Making Your Mind Up, page 9
“Because I took his motorbike,” said Freddie. “His pride and joy.”
“And crashed it. Completely wrote it off.”
“His girlfriend was on the back at the time. The one he was going to marry.”
“Freddie! Oh God, she didn’t—?”
“No, Giselle didn’t die. Cuts and bruises, that’s all. Bloody lucky.”
Relieved, Lottie said, “Well, that’s all right then.”
“That’s what Jeff thought. Until I stole her from him.” His smile crooked, Freddie looked at the stunned expression on Lottie’s face. “So there you go. And you always thought I was a nice person. Just goes to show, doesn’t it? You never can tell.”
* * *
Out in the beer garden of the Flying Pheasant, a game of boules was in progress. Making her way through the archway of honeysuckle, Lottie saw that Mario was on the boules court helping a girl with her throwing technique.
Lottie paused and watched them, unobserved, the ice cubes clinking in her orange juice. Having called into the pub on his way home from work, Mario was still wearing a smart white shirt open at the neck and his dark blue suit trousers. At a nearby table stood his pint of Guinness and car keys, while his suit jacket was flung over a chair. The girl he was currently assisting—slim and dark with her sunglasses perched on top of her head—was batting her mascaraed eyelashes and giggling like a seventeen-year-old as Mario showed her exactly how she should be throwing the silver boules. Giggling like a seventeen-year-old, Lottie observed, despite the fact that she was thirty if she was a day.
Honestly, what was it with Mario? Was the she’s-a-female-so-I-must-flirt-with-her part of his brain destined to go through life never being switched off?
Actually, it probably wasn’t in his brain. Taking a sip of her drink, noting the envious glances of the other girls in the group of boules players, Lottie made her way over to join them.
“Hey, Lottie.” Mario straightened up and greeted her with a cheery grin. The dark-haired girl turned to stare at her and Lottie found herself being instantly sized up as competition for Mario’s attention.
Just for fun and to see the look on the girl’s face, Lottie gave Mario a kiss on the cheek and said easily, “Hi, darling. I’ll play you next, shall I? You know you love it when I beat you.”
Mario laughed, quite aware of what she was doing.
The dark-haired girl said huffily, “Who’s she? Your girlfriend?”
“Actually,” said Lottie, “I’m his wife.”
“Actually, ex-wife.” Mario rolled his eyes. “Although she does still love to meddle in my life.”
“Someone has to.” Lottie was aware of the dark-haired girl’s head swiveling between them like a Wimbledon umpire. “Where’s Amber?”
“Trekking through the Himalayas, where d’you think? Working at the salon,” said Mario. “Some emergency came up and she won’t be finished before eight, which is why I called in here for a quick drink. If that’s all right with you.”
“Who’s Amber?” The dark-haired girl’s eyelashes were no longer batting.
Lottie looked at Mario, who sighed and said, “My girlfriend.”
“Long-term girlfriend,” Lottie added helpfully.
“Thanks,” said Mario when the girl and her friends, all tossing their sleek hair like ponies, had abandoned the boules pit and disappeared inside the pub.
Happily, Lottie said, “Don’t mention it. We can have that game now if you like. Unless you’re too scared I’ll win.” Although having seen off the dark-haired girl, she felt as if she’d already won.
“Too hot.” Mario reached for his drink. “Anyway, I’m off after this one.”
“Just as well I came along. What would have happened with that girl if I hadn’t turned up?”
“Nothing.” He looked wounded. “She didn’t know how to throw the boules, that was all. I was showing her how to do it properly.”
“What’s that?” Lottie pointed skyward. “Some kind of flying thing…ooh, look, it’s got trotters.”
Mario shook his head. “This is what I don’t understand. You never used to nag me when we were married. But now that we aren’t married anymore, you take it up big-time. Where are the kids, anyway?”
