Things To Do
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by Nell Dixon
Description: When an ordinary life suddenly becomes complicated, what can a girl do about it, except make a list? Emma Morgan's life has more in common with Dangermouse than Bridget Jones as she deals with the fall-out from her impulsive secret marriage to handsome Caribbean barman, Marco. Her boss is dating her mother, her sister has been jilted, and her best friend, is being stalked by his ex-girlfriend. Emma is so busy sorting out other people's problems, including a dog-napping and a small matter of some missing millions, what else can a girl do to get organized except list some Things To Do?
eBook Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Ltd., 2006
eBookwise Release Date: March 2011
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [380 KB]
Reading time: 247-346 min.
"Hello, Pack and Go travel agency." I tried not to choke on a crumb and hoped whoever was on the other end couldn't tell I had a lump of half-chewed biscuit wedged in my cheek. We weren't supposed to have food whilst at our desks.
"Emma, have you seen the outfit Fiona's sent me for the Foundation auction tonight?"
Sara's my oldest friend. Fiona had managed to rope her into helping tonight, too.
"It arrived as I left for work this morning, so I didn't get a chance to look at it," I said. "The color seemed a bit fierce, though."
"It's awful, like Barbie on acid," Sara pronounced.
"Is your mum still going to baby-sit Jessie for you?" Sara's little girl is nine months old.
Sara groaned. "I don't have much choice. Shay's supposed to be away with the band 'til Sunday, so I've already had two lectures on the unsuitability of my lifestyle now that I'm a mother." She did a perfect imitation of her mother's clipped and disapproving tones.
Shay, Sara's boyfriend, has a reggae band and had secured a few dates at a club in the Midlands. Ever hopeful this might prove to be his big break, he had taken off, leaving Sara holding the baby. Literally.
"Rob's offered me a lift tonight," I said.
"Is Rob going?" Sara sounded surprised.
"Mmm-hmm." I took another bite of biscuit.
"You're eating biscuits. What happened to your diet? Fiona will freak if you can't fit in your bridesmaid dress."
"It's one lousy biscuit. I've got ages 'til the wedding and anyway...oh, hell, Greenback's coming. I'll see you tonight." I managed to wipe the crumbs from around my mouth and put the receiver down before my employer loomed over my desk, staring down at me from behind my computer monitor.
"I hope that wasn't another personal call, Emma." I swear he has supersonic hearing. His name really isn't Greenback; the nickname started as a bit of a joke after Rob pointed out the resemblance between Mr. Grebe and the fat toad that plays the villain in the kids' cartoon series Dangermouse. Rob, therefore, was Dangermouse and I was his loyal assistant, Penfold.
Mr. Grebe looked particularly toad-like at the moment as he peered at my mouth. "Eating at your workstation is a disciplinary matter, Emma."
I resisted the urge to lick my lips and tried to look virtuous. "Yes, Mr. Grebe." He still appeared dubious. Half an hour and a lecture on my sales figures and targets later, and I needed more than a chocolate biscuit--I could have done with a large gin.
Working in a travel agency isn't really my thing; the problem is I don't know quite what is. I never had a career plan. I had been one of those kids at school who, when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, scuffed the ground with their toe and muttered, "I dunno." I'd fancied a job as an international spy but my careers master hadn't been keen.
And I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up. I'd like a job that pays oodles of money and allows me to stay home all day eating chocolate and watching TV, but there aren't many of those about and I don't think I'll find them in the jobs section of the Guardian, not even in the "creative" section.
Fiona works as a personal assistant for an advertising agency. She fits the image in their glossy brochure. Of course, when she marries Niall, she plans to give work up and concentrate on her charity events. Niall's mother does heaps of charity work too; she's featured a lot in the glossies, usually next to some famous close friend, so I imagine she and Fi might team up.
My day didn't improve. I think I lack the ruthless streak so necessary for clinching sales. Mr. Grebe glowered at me for the rest of the afternoon as I muffed chance after chance. Eventually, he moved me onto the floor to hand out brochures and took over my desk himself.
Of course, by the time the last customer had shuffled out clutching a pile of color brochures extolling the wonders of the Australian outback, it was late. As the most junior member of staff, I was always the one who had to stay to assist Greenback with locking up, so I never got out on time.
The steel roller shutter went down at last and the shop was secured. Greenback seemed to be in one of his talkative moods and in no particular hurry to go home. I've met Mrs. Grebe a few times, and I could understand why Mr. G didn't want to rush.
