Nearly Almost Somebody: Chapters 1-3

© 2014 Caroline Batten. All rights reserved.

Chapter One

NAS_Cover_medMaggie hung up her coat and pottered upstairs, too tired to bother with the glass of elderflower wine she’d promised herself.

‘Night, Hyssop,’ she said to the tabby cat curled up on the landing.

He flicked an ear.

With the full moon illuminating her bedroom, Margaret padded across the room, humming as she unfastened her pendant and dropped it into its silver bowl. But the pendant hit wood. The bowl wasn’t there.

Hyssop, the little imp, must’ve knocked it off again. Stepping back, she glanced around the floor, expecting to see the bowl, but instead, glinting in the pale light, were the worthless trinkets she kept in her jewellery box. She grabbed the pendant and clutched it to her chest.

Had she been burgled?

Her hands shook as she tugged open the dresser drawer and when she saw nothing more than rifled through knickers, Maggie gulped back a sob. The blue velvet box containing her diamond earrings was gone. A burglar, nothing but a common little thief, had stolen her earrings. They, along with the emerald pendant, were the only pieces of jewellery she had worth wearing, irreplaceable gifts from her only love.

Don’t cry, Maggie. Don’t let a bloody little hoodie who thinks he can help himself to other people’s property make you cry.

She raised her chin and took a slow breath, allowing anger to kick aside the threatening tears. Now, she’d have to ring the police and wait up, just to have them treat her like a doddering old fool and lecture her for not locking the back door. Of course, if they had the odd copper patrolling the streets once in a while, she wouldn’t need to. In the hallway, she paused, shaking her head at Hyssop.

And you’re a useless guard-cat.

A floorboard creaked. What was that? Maggie’s stomach contracted and she held her breath as she turned to the spare room. A dark figure stood silhouetted against the moonlight.

Get out. Run. Scream.

But she couldn’t. Maggie shrank back against the wall, her heart racing, her legs rigid.

Oh please, no. Take the jewellery.

She held out the pendant, but the burglar stepped forwards, hands on hips, tutting in disapproval. Margaret had made a terrible mistake. This was no hoodie.

‘Why don’t you just die, you stupid old cow?’

Maggie lurched towards the stairs, treading on Hyssop. He hissed and darted between her legs, tripping her. She screamed, flailing as she tried to grasp at the handrail, doorframe, anything to steady herself but two hands pressed firmly against her back. Maggie tumbled down the steep cottage stairs and landed in an undignified tangle on the tiled floor, banging her head but feeling surprisingly little pain.

How many times had Zoë said not to let Hyssop sleep on the landing? Now that’s what I’d call ironic, Miss Morissette.

Maggie closed her eyes.

* * *

After tugging the emerald pendant from Maggie’s fingers, the thief paused, watching for signs of life. It was an unnecessary task. No one could survive with their neck at forty-five degrees to their body.

‘Ding dong, the witch is dead.’

 

Chapter Two

Libby’s job as the assistant to the North West’s most celebrated wedding planner, was to ensure the venue was prepared and the big day ran smoothly. Stupidly expensive Georgian mansion? Tick. Thousands of elegantly arranged deep plum, Schwarzwalder calla lilies? Tick. Groom’s tongue down the chief bridesmaid’s throat? What the hell? Libby texted the bride-to-be, saying she had something to show her in the wedding breakfast room. Moral code getting the better of Libby Wilde? Tick. Pressing send, she went outside to hide.

Ten minutes later, the North West’s most celebrated wedding planner stalked across the terrace towards Libby, who was watching the bride battering the groom over the head with one of the elegant Schwarzwalder calla lily arrangements. The guilty chief bridesmaid hovered on the side-lines, presumably trying to decide if she should step in and rescue the groom or try to apologise to her ex-best friend. The bride shrieked language most lobster fishermen would blush at, while the North West’s most celebrated wedding planner hissed the dreaded phrase, Olivia Wilde, you’re fired. Libby had heard those words three times in the last five months, making a grand total of eleven times in three years.

‘So what if he’s shagging the bridesmaid? It wasn’t your job to tell the bloody bride. It was your job to make sure the flowers looked incredible and they got married. It was your job to make sure I got paid.’

Seeing little point in arguing her case, Libby welcomed the distraction of the bride-not-to-be throwing open one of the French doors.

‘Thank you for saving me from that lying bastard,’ she said. ‘He said last time was a mistake. I should’ve known better. People don’t change.’

No, they don’t.

Libby walked away with her head held high. She might be unemployed again, but morally, she was doing just fine.

