climbed into their dark blue Volvo and drove off. The card Donny’s father had chosen sold for four pounds but, embarrassed at having practically hijacked him and frog-marched him into her house, she had asked for two pounds. And on top of that she had to supply the first class stamp and walk down to the mailbox herself.

  Let’s face it, she was never going to have to worry about becoming a tycoon and being forced to go live in tax exile.

  Still, he’d seemed like a nice man. Even if she hadn’t even found out his name. All she knew was that his mother was Mrs. E. Turner, that she lived in Sussex, and that tomorrow she would be seventy.

  Oh, and that her grandson was a sulky, spoiled brat.

  Glimpsing her own reflection in the window, Cressida saw that her hair was doing its scarecrow thing again. Locating a couple of tortoiseshell combs in her skirt pocket, she gathered it into a twist and fastened it away from her face. Then, pushing up the sleeves of her white shirt, she sat down to put together Mrs. E. Turner’s card. It wouldn’t do to miss the mail.

  Chapter 7

  The doorbell rang at seven o’clock that evening. Halfway through a chicken Madras on a tray in front of the television, Cressida guessed it was Lottie popping in for a drink and a chat.

  “Oh!” Horribly conscious that her breath must reek of curry, she took a surprised step back when she saw that it wasn’t Lottie at all.

  “You undercharged me this morning. And I didn’t get the chance to introduce myself.” The son of Mrs. E. Turner was back on her doorstep, sunburned and smiling and wearing a clean blue shirt. He was also holding a wrapped bunch of freesias. “Tom Turner.”

  Ever since a traumatizing incident in her teens (“Oh, how lovely; are those for me?” “No, they’re to go on my nan’s grave.”) the sight of men bearing flowers had caused Cressida to fly into a mini panic. Flustered, she said, “Tom, how nice to see you again. I’m Cressida Forbes.”

  Tom Turner inclined his head. “I already know that.”

  “God, of course you do; I’d forgotten. Um…I mailed your mother’s card.”

  He was smiling now. “I knew you’d do that too. You have an honest face.”

  Cressida didn’t know about honest. It was certainly red. Still trying desperately not to look at the freesias she said, “Maybe now isn’t the time to tell you I rob banks.”

  “Here.” At last he held the wrapped flowers toward her. “I thought you might like these. My way of saying thank-you for helping me out this morning.”

  “Oh. Gosh!” Pretending to have just spotted them for the first time, Cressida took the freesias and enthusiastically inhaled their scent. “They’re beautiful. Thank you so much. You really didn’t have to do this.”

  “As I said, you undercharged me. I saw the prices on your website.” Tom smiled. “I also wanted to apologize for Donny’s behavior. He wasn’t at his most charming, I’m afraid.”

  You could say that again. Peering over Tom’s shoulder, Cressida said, “Well, he’s at that age. Is he waiting in the car?”

  “No. I’ve left him at the cottage, hunched over his Game Boy.”

  There was a pause. Tom was still standing there, making no move to leave. Conscious that she might have curry breath but keen to cover the awkward silence, Cressida said brightly, “So, did you catch anything?”

  Tom looked startled. “Excuse me?”

  Oh, marvelous. Now he thought she was quizzing him about sexually transmitted diseases. “You were going fishing,” Cressida said hurriedly. “I meant did you catch any fish?”

  “Oh, right, sorry. Yes, yes, we
managed to—”

  “Come in for a drink!” Out of the corner of her eye, Cressida had glimpsed Ted from the village shop ambling down the High Street toward them on his way to the Flying Pheasant for his customary six pints of Guinness and a good old moan about the state of the country, bloody supermarkets taking over the world, and that damn fool gaggle of amateurs calling themselves the England cricket team.

  Cressida was startled to realize that without even thinking about it she had reached out, unceremoniously yanked Tom Turner into her hallway and slammed the front door shut behind him.

  But something told her he really didn’t mind too much.

  Amused, he said, “I thought you’d never ask.”