"So, any plans for this evening, Emma?" It always puzzled me how he could become so different when work had finished. As soon as the shop closed, he turned into Mr. Congeniality.
"I'm helping my sister out at a charity event for the Crystal Foundation." I resisted the urge to glance at my watch, and sidled a step away.
"No date tonight?" To give him his due, he did manage to look genuinely surprised.
"Too busy, I'm afraid. What about you and Mrs. Grebe?" It felt far safer to change the subject.
Something about the way Mr. G shuffled his feet and the uncomfortable look on his face made me suspect I'd dropped a clanger.
"Well, no. As a matter of fact, Emma, and I'm sure I can rely on your discretion, Mrs. Grebe and I are living apart at the moment."
He cleared his throat and looked at the floor. I must have looked like a stunned mullet, opening and closing my mouth with no words coming out. Of all the couples I knew, I would have sworn the Grebes were rock solid. I mean, they were like Jack Sprat and his wife; he was sort of round and she was one of those women who looked as if a lettuce leaf would add a stone.
"I'm so sorry," I said. Come to think of it, he appeared to have lost a bit of weight recently. One of the other girls had commented on it only the other day.
"I don't suppose you could spare the time to go for a quick drink, Emma?"
Uh-oh. One quick glance at his woebegone expression and I knew I was in trouble. Rob says I'm too soft-hearted and he's right. I had excuses lined up and ready in my brain. You know the ones:
I have to get home to feed the cat.
I need to visit the little old lady next door to make sure she's not dead.
I've undergone a religious conversion which means I can't frequent bars with sad middle-aged men whose wives don't understand them.
Well, none of them came out. Instead, I heard myself mutter, "Just a quick one, then," and I ended up ambling down the street to the Slug and Lettuce with Mr. Grebe.
The bar seemed quiet with only the usual early evening regulars and a couple of weary shoppers.
Perhaps I have the word "sucker" tattooed across my forehead. I sat cradling my gin and tonic and tried to look sympathetic as Mr. Grebe, or rather "call me Ian," unburdened his soul. Trouble was, time had crept on and I still needed to get home, shower and change into the fairy outfit in time for Rob to pick me up.
"So, what do you think I should do?"
Mr. Grebe--Ian--looked hopefully at me.
"I'm not sure. It's a very tricky situation isn't it?" I hedged my bets and hoped he would throw me a few more clues about what he'd apparently just told me.
"I see what you mean," he said, his voice heavy with gloom as he stared at the bottom of his empty pint glass. "You don't think I should rush things, then? I should give her more time to work out what she really wants?"
"I'm sure it's the best thing to do." I drained the remainder of my gin in one swallow and stood up, ready to go. Mr. G blinked at me.
"I have to go. Fiona will murder me if I'm late." Drat, why did I feel so guilty? Before I knew it, those sad, baggy eyes got the better of me again.
"Tell you what," I said. "I've got a spare invitation to the auction tonight. Why don't you come along?" Me and my big mouth. I pulled the card out of my bag, threw it on to the table, left the pub and sprinted like a mad woman toward the tube.
Hell, it was really late. I'd barely have time to make it in through the front door before Rob arrived and I didn't know what had possessed me to invite my boss to the auction. Squashed in like a sardine on the train, I hung onto a strap and ran over in my head what bits of conversation with Mr. Grebe I could remember.
From what he'd been saying, it appeared Mrs. Grebe--Esme--had become bored of married life and taken herself off to Scotland to stay with her mother and think about the future of her marriage. I could see that Mr. Grebe might not be the most exciting husband in the world but Esme, on the few occasions I'd met her, hadn't struck me as Miss Wonderful, either.
I fell through my front door and reckoned I had about ten minutes before Rob turned up. The light blinked red on my answering machine. I hit the button as I whizzed past on my way to the kitchen. A large gin and tonic is not a good idea on a stomach that only contains chocolate biscuits.
While I weighed up the options of a very brown banana or a slightly out-of-date diet yogurt, my message played.
"Emma, you haven't forgotten about tonight, have you? Don't be late. See you later, bye." Fiona's voice. Pulling a face, I continued to search for something quick to eat. I pounced on a forgotten tube of Pringles and stuffed a handful in my mouth as the second message started.
"Emma, are you there? I'll call you later." My husband's voice, once so familiar with his low sexy accent, sent the air whooshing from my lungs and I sat down heavily on the sofa with another handful of Pringles halfway to my lips.