The Jumble Bar, a low-key affair tucked away in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, lacked Libby’s usual boho crowd that evening. Instead the outside tables were filled with corporate types. Women with five inch heels perched at the end of their St Tropez’d pins, sipped agave syrup mojitos, frowning with disdain at the pink dip-dyed ends of Libby’s hair. At least a few of the men in striped shirts, all knocking back pints of cutting edge real ale, eyed up her bum as she weaved between their tables.

Inside, another two corporate-type blokes were teaching Zoë, her best friend and flatmate, to play poker. Libby hid her grin as a wide-eyed Zoë flirted blatantly with a guy wearing a Rolex as he explained why a King wasn’t better than four sevens. Sucker.

Ordering a glass of Chablis, Libby perched on a stool at the bar and flicked through the Manchester Evening News until she reached the job ads. Sales, sales, data entry, sales, care home staff, sales, girls wanted… The MEN had sits vac ads for prostitutes? By the time, she’d drained her glass, only three ads were circled. Three. So that was what her life had come to: twenty-four and seriously considering a career in the escort business for lack of other options.

Arse.

‘Beginners luck,’ Mr Rolex mumbled as Zoë scooped up eighty pounds of his cash.

Luck had nothing to do with it. In between scanning the job ads, Libby discovered he checked his phone every time he bluffed and couldn’t help a little smile into his pint when he had a good hand. And if she knew, Zoë knew.

Taking a fresh Chablis and a Bacardi and soda Libby weaved towards their table, raising her eyebrows at her friend who flashed an innocent smile.

‘Lib, I’ve finally got the hang of poker.’

‘Well, it’s a lot easier than it seems,’ said Mr Rolex, his gaze slowly running over Libby’s body. ‘Especially when you have the right teacher.’

Libby, equally unsubtle, stared at the gold ring on his left hand and leant in to whisper to Zoë. ‘As much fun as it is to watch you hustle this self-satisfied and unfaithful arse, can we bugger off outside?’

Zoë nodded. ‘Fuck, yes. I’ve had a mentally weird day and I could murder a fag.’ She led the way to the last empty table, taking with her two Selfridge bags and a rather lovely looking tan tote.

‘What,’ Libby asked as she lit a cigarette, ‘is that?’

‘A Mulberry Bayswater.’ Zoë caressed the leather handbag before helping herself to a Marlboro.

‘And what are you doing? You haven’t smoked since school.’

‘As I said, weird day. First, the Dick’s texted me to say he’s busy tonight, and second, my mum rang, my great-aunt died.’

‘Oh God, that’s awful. I mean about your great-aunt. Were you close?’

‘Are you taking the piss? She was a right miserable cow. She dropped dead a couple of months ago.’ Zoë leant forwards. ‘But get this. Her and Mum didn’t get on, so Maggie only went and left me her house.’

‘You’ve inherited a house?’

‘Yep. Mum’s totally pissed off. She assumed she’d get it because Mags had no other family. She’s already had the place valued.’

‘And?’

After leaving a dramatic pause, Zoë’s sloe-black eyes glinted. ‘The estate agent, some bloke called Jonathan rang me this afternoon. It’s only worth two hundred bloody grand.’ The two friends squealed. ‘Which I reckon totally justifies treating the old MasterCard to a Mulberry handbag.’ Zoë tipped her head, looking over Libby’s clothes. ‘Nice outfit by the way, bee-atch.’

The purple mini-dress and denim jacket were both swiped from Zoë’s wardrobe. In fact the bangles jangling on both Libby’s wrists, the diamante drops in her ears and the aubergine polish were all Zoë’s too. Only the black sequin ballet flats were Libby’s own.

‘Just don’t lose those earrings,’ Zoë replied. ‘They’re the only present the Dick’s ever given me.’

‘And what did Rich text you?’

Zoë pulled out her iPhone. ‘Having a drink with our boss. Can’t do tonight. He’s sulking because I got headhunted today.’

Libby wanted to throttle Rich for treating Zoë like crap and slap Zoë for putting up with it. Zoë was a five ten, beautiful brunette who cooked like Nigella and earned silly commission from house sales. Which was half the problem; Rich resented Zoë for being better at selling houses than him. But then none of the nine male agents in Zoë’s office seemed to appreciate the only female agent regularly pipping their sales targets.

‘Headhunted, who by?’

‘The estate agent who valued my new house. He basically offered me a senior sales manager’s role. I’m not taking it, but there’s no reason to let the buggers at Testosterone Hell know that yet, right?’ Zoë picked at a beer mat. ‘Why are you here, anyway? Don’t you have a pre-wedding dinner tonight?’

‘Nope.’

‘Fired?’

Reluctantly, Libby nodded.