“Karate Club until seven. And don’t try to change the subject,” she ordered. “They’re the reason I’m nagging. Amber’s no pushover, you know. You don’t realize how lucky you are to have her. If you start messing around, she’ll chuck you. I mean it,” Lottie insisted, because the corners of Mario’s mouth were beginning to curl up. “You’re not that irresistible.”
“You used to think I was.” His eyes had that wicked glint in them.
“Well, I was young and gullible then. And now we’re divorced,” said Lottie. “So what does that tell you?”
“That you’re not so young anymore, quite ancient, in fact—ouch, don’t do that.” Mario rubbed his shoulder. “I haven’t been messing around, OK? For your information, I’ve been completely faithful to Amber.”
So far, were the unspoken words that hung in the air.
“Well, just make sure you keep it that way. Because there’s Nat and Ruby to consider,” said Lottie, “and if you and Amber break up because she finds out you’ve been playing away, you’ll have more than a thump on the shoulder to worry about. You have to think about them and—”
“I do think about them.” Mario looked hurt, although Lottie suspected that expecting him to stop flirting was like asking a cheetah to give up meat in favor of a lifetime of carrots and broccoli. “I think about them all the time,” he went on. “If you’d stop having a go at me and let me get a word in edgewise, I’d quite like to ask how Nat is.”
Nat and the blankie. The blankie that, tragically, was no more.
“Better.” Lottie sighed, because the last couple of days hadn’t been easy and the first night had been positively traumatic, punctuated by Nat jerking awake at hourly intervals and breaking into heartrending sobs. “He’s been more cheerful today. I told him Arnold Schwarzenegger lost his blankie when he was seven.” She pulled a face. “Now he wants to write to him because Arnie knows how he feels.”
Mario’s expression softened. “He’ll be fine. Give him a couple weeks and he’ll be over it.”
“God, a couple weeks.” Lottie envisaged the disturbed nights ahead.
“Hey, cheer up. I bet your new boss feels bad about it.”
“He flew back to the States this morning. Tying up loose ends. Won’t be back until next week.”
Mario checked his watch and rose to his feet, abandoning his half-drunk Guinness. “Look, why don’t the kids stay with me tonight? I’ll pick them up from karate and take them home. We’ll have pizza and play on the Xbox. How does that sound?”
Touched, Lottie said, “Like maybe you’re not all bad after all.”
“I have my moments.” Mario winked and jangled his car keys. “I’ll go now, and watch the karate class. No picking up strange men, OK? You have an early night.”
He could be wonderful when he wanted. Wildly infuriating at other times, of course, but generous and thoughtful when you most needed it. For a moment Lottie longed to be able to confide in him about Freddie’s terrible illness but knew she mustn’t, despite the fear that when news of it finally came out everyone would stare at her in disbelief and shout: “But why didn’t you force him to get treatment? What were you thinking of? You can’t just stand back and let someone die!”
Anyway, she couldn’t tell Mario. Freddie was adamant that he didn’t want anyone to know before they absolutely had to, and so far there were no outward physical signs that anything was amiss. In fact, the prospect of meeting Jeff Barrowcliffe on Saturday had perked him up no end; he was—
“Are you all right?” Mario sounded concerned and Lot
“I’m fine. Busy at work, that’s all.”
“OK. Karate Club here I come. You take care of yourself.” Reaching across the wooden table, Mario planted a kiss on her cheek. “I’m off.”
It was Saturday lunchtime and Jojo was sunbathing in her Aunt Cress’s backyard, reading the latest edition of Phew! magazine and listening to Avril Lavigne on her iPod. Her parents were hosting a barbecue this afternoon, and their house and yard were overrun with caterers, because it wasn’t the kind of bash where you just invited all your friends and neighbors and had a jolly time, culminating in everyone doing the conga down the street. As usual, her mum and dad’s party was an opportunity to network and make important new business connections. Impressing potential clients would be the order of the day; actually enjoying yourself—heaven forbid!—simply didn’t feature on the agenda. When Jojo had suggested coming over to Aunt Cress’s house instead, her mother had heaved a visible sigh of relief and said, “That’s a wonderful idea, darling. It wouldn’t be much fun for you here.”