The tape clicked off and whirred back to the start. I played it again. Hearing Marco's voice after all this time shook me up more than I cared to admit.
It was him, all right. No one else ever had the same effect on me and even now my hand trembled as I deleted his message the way I'd tried to erase him from my life. Why had he decided to phone me now? And on Valentine's Day? Although common sense told me Marco would have no idea of the significance of the date.
The ring of my doorbell brought me back to reality. Throwing the Pringles can onto the kitchen counter, I brushed the crumbs from my shirt and hurried to answer the door.
Rob leant on the door frame, his thumb hovering over the bell push. "You took your time."
"I've only just got home," I said.
"Well, you'd better get a move on," he said. "You're not even changed yet."
Rob's monkey suit fitted him well and I had to admit he looked good. Some men are born to wear a tux, and Rob was one of them. He also smelled very delicious; a waft of musky aftershave hit me as I squeezed past him to get my costume from the back of the sofa where I'd dumped it.
"Look, I'll only be a few minutes," I said. "Sit down or get yourself a drink or something."
I escaped inside the bathroom and shut the door. I wouldn't have time to shower or do my legs now. I slipped my uniform off and prayed my legs weren't too hairy. Thank goodness I'd only done them a few days ago; I'd be able to get away with them under tights.
After the quickest wash and touch-up of my make-up in my life, I unzipped the costume bag. Sara hadn't been kidding about the awfulness of the outfit and, what's more, it looked a very small size twelve.
All right, so I always told everyone I took a size twelve and in some clothes I did. But those were the ones with Lycra stretch or a generous cut, not a skimpy, low necked, lurid pink all-in-one fairy costume.
I cursed under my breath and sucked in my stomach before starting to struggle into the outfit. I heard Rob crashing about in the kitchen.
"When did you last go to the shops?" he complained. "I can't find a single thing in these cupboards."
"There's a can of Diet Coke in the fridge," I called back.
Well, the bottom half of me was in, although I needed to pause for a breather. Heaven only knows what Fiona had been thinking when she ordered this costume for me. Perhaps she had decided to call my bluff over the amount of weight I claimed to have lost so I would be able to fit into the bridesmaid's dress she had on order.
Rob hammered on the bathroom door. "We're late! Fiona's threatened me with dire consequences if we don't get there on time."
"I'm trying," I said. "I can't get the zipper to close." Hah, there's an understatement. I couldn't see what I was doing. Even trying to look at my reflection in the bathroom mirror while I struggled with the fastener almost had me pitching myself face forward into the bath.
"Well, come out then and I'll give you a hand." Rob sounded exasperated. I felt pretty ticked off myself. I grabbed hold of the top of the costume in a vain attempt to preserve some shred of dignity and banged the bathroom door open.
Rob took one look at my face and decided discretion might be the better part of valor. "Turn around and hold your hair up out of the way."
I presented him with my bared back and gritted my teeth as he attempted to tug the edges of the zipper together. "Ouch!"
"That was my skin." I would have glared at him but given I had one hand holding up the front of my dress and the other hand lifting my hair clear of the zipper, it proved a bit difficult.
"It would be a lot easier if you'd stop fidgeting," he said.
"I can't help it. It hurts!"
"Look, do you want me to help you or not?"
"Yes." I didn't care if I sounded sulky. Who wouldn't under the circumstances?
Rob gave one final tug on the zipper and I was in. I couldn't breathe, but I'd done it. I let go of my hair and the top of the costume, then took a chance and cautiously straightened up.
"Blimey, Emma!" Rob exclaimed.
The one advantage (or disadvantage) of tight corsetry is it does give the wearer rather impressive cleavage. In my case, if I turned around too fast I would probably take someone's eye out.
Rob's eyes were now transfixed on my bosom and he had to be chivvied along the hall while I grabbed a coat and my bag. The only coat that fitted over the top of the wings sticking out of my back was an old Mac which had last been in fashion when I was in high school.
At least I had a lift. If I'd been out on the street dressed like this I would have been arrested. Rob had parked his car right outside the flat. It had turned frosty and the pavement glittered silver with ice. I tested it with one stiletto, a bit slippery. Rob went out into the road and unlocked the car door. I took as deep a breath as my costume allowed and tottered after him, but as soon as my heels hit the ice I slid forward. With my arms waving like a dervish in an attempt to keep my balance, I careened toward the car and crashed inelegantly into the passenger door.