‘For God’s sake…’ Zoë leant forwards and gently, but repeatedly, banged her forehead on the table. ‘What for this time?’

Libby explained and handed her the paper. ‘But see, I’ve already lined up the next disastrous employment opportunity.’

‘Dental receptionist? I can buy into that because you have immaculate teeth, but youth worker? Really? They’ll take one look at your hair and assume you’ll sell crack to the kids.’

‘Ha, ha.’

‘And travel agent? After what happened with the cruise company?’ Zoë tossed the paper onto the table. ‘You’ll be lucky to get another job in this climate. A hundred and fifty people applied for our last admin post, but you could always try–’

‘Something will come up. It always does.’

Zoë’s forehead creased into a frown. ‘Paolo’s heading this way. Coincidence?’

Libby took a long drag on her cigarette, determined not to look. ‘Yes.’

‘Liar. For fuck’s sake, Lib. It’s been four months. That’s the longest you’ve gone without shagging him.’

‘He messaged me, saying hi, but it was just after I’d been sacked.’ It was a pathetic excuse. ‘I might’ve messaged him back.’

Standing on the pavement, scanning the outside tables, Paolo de Luca raked his dark hair out of his eyes, seemingly oblivious to the lascivious glances he attracted from the girls at the nearest table.

‘Tell him to piss off and take some other idiot home,’ Zoë said. ‘Move on.’

Zoë’s theory, validated by a psychology degree, maintained that a girl only got over a man when she had a new one to distract her. Move on. Libby knew she should but Paolo had the sexy, struggling artist act down to perfection and despite being raised near Inverness, he was practically Italian. He stood in front of her, holding out his hand and she stubbed out her cigarette, letting him pull her to her feet.

Not that she’d expected a polite, haven’t-seen-you-in-four-months peck on the cheek, that wasn’t Paolo’s style, but when he hooked his hand behind her neck and kissed her, Libby’s knees buckled. Move on. Who was she kidding? She couldn’t move on while he still had the ability to decimate her defences – it’d be tantamount to infidelity. Resigning herself to the inevitable, short-lived fling she wrapped her arms around his neck. They could never be anything more, not until he saw her as a girlfriend instead of his elusive bloody muse. It might seem like an easy occupation to some, but for Libby, sitting motionless while Paolo sketched her every day was akin to sticking pins in her eyes.

‘Don’t mind me,’ Zoë said, standing up. ‘While ‘dile.’

Libby dragged her lips from Paolo’s, vaguely aware of Zoë heading back into the bar. ‘Later, ’gator.’

Paolo rested his forehead against Libby’s. ‘We need to talk.’

* * *

Zoë came back to her apartment at around two in the morning to hear the familiar strains of Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Cygnets tinkling down the hallway. This wasn’t a good sign. If Libby was watching the DVD, it was okay. If she were sitting on the sofa with her feet twitching, desperate to copy her onscreen self, then it was bad.

But it wasn’t bad – it was worse than bad. Not only was Libby mirroring her younger self on the TV, but she was doing it en pointe. Zoë stared. Wearing ballet shoes, a black leotard and long black legwarmers, Libby used every inch of the wooden floorboards as only a professional dancer knew how.

This was worse than Zoë had ever seen.

‘It always kills me that I got this bit wrong,’ Libby said, adding a smile.

Libby’s fake smile – the smile that said I’m fine. It was a lie. Libby wasn’t fine. Zoë sank into the sofa wondering how to handle the situation. Every morning, Libby would lock herself in the bathroom and perform ritualistic barre exercises using the towel rail. Zoë pretended not to know, they were both happier that way, but when Libby brought her misery into the living room, how could she ignore it?

‘You know I’ve always thought you got it right,’ Zoë said. ‘It’s the other three that have their timing just wrong.’

But they both knew that wasn’t the point. Zoë watched in silence as Libby finished the piece and collapsed on the sofa, hugging her knees to her chest.

‘Lib, it’s been three years. You really need to get back in a class or something. You can’t keep doing this.’ When Libby leaned down and started undoing her shoes, Zoë knew they weren’t going to talk about it. They never did. ‘Paolo still here?’

Libby lit a cigarette and nodded. ‘I know it’s tragic, but he’s moving to London. A friend of his has a gallery and he wants to show Paolo’s paintings. I know we’re not a proper couple but he’s leaving, never going to see him again kind of leaving.’ Libby flexed her ankles. ‘I’ve not actually lost the plot. He asked me to tell him something, something about me I’ve never told him before so I… danced for him.’ Libby looked at the ceiling trying not to cry, but huge drops tumbled down her cheeks.