Jojo had been glad to leave, and Aunt Cress had been delighted to see her. The sun was out, and once Jojo was settled on the sun lounger in her pale blue cropped top and blue-and-mauve-striped shorts, Cressida had shot off to the supermarket for a speedy stock-up. She would be back by two o’clock, she had promised Jojo, with lemon meringue ice cream and chocolate popcorn and more raspberry freeze pops than two humans could consume in a week. Although if their track record was anything to go by, the chances were they’d all be gone by tonight.
Jojo finished the article she was reading, about a girl who had a crush on her physics teacher. Avril Lavigne was getting repetitive, and the battery on her iPod was running low. Chucking down the magazine and making her way into the house, it wasn’t until Jojo unplugged herself from her music that she heard the doorbell ringing.
By the time she opened the front door the callers had given up and were making their way down the street. Jojo, watching them from the doorstep, wondered if she should call out to them. Then, as if sensing she was there behind him, the man turned and saw her. He said something to the boy with him and came hurrying back, just as Jojo remembered she had opaque white sunblock across her nose. Hastily attempting to wipe it off only caused it to smear stickily all over the palms of her hands instead.
“Hi there.” The man’s manner was friendly. “We thought there was no one home. I was ringing the bell for ages.”
“Sorry, I was out in the yard.” Jojo pointed helpfully at her ears. “Listening to music.”
“Ah, yes, my son’s the same.” The man indicated the boy behind him, loitering by the gate. “Mind you, he doesn’t need to have it switched on to ignore me. Adam Ant.”
What? Puzzled, Jojo said, “Is that his name?”
“No, no, I meant you looked like Adam Ant with that white stripe across your face.” The man shook his head. “Sorry, you probably don’t know who he is. Far too young to remember. Anyway, you must be Jojo. Is your…um, Cressida in?”
“She’s gone shopping.” Since Aunt Cress didn’t exactly have hordes of strange men hammering at her door, Jojo had a shrewd idea who this one might be. With renewed interest she said, “Are you the flower man?”
It was his turn to look confused. “Flower man?”
“The one who bought a card and gave Aunt Cress flowers the other day, to say thank you.”
“Oh, right, of course.” His face cleared. “Yes, that’s me. So what time d’you think she might be back?”
“Around twoish.” Eager to be helpful, Jojo said, “Did you want to buy another card?”
“Well, not exactly.”
“What is it then? If you give me a message, I’ll make sure she gets it—hang on, there’s a notepad by the phone.” Reaching for the pad and a purple felt-tip on the hall table, Jojo flipped over to a clean page and stood before him like a waitress. Expectantly she said, “Fire away.”
“Um…maybe I’ll just give her a ring later.” The man went a bit red, and Jojo realized he was embarrassed. As he shuffled his feet and made a move to leave, it suddenly struck her that he’d come here to invite Aunt Cress out on a date. Hey, she’d teased her about it after the incident with the flowers, but she’d actually been right! Galvanized by this discovery—and by the problems page she’d just read in Phew! where a girl had written in miserably wanting to know why boys always said they’d ring you but never did—Jojo knew that whatever happened she mustn’t let this one slip away.
“Or I could write down your number and Aunt Cress can ring you,” she said briskly, adopting the superefficient tone her mother used on the phone whenever she had a major deal she was determined to clinch.
“Or we could fix a time for a meeting now. I know for a fact that Aunt Cress is free this evening.”
Desperate not to let him escape—even now, he was looking as if he might lose his nerve and make a dash for the gate—Jojo thrust the notebook and pen at his chest and blurted out, “Here, just write down your name and phone number, then she’ll—”
“Excuse me.” The man’s son, still leaning against the front gate with his baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, drawled, “Are you always this bossy?”