  “Sorry. Ted, from the shop. Come on through.” Flinging open windows in the kitchen and chucking away the plastic container her microwavable Madras had come in—at least she’d bothered to tip the food onto a plate after heating it—Cressida said, “Sorry about the smell of curry. Now, let me just put these in something. Tea, coffee, or a glass of wine?”

  Tom looked at the freesias she was busy unwrapping. “I think they’d probably prefer water.”

  “OK.” Cressida nodded, realizing she’d been gabbling again. “Water for the flowers. And we’ll have the wine. It’s only cheap, I’m afraid.”

  Tom smiled. “Stop apologizing.”

  They sat outside on the patio and Cressida learned that Tom and his son were from Newcastle, staying down here in one of Freddie’s vacation cottages. They were three days into a fortnight’s vacation and plenty more fishing was planned. This afternoon they had caught six trout and five perch.

  “Which cheered Donny up no end,” said Tom. “That was another reason I wanted to see you again, I suppose. To let you know that Donny isn’t always as touchy as he was this morning. He’s a good lad really. The last couple of years have been tough for him.”

  “You got divorced?” It was an educated guess; father and son vacationing alone together. No wedding ring in sight.

  Tom nodded. “My wife ran off with another man.”

  “Oh God. I’m so sorry.”

  He acknowledged this with a shrug. “It hit Donny hard. We hadn’t any idea. She just walked out one morning and that was that. Left a note, didn’t even say good-bye. She’s living in Norfolk now with her new chap. Poor Donny; it’s just the two of us now. I do my best and we muddle through. But it’s not the same, is it?”

  “It’s not the same.” Cressida nodded sympathetically, feeling terrible for having decided earlier that Donny would benefit from a slap. Her heart went out to the man sitting opposite her. “But it must have been awful for you too.”

  “What can I say?” Tom shook his head. “You just have to carry on, pick up the pieces. I’m forty-two years old and a single parent. Never imagined that happening, but it has. God, listen to me.” He grimaced, then broke into a smile. “Now it’s my turn to apologize. Talk about cheerful! Let’s turn this conversation around, shall we? Tell me about you instead.”

  Something fluttered in the depths of Cressida’s stomach. He was a nice man with a friendly open face and an easy manner. She had inadvertently picked him up this morning in Ted’s shop and now here he was, drinking wine on her patio and asking her to tell him all about herself. In her disastrous experiences with men, they’d invariably been far more interested in talking about themselves.

  Then again, she’d always had an extra-special talent for getting involved with breathtakingly selfish members of the opposite sex.

  What a shame this one lived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

  “Well, I’m thirty-nine. And divorced.” Oh Lord, now she sounded like a lonely hearts advert. Dismissing the last bit with a wave of her hand, Cressida said, “But that was years ago. And I love living here in Hestacombe, running my own little business. It started as a hobby while I was working as a legal secretary, but then I stupidly got myself into a relationship with my boss. Of course it came to a messy end after a few months and things were pretty awkward at work after that.” Pretty awkward was putting it mildly, but Cressida spared him the grim details of how it felt when your boss dumped you and took up with the nineteen-year-old office tart instead. “So I jacked in the job and decided to give the card thing a go. The first few months were scary—I was traveling around begging shops and businesses to stock my work—but gradually it began to take off. And now…well, it’s great. I’ll never be rich, but I make a living and the hours are flexible. If I want to take a day off to go bungee jumping, I can. Other times, I’ll be up all night making fifty wedding invitations or birth announcements. You never know what you’ll be asked to do next, and I love it.”

  There, that was cheerful and positive, wasn’t it? Tom couldn’t think she was a sad sack now. She sounded wild and free, spontaneous and impulsive…

  “Bungee jumping?”

  “Why not?” Still feeling wonderfully wild and free—it possibly had to do with the wine—Cressida flashed a dazzling smile and casually tossed her hair back from her face. Click-click-clung went the tortoiseshell combs as they flew out of her hair, bounced off the back of the chair, and hit the patio.

  “OK.” Cressida gave up; she clearly wasn’t cut out to be wild and free. “Maybe not bungee jumping. But if I feel like it, I can take a day off and go shopping.”