‘And? Did he draw you?’ Zoë asked, suppressing a giggle.

Libby wiped her eyes, smiling as she nodded. A real smile. ‘While I danced. He called me his broken ballerina.’

Zoë feigned a swoon. ‘He really ought to be in Paris, living the perpetually tortured dream. Why don’t you run off with him? He might make you happy.’

‘He can’t replace ballet and he drives me potty.’

‘At least he loves you.’ Which is more than I’ve got. Zoë picked at her nail polish.

Libby nudged her. ‘My life’s a mess. I’m jobless, fairly unemployable and my not-boyfriend is abandoning me but right now, you, young lady, look more depressed. Where’ve you been ’til now?’

‘Rich rang about twenty minutes after you left.’

‘A booty call,’ Libby said, not hiding her disgust. ‘He just wanted a shag.’

‘He’s certainly a dick.’ Zoë poured the remainder of the wine into the two glasses. ‘I’ve told him we’re over.’

‘About time. So now what?’

Zoë took a deep breath. Was she really going to say this? ‘How do you fancy moving to the Lakes, to Great-aunt Maggie’s cottage?’

Libby’s eyes widened. ‘You want to leave the city?’

‘It makes financial sense. If I live in the cottage for over six months, I avoid a ton of tax.’

‘What would I do up there?’

‘Well, you’d be rent-free. You could do what you liked. Just think about what you really want to do.’

‘Where is this cottage of Great-aunt Maggie’s? I’m not sure I can do living in the countryside. I haven’t lived anywhere remotely green since I was eight.’

‘This is the good bit. It’s in a place called Gosthwaite.’ Zoë opened her laptop. ‘It’s a village on the east side of the Lakes so handy for the M6.’ Zoë panned around the Google Streetview of a village green. ‘There’s the King Alfred pub and that’s the war memorial in the middle of the green, and that’s my new cottage tucked in the corner.’

In a cobbled green mostly edged with smart Georgian places, Maggie’s house was the last in a row of small houses. Libby’s mouth gaped.

‘That’s not a cottage. Cottages are cute. That has grey pebble dashing and it’s at the end of a terrace. Look at it, it could have been built in the sixties.’

‘It’s a double-fronted nineteenth century workers cottage and it’s directly across from the pub.’ Zoë elbowed Libby. ‘Well?’

‘I can’t picture you in the countryside.’

‘Me neither, but think how amazing it’ll be. Big fish, little pond. We’ll be the most fabulous things the village has ever seen.’

‘How medieval are we looking? Emmerdale in the Eighties?’

‘Gosthwaite’s quite cool. There are five pubs, a post office, greengrocer, butcher, baker, arts and craft candlestick maker, two cafés and a couple of restaurants.’

Zoë flicked through Google Images, flashing over pictures of walkers, mountains, and pub interiors. Libby stopped her at a photo of a young girl and pony clearing a jump.

‘Horses?’

‘You know I hate the stinky creatures, but I think there’s a livery yard in Gosthwaite and a riding school in Haverton, that’s the nearest town.’ Zoë tempered her smile. ‘What do you think, ready for a change?’

‘I have BHS stage two, but I might need stage three to get a decent job. For the first time I’m actually glad Mum made me go to Pony Club Camp every summer.’ Libby didn’t take her eyes off the pony. ‘That’s what I can do next. I’m going to live in the countryside and work with horses. Awesome.’

* * *

The next morning Libby woke to find Paolo gone. On the pillow lay a sketch of her smiling as she stood en pointe with her hands on her hips. In his beautifully expressive handwriting, he’d written a dedication: To my Broken Ballerina, I’ll love you forever. Px.

It was going to take some man to distract her from Paolo.

 

Chapter Three

At Low Wood Farm, Patrick McBride wandered through the garden, barely registering the borders overflowing with foxgloves or that the lawn needed scything rather than mowing. Like he cared if the Golding’s usual quintessentially English standards were slipping – it was a sunny June afternoon and at their annual barbeque the booze supply would be endless. For that alone, Patrick couldn’t be more thankful. His pallor matched the grass as he made his way towards the gazebo bar. Hair of the dog time.

‘Now then, Vet’nery.’

Bollocks.

The owner of Manor Farm, Tom Ellwood, stood between him and the bottle of Becks that would offer salvation. While Tom rocked back and forth on his heels and remarked on the perfect haymaking weather they were enjoying, Patrick took slow, steadying breaths, trying not to inhale the fumes from the other man’s glass of whisky. That really was the animal that bit him on the backside.