His father turned and said, “Donny, there’s no need to be rude.”
“I’m not rude.” Donny shrugged sulkily. “I just asked a reasonable question.”
“And I’m not bossy.” Jojo’s jaw tightened.
He raised his eyebrows. “Sure about that? Have you been listening to yourself?”
Ignoring his father, Donny said, “My dad came here to ask your aunt out on a date.”
“I know that,” Jojo retorted. “I was just being helpful.”
“Helpful? You’ve scared the living daylights out of him. As if he wasn’t finding it hard enough already.”
Bewildered, the boy’s father looked at Jojo. “You knew? How did you know?”
“Look.” Jojo heatedly addressed the boy at the gate. “It’s not my fault Aunt Cress isn’t here. But what if your dad said he’d call back later and he didn’t? All I was trying to do was get something organized, something he couldn’t back out of.”
“My dad doesn’t back out of anything, OK?”
“Except our front path,” Jojo pointed out.
“Only because you were interrogating him.”
“Now, now.” Recovering himself, the boy’s father clapped his hands. “Stop it, you two.”
“She started it,” Donny muttered under his breath.
“Donny, please. Now let’s start again.” Fixing Jojo with a look that was determined rather than panic-stricken, the man said, “Yes, I came here to ask your Aunt Cress if she’d like to come out to dinner with me, but—”
“Whenever suits her best. But as she’s not here, I’ll come back later. And that’s a promise.”
“Tonight would be fine.” Still determined to close the deal, Jojo said, “In fact, tonight would be perfect. Do you know anywhere nice to eat around here?”
Bemused, the man said, “Well, I daresay—”
“They do brilliant food at the Red Lion,” Jojo rattled on. “In Gresham. It’s only a couple miles from here. I went there with my parents the other week. Wicked sticky toffee pudding. Shall I say you’ll pick Aunt Cress up at seven o’clock?”
Stunned, the man said, “But I haven’t even asked her yet. She might not want to have dinner with me.”
“Oh, she will.” Jojo was confident on this score. “Aunt Cress hasn’t been out with anyone for ages.
A flicker of a smile crossed his face. “I’m sure she’d be thrilled to hear you saying that.”
“It’s the truth.” Jojo decided he seemed nice. “She always goes for the wrong kind. So, seven o’clock then. I’ll make sure she’s ready on time.”
He was definitely looking amused now. “And what about you?”
“Me? Oh, I don’t go for any kind at all. I’m only twelve.” Jojo’s tone was matter-of-fact. “Basically, all boys are dorks.”
At the gate, Donny snorted.
“I meant, do you have anything planned for this evening, or would you like to join us?” The man briefly indicated Donny, who was now engrossed in picking clumps of moss off the garden wall. “Make up the numbers. I’m sure Donny would enjoy having someone of his own age to chat with.”
Donny looked as though he’d enjoy it about as much as performing the chicken dance onstage during a school assembly. Naked. Jojo couldn’t imagine the dinner being much fun either. On the other hand, she was twelve years old, which meant grown-ups being funny about leaving you on your own for longer than a couple hours at a time. What if Aunt Cress refused to go out with Donny’s dad because she didn’t want to abandon her? The alternative would be going home and having to endure the barbecue from hell.
Really, there was no contest.
“OK, that’ll be great. Thanks.” As Jojo beamed at him, she heard another snort of derision emanating from Donny. “We can be your chaperones.”
“That’s settled then.” Looking a lot happier now, Donny’s father said, “I’ll book the table for seven thirty.” Jovially he added, “Sticky toffee puddings all around!”
“Tuh,” Donny muttered, scuffing his sneakers against the pavement. “Sticky toffee pudding’s for girls.”
* * *
“You what?” Cressida dumped the grocery bags on the kitchen table and stared openmouthed at Jojo.
“I’ve got you a date.” Jojo was looking unbelievably pleased with herself.
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