  “Nothing wrong with that.” Tom nodded in agreement. “As far as my ex-wife was concerned, a week without new shoes was a week wasted.”

  “Was she incredibly glamorous?” She’d always longed to be glamorous herself, but Cressida knew it was never going to happen. Glamour was beyond her. No matter how many times she set out determined to buy something tailored and chic, she always seemed to end up being inexorably drawn to long gypsyish skirts, billowing cotton shirts trimmed with velvet and lace, and embroidered jackets.

  “Glamorous? Not especially.” Tom considered this. “Angie just liked to have lots of everything in every color. She was always smart, though. Well,” he added, “I daresay she still is.”

  Something else I’ll never be, thought Cressida. Smart implied being acquainted with a steam iron, and she wasn’t. Could a man who’d been married to a well-turned-out woman ever be interested in someone who didn’t own an ironing board?

  Oh dear, now she was definitely getting too carried away. The poor fellow had only come around to thank her for helping him out.

  “Not that Donny appreciated it,” Tom continued easily. “Angie was always trying to get him to dress smartly too, and all he ever wanted to wear was holey sweatshirts and camouflage combats. These days I just let him wear anything he likes. Kids have their own ideas of how they want to look, don’t they? You must find the same.”

  “Well, um—”

  “Sorry.” Seeing that she was taken aback, Tom said, “I couldn’t help noticing the photos in the kitchen of you and your daughter. That’s how I knew you’d understand about Donny, being a single parent yourself.”

  All she had to do was laugh it off. Ridiculously, though, Cressida felt a surge of pride mixed with sadness because the pain might be hidden but it never really went away. Somehow the words were stuck in her throat and all she could do was take another sip of wine.

  “What’s her name?” said Tom.

  This she could manage. “Jojo.”

  “Jojo.” He nodded. “And she’s what, roughly the same age as Donny?”

  It was no big deal. She didn’t have to tell him the whole story. Hell, she might never set eyes on him again after tonight.

  “Jojo’s twelve. And I love her to bits.” Forcing herself to smile, conscious of the roughness of the sun-warmed paving stones beneath her bare feet, Cressida said, “But she isn’t my daughter. I just look after her a lot.”

  Chapter 8

  Tyler Klein saw them as he was driving into Hestacombe the next morning. Two children, emerging from a modern house on the outskirts o
f the village, wearing shorts, T-shirts, and baseball caps. He couldn’t swear they were the ones, but he could soon find out. Tyler braked and pulled up alongside them.

  The heat hit him as he stepped out of the air-conditioned rental car. The flash of recognition in their eyes told Tyler all he needed to know. One had longer hair than the other, but he’d been right about it being two boys.

  “Hi there.” Tyler smiled easily. “Was it you two I saw a couple days ago, down by the lake?”

  They regarded him warily. Finally the taller boy said, “No.”

  “Sure about that? Running off with someone else’s clothes?”

  “That wasn’t us.”

  “Look. You’re not in trouble, I promise. I just really need to know the truth.”

  The younger boy said earnestly, “We didn’t take any clothes.”

  Déjà vu. Only this time Tyler knew he was right.

  “Fine. Well, there are tests that can be done to find out who did. DNA,” said Tyler. “Fingerprints.”

  Behind the boys, their mother had appeared in the doorway of the house, young and plump and carrying an even plumper baby on her hip. She watched impassively as her youngest son blurted out, “But we didn’t steal them, she got them back. We threw them over the wall into her yard.”

  “I know.” Tyler nodded. “But thanks for confirming it.”

  “Ow,” cried the boy as his brother elbowed him painfully in the ribs.

  “You big stupid, you told him.”

  “That hurt!”

  Catching their mother’s eye, Tyler said, “Sorry about this.”

  “Don’t be sorry. Little buggers, I’ll give them something to be sorry about. Whose clothes did they take?”

  Tyler shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.”

  “Not to you maybe, but it does to me. Harry, Ben, get inside the house.” As the boys slid past their mother and the fat baby placidly watched, she clipped each of them smartly around the ear. The older of the two, clutching the side of his head, turned and glared at Tyler before disappearing into the hallway.

 

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