Tom moved on to the latest over-officious DEFRA legislation and Patrick scanned the other guests, looking for an escape route. Gosthwaite’s social set milled around, clutching glasses of Pimm’s – the majority, especially the crag-faced farmers, fidgeting uncomfortably in their smart-cas ensembles. Two of the grooms from the riding school, both layered in fake tans, nails and ponytails, gazed with blatant longing towards the large wooden picnic table where a couple of Patrick’s friends lounged around looking infinitely more relaxed in shorts and t-shirts.

Patrick pushed back his mop of black curls as Robbie Golding beckoned him over with an icy bottle of Beck’s. Okay, to hell with being pleasant to Gosthwaite’s answer to landed gentry.

‘Tom, I have to go. Rob needs to talk to me about his new mare.’ And without waiting for a response, Patrick pushed past him, collapsing into an oak chair between his two best and oldest friends.

‘Liar, liar, pants are on fire. I haven’t got a new mare.’ Robbie laughed.

Patrick sat down, watching Gosthwaite’s hottest blonde, Daisy Golding, saunter across to the gazebo bar. She might look like an angel with her cloud of white curls, but the way she held herself, her pale blue mini-dress clinging to her perfect tits, he bet she’d be absolute dirt. Patrick swore as Robbie’s younger brother, Xander, joined her. Why was she married? And worse, why she was so adamant about being faithful?

‘She’s absolutely wasted on him,’ Patrick mumbled.

‘That’s my brother you’re dissing,’ Robbie said, gently punching his arm.

Patrick raised a hand as a sincere apology.

‘You know you’d kill her if you had to spend a day with her,’ Scott said cracking open a bottle. ‘Too high maintenance.’

Doesn’t stop her being hot.

‘Beer?’ Scott offered.

‘Cheers, fat boy,’ Patrick joked, referring to Scott’s increasing waistline and earning himself another faux punch on the arm.

With several mouthfuls of cold lager easing his hangover Patrick relaxed, planning to enjoy getting drunk with his friends – a rare occurrence. These days, he had to play with new acquaintances while they went home, walking adverts for married with children. Well, they would be if Scott didn’t stifle a yawn every two seconds and Robbie wasn’t clenching his jaw in anger. Following his line of sight, Patrick watched Robbie’s wife, Vanessa, blushing as a tall, dark-haired guy kissed her cheeks three times.

‘Who the hell’s that?’ Patrick asked. And why was Vanessa tipping her head to the side. Was she flirting?

‘The viola player from the bloody string quartet she’s in.’ Robbie slugged his beer. ‘Jason Benoît. French twat. The Argonauts are in tow.’ He nodded to a middle-aged man whose girth appeared to exceed his height and a teenager with hair marginally greasier than his skin. ‘Those two play the violins while that wanker…’ he tipped his bottle in Jason’s direction. ‘…makes a play for my wife.’

‘She’s playing the cello, not him.’ Scott stretched. ‘He’s got a ponytail, for Christ’s sake. As if she would.’

But Robbie still scowled.

Looking for a change of subject, Patrick studied the dark circles under Scott’s eyes. ‘I went to bed at four. What’s your excuse for looking like shit?’

‘Work. A telecoms buyout. And Will likes to party as late as you. He’s his mother’s son.’

‘Don’t blame your son, or me. You were watching the cricket.’ Scott’s wife, Clara, joined them, setting a baby monitor on the table. ‘He’s finally gone down. If he wakes up, it’s your turn.’

Patrick slugged his beer, happily eyeing Clara’s long lean legs, capped by tatty denim cut-offs. If only all primary school teachers were five-nine, blonde Scarlett Johansson lookalikes. Fit as, but been there, done that and now she was Scott’s wife, strictly off limits.

‘Got any paracetamol?’ Patrick asked her, praying she would.

Clara perched on Scott’s knee and delved into her vast bag, pushing aside nappies and baby wipes as she frowned at Patrick. ‘You look like crap.’

‘I love you too.’ But he meant it when she produced a pack of Anadin Extra.

‘And how’s my favourite Musketear?’ She fluttered her eyelashes at Robbie with exaggerated innocence. ‘Ready to whisk me away from all this?’

‘You’d run a mile if I asked.’ Robbie gave her a wink.

Patrick knocked back two pills with a mouthful of lager. He hadn’t heard anyone call them by the old nickname in years. Scott must’ve confessed. The Musketears – infamous for watching each other’s backs and leaving broken-hearted girls in their wake. Those were the days.

Out of habit, he evaluated the females at the party. Amongst the usual village faces, only a few fit the twenty to thirty-five demographic, but he wouldn’t want to see any of them in the morning – although, a pretty blonde over by the pond had potential. She seemed a little austere in her prim white dress with her hair in a severe bun, but the way she toyed with her straw, rolling it between her dark plum lips, had him take a second look.

‘Who’s Grace Kelly?’ he asked Robbie.

‘Rachel something. She’s with Jonty.’

‘Don’t be fooled by the respectable exterior,’ Clara said. ‘From what I’ve heard, she’s a ho-bag. She was last year’s Miss Haverton.’

‘A ho-bag beauty queen?’ Patrick nodded. ‘I could go for that.’

‘What you should go for,’ Clara said, giving him her stern, school-teacher frown, ‘is a single sexy blonde, not Jonty’s or anyone else’s. Get a girlfriend of your own. You might like it.’

The hypocrisy of Clara nagging him was almost amusing. She’d spent most of her life shagging around but the minute she got married, she expected him to do the same. Sod that. Patrick concentrated on last year’s Miss Haverton as she glanced around, double-backing when she spotted him already watching her. A smile played at the corner of those perfectly pouty lips.

Hello, princess. You might be with Jonty, but maybe I can have you too.

‘I bet she would though,’ he said to Clara.

‘Don’t be ridiculous. She’s with Jonty.’

‘And?’

‘You think she’s going to ditch him for you? Jonty’s twenty-four, a celebrity chef and a millionaire. You’re a vet. You shove your arm up cows’ bums.’

‘And?’ Patrick smiled as Clara cast a disdainful eye over his ten year old t-shirt, threadbare, ripped at the knee jeans and battered shell-toes.

She shook her head. ‘Jonty looks like he’s climbed out of a Dolce and Gabbana ad. You look like a… homeless skateboarder. Honestly, are you so hard up you can’t afford a new t-shirt, or is this your tight-arsed Scottish side coming out?’

‘He’s not even slightly hard up,’ Robbie said. ‘He just spends it all on mountain bikes. Give it up. You know he’s right.’

‘Jonty gets his hair cut.’ Clara tugged Patrick’s hair. ‘Have you even brushed yours today?’

Patrick looked her in the eye, smiling. ‘And?’

‘The only respectable thing about you is your t-shirt has actually been ironed.’

‘And?’ He raised his eyebrows expectantly. ‘Money, table.’

‘I’ll put twenty on Miss Haverton being a gold-digger.’ Scott had his chin resting on Clara’s shoulder. ‘She’ll stick with the twenty-four year-old with too much bloody money.’

Patrick gave a derisory laugh. ‘Bitter words from a very nearly thirty year-old with too much bloody money. But I’ll take your cash.’

‘He was born into it. I’ve earned mine.’

Clara leant away from her husband, her eyebrows raised in mock-astonishment. ‘You’re a six-figure corporate lawyer who earns immoral bonuses. It’s people like you that’ve brought this country to its knees and stop people like me getting pay rises.’

‘Come on, Clara.’ Patrick prodded her. ‘Who’s she going to go for?’

She sipped her wine, refusing to comment.

‘Rob?’

‘If she is a ho-bag, my money’s on you.’ Robbie touched fists with Patrick, their old school-yard handshake.

‘Clara?’

‘Okay, okay. If she has any sense, she’ll dump him. He’s far too slick and you’re… well, you.’

Patrick glanced at Scott, hoping no inappropriate messages were being assumed. Too much water had almost washed away that bridge, but Scott was smiling; clearly he knew where Clara’s loyalties lay.

Over by the pond, Jonty kissed his date and headed into the house, foolishly leaving her unattended. Better still, Miss Haverton wandered to the gazebo, looking to top up her empty glass. Game on.

She innocently inspected the spirits lined up on the groaning trestle table, smiling a polite hello as he joined her.

‘You look awfully hung-over,’ she said, picking up a bottle of Jose Cuervo. ‘Kill or cure?’

He nodded and as she filled two shot glasses, he gave her a once over, not bothering to be subtle about it.

‘You do realise I’m here with Jonty?’ She sprinkled salt onto the back of her hand and picked up a slice of lemon.

‘We all make mistakes.’

Patrick seized her wrist, pulling her towards him. He slowly licked the salt from her hand then downed a shot, never dropping his direct eye contact with her. She would. Her smile grew as he took hold of her other wrist, bringing it to his lips to gently take the lemon from her fingers. Definitely would.

Ten minutes later Patrick returned to the table, where Clara and Scott were still relaxing in the sun, and opened a fresh beer. He sat next to Clara and showed her his phone, displaying Miss Haverton’s name and phone number.

‘Jonty looks very pissed off,’ Clara said, giggling.

Miss Haverton had one hand on Jonty’s chest, the other smoothing his shirt as she no doubt tried to explain where she’d been and Jonty shot an accusatory glance in Patrick’s direction.

‘Are Miss Haverton’s tits as fake as they look?’ Clara asked, frowning at the beauty queen.

‘How should I know?’ Patrick asked. ‘I just took her to see the horses.’

‘Are they fake?’ Scott asked.

Patrick nodded, unable to hide his grin.

‘Copping a feel behind the stables… d’you remember those days, Scott?’

Scott shook his head. ‘They’re nothing but dim and distant fantasies that keep me entertained when I’m working away.’

Clara squealed in protest but Scott shut her up with a kiss. Patrick wanted to dislike their loved up PDA but he couldn’t. Scott was happy. Knackered but happy.

‘Hey,’ Clara said, turning to Patrick, her eyes glinting. ‘Did you hear you’re getting new neighbours?’

Patrick laughed at Clara’s blatant gossip-mongering. ‘And here’s me assuming Maggie left the house to the cat.’

‘Can you imagine a worse way to go?’ Scott asked. ‘Breaking your neck and the only way anyone knows you’ve died is because your cat pesters the neighbour?’

‘Yes,’ Clara said, resting her bare feet on the table. ‘Bagpuss eats your rotting corpse.’

Patrick didn’t laugh along with them. He’d put down hundreds of animals, each time knowing it was the right thing to do, but the sight of Maggie’s broken body at the bottom of the stairs… He drained his beer. The least he could do was look after the cat.

‘Poor Hyssop.’ Scott frowned. ‘If Will wasn’t so rough, we could–’

‘Hyssop’s fine with me,’ Patrick said, hoping to end the conversation.

‘Someone to share the bachelor pad with?’ Clara suggested and he threw a cork, aiming it perfectly to land down her cleavage. ‘But you might not get to keep the cat. Sheila next door told me the house was left to Margaret’s great niece, Zoë.’

‘Holiday home?’ The last thing the village needed was another holiday home, but if it was they wouldn’t want a cat to look after. Patrick picked at the label on his bottle, waiting for Clara’s response.

‘Lynda from the post office said the niece is moving up here with a friend. Do you remember Zoë? Apparently, these days she’s this tall, glamorous brunette. She’s going to work at Young & Carr, the estate agents.’

Would she want Hyssop? ‘And the friend?’

‘Another girl,’ Clara replied.

‘Hot lesbians moving to the Green?’ Patrick asked, flashing Scott a grin. ‘Ace.’

‘That’s right.’ Clara shook her head in despair. ‘Because when I moved here with Daisy, that’s what we were, hot lesbians. Idiot.’

‘Scott, you promised me that was true.’ Patrick thumped Scott’s arm and found himself in a headlock for his trouble. Their laughter was cut short when the baby monitor crackled into life and Will’s cries filled the air. Scott jogged away, muttering expletives, and Clara reclined a little further, closing her eyes against the sun.

In an effort to banish the image of her and Daisy, Patrick glanced around the garden. To his left, walking away from the other guests, Vanessa practically skipped along as she spoke to Robbie. They stopped, half-hidden by the rampant honeysuckle draped over the pergola and Vanessa smiled, waving her hands as she spoke to her husband. She looked so excited, Patrick wondered if she might be pregnant again – a fourth kid would explain why Robbie was trying to tear his hair out.

‘Are you kidding?’ he heard Robbie ask, his voice loud enough to draw the attention of the vicar and Lynda from the post office as they admired the clematis growing up the side of the rickety shed.

Vanessa’s smile disappeared as she answered him, quietly so no one could hear.

‘No,’ Robbie snapped.

She folded her arms, staring at Robbie in surprise. ‘What?’

‘No,’ he said again, folding his arms to mirror her.

Jesus, this didn’t look good, and Lynda had sniffed gossip in the air.

‘Clara, deal with the vicar,’ Patrick said, already psyching himself up to distract the nosiest cow in the village. If Robbie and Vanessa were about to have a marital, they didn’t need her within earshot. ‘Lynda, how’s Boadicea? I had a couple asking about puppies the other day. Have you got homes for yours?’

Lynda lost all interest in the Golding’s row as she gave him a simpering smile, resting her hand on his arm. ‘Oh, Patrick, I’m so pleased you asked. I wanted to talk to you actually…’

Grinding his teeth, he smiled. Rob, you owe me for this. While Lynda rambled on about a puppy’s paw, Patrick gave advice he ought to be charging for and kept an eye on Rob. The argument had gone quiet bar the occasional hissed invective, but the arm waving, finger jabbing and clenched fists meant this was an out of character, venomous argument – especially for Vanessa who’d usually never say boo to a gosling.

‘… so if you could pop round to look at little Pickle…’

Vanessa turned, tears already falling down her beautiful face and Robbie stalked away, heading out of the garden.

‘… but the cat’s never been sick in the house before…’

Patrick glanced back down at Lynda. ‘Why don’t you ring the surgery on Monday? Grace can book you in for an appointment.’ And I can bill you. He flashed her a cursory smile and followed Robbie, grabbing a bottle of whisky from the bar on his way.

Around the back of the house, in a small secluded garden away from the party, Patrick stepped over the children’s toys littering the grass as he made his way to the large wooden chair swing where Robbie sat, smoking a cigarette and staring at the sky. Patrick sat down and handed him the whisky bottle without saying a word.

‘She wants to go on tour with that ridiculous quartet.’ Robbie slugged back a mouthful of whisky.

‘Be fair, you were always going away with work before you had the restaurant.’

‘But she wants to leave the girls for one, maybe two months. Why would she want to do that? Just to play a bit of Mozart? Or is this because of that French wanker?’

‘Oh, come on, she’s an angel. She’d never–’

‘Whose side are you on?’ Robbie flicking his cigarette butt across the lawn.

‘Yours.’ Patrick took the bottle back. ‘And never ask me that again.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Are you going to let her go?’

‘Let her?’ Robbie rubbed his temples. ‘I told her not a fucking chance in hell, but how can I stop her? It’s her dream come true.’

‘So let her do it. You know she wouldn’t shag around.’

‘I used to, but these days…’ He let out a long slow sigh. ‘I’m not sure she even knows what she wouldn’t do. Since the restaurant, she’s… well, she’s always fed-up and the only thing that seems to make her smile is that fucking viola player.’

‘She wouldn’t, Rob.’

‘Even so, how the hell am I supposed to cope with three kids, a restaurant and twelve horses on my own?’

‘You could get an au-pair. A hot Swedish girl would help me cope.’ Patrick smiled at the thought. ‘Might keep Van on her toes and distract you from the drudgery of being a stay-at-home dad.’

‘I’m not letting some eighteen year-old look after the girls.’ Robbie lit another cigarette. ‘Christ, what a bloody mess. Did everyone hear us fighting?’

‘No, we distracted the main offenders for you.’ Patrick knocked back two mouthfuls of whisky before nodding to the right. ‘Look at this, a shining example of modern parenting.’

Scott came over, pushing Will’s pushchair with one hand and clutching a six pack of beer in the other.

‘Little bugger will only sleep in this.’ He left the pushchair ten feet away and sat down next to Robbie. ‘Clara told me what happened.’

‘I’m trying to talk him into getting an au-pair,’ Patrick replied. ‘Swiss, maybe?’

‘If there was a hot au-pair working here, you wouldn’t be allowed on the yard.’ Robbie shook his head, smiling.

The buzz in Patrick’s pocket alerted him to a new message, the third from Miss Haverton. Want something to snuggle up against tonight? The attached photo showed her fake breasts barely encased in a white lace bra, the edge of a nipple peeking out. He thought better of sharing it with his friends. Robbie’s jaw was twitching again, his brow furrowed and Scott yawned for the hundredth time. Marriage? Children? Looked a lot of hard work, and for what? From the sounds of things, shagging your wife wasn’t one of the bonuses.

Patrick really didn’t see the point.

Two weeks later, he sat back, enjoying the buzz of his latest coke hit and Miss Haverton unzipping his fly. Clearly, the girl was a nutcase. They were in the restaurant toilets and the mayor was dining with several local businessmen about twenty feet away. Anyone could walk in but, Jesus, did she know how to use her hands. And tongue.

‘Christ, Rachel…’

Patrick clutched at her hair, looking down at her arse as her head bobbed. Her little black dress had ridden up, revealing a leopard print thong, and her shiny black heels were resting against the cubicle door. There wasn’t a single classy aspect to Miss Haverton, but since she’d first wrapped her fingers around his dick, rubbing in coke like a pro, he’d cared less about her dubious taste in underwear and more about the toys she had in her bedside drawer. At least he’d persuaded her to stay inside this time. Her penchant for dining al fresco nearly had them collared by the police two days ago.

Sod this. Who cared if the mayor walked in? Patrick pulled her to her feet and moved behind her, smiling as she bent at the waist and wedged her feet against the walls, her hands planted in front of her. Not a single classy bone in her body. This was the last time he was taking her out. Definitely.

‘Baby,’ she said, purring as she pushed back against him. ‘How do you fancy my friend Emma joining us later?’

Miss Haverton had just earned herself another reprieve.

 

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