"Sorry," I said.
Rob glared at me. "I hope you haven't damaged the paintwork."
His car is his pride and joy. He spends an inordinate amount of time and money on caring for, what to my eyes, is an old-fashioned, inconvenient, gas-guzzling go-kart.
I opened the car door and tried to figure out how I could get into the low-slung front seats without doing myself a serious injury. To hell with dignity, let's face facts; even supermodels struggle to enter and exit those kind of seats without flashing tomorrow's washing.
I resigned myself to the inevitable, closed my eyes and toppled backwards onto the seat, hoping I hadn't really heard the sound of tearing fabric. The pained expression on Rob's face as I wiggled into position meant I must have demonstrated my complete lack of feminine finesse yet again.
"So, what has Fiona persuaded you to do this evening?" I wondered if Rob might be helping with the raffle. He had the gift of the gab, so he'd be certain to sell loads of tickets. Plus, in his tux, he looked James Bond-ish and there would be lots of attractive single females around this evening. Or maybe Fiona needed more men to balance the tables up.
"I'm not sure. She mentioned something about being short of men for the auction."
I stopped trying to fix my hair. "You're going to be one of the bachelors?"
Rob changed lanes and slid the car out into the city traffic. "What bachelors?"
"One of Fi's bachelors. In the auction."
The gears crunched and a stream of expletives filled the air.
"You did know it was an auction of dream dates?" It was pretty obvious from Rob's reaction he didn't. "I can't believe she didn't tell you!"
Rob scowled. "I didn't ask her. I thought this auction would be like the one she did in November, when she sold those celebrity cast-offs."
We were both silent for a minute. For the pre-Christmas auction, Fiona had persuaded lots of well-known people to donate clothes, and then sold them to the highest bidders. It had gone extremely well, raising shed-loads of money for the Foundation.
"It's not too late to back out," I said, but knew Rob wouldn't. Like me, he'd feel obligated to see the evening through, but I felt I ought to make the offer anyway. After all, it didn't sound as if Fiona had exactly been honest with him.
Rob growled something under his breath and slid the car into a freshly vacated, metered space outside the gallery where the auction was to be held. Despite the cold weather, plenty of people were heading up the impressive stone steps of the building and in through the automated glass doors.
"What's he doing here?" Rob looked up from sorting out coins for the meter to glower at someone standing at the bottom of the stairs. I struggled to sit up from my semi-reclined position to see who he meant.
"Oh, um, I invited him." Ian Grebe waved at us.
Rob stared at me. "Good move, Penfold!" His voice sounded heavy with sarcasm.
"He seemed so down, and I felt sorry for him." Still fighting to release my seatbelt, I could only watch helplessly as Rob stalked off to feed the meter and Greenback Grebe trotted across the pavement to meet us.
* * * *
"May I assist you from the car, Emma?" Mr. Grebe swung the door open and offered me his hand. I think I would still be stuck in there like a stranded whale if he hadn't hauled me out.
I popped out of the car at speed and managed to poke him in the eye with my cleavage. It had to be either the shock of his nose landing in my bosom or the sheer hideousness of my lurid pink costume which rendered him speechless.
We made our way up the stone stairs through the throng. The inevitable groups of photographers from the glossies were in position at the top ready to accost any passing celebrities. Fiona cuts deals with the tabloid magazines as it raises more money and ups the profile of the charity.
Mr. G and I made it past the press without incident but when I turned around Rob had been spirited off into a side room accompanied by Fi's future mother-in-law and a posse of paparazzi.
Fiona clearly planned to advertise Rob as one of the bachelors for the night's auction. I hesitated for a moment, torn between attempting to stage a rescue or trying to find where to go to report for waitress duty. Mr. G remained glued to my side and I began to worry about where I could park him for the rest of the evening.
My heart sank. A familiar Prada handbag waved imperiously at me from across the lobby.
"Hello, Mummy. I didn't know you were coming tonight." I air-kissed her cheeks so as not to spoil her make-up. Her eyes narrowed at the sight of my ratty coat and I knew she would be unable to resist commenting on the fit of my costume. "Where's Fiona?" I asked. "She didn't tell me where I had to check in."
Mother tutted (she has a good line in tuts). "I imagine she has far more important things to do than worry about you. I expect you'll be needed in the kitchen."
"I didn't realize this charming lady was your mother, Emma."
I'd forgotten all about Mr. G.
"It is you, isn't it, Charlotte?" he asked, looking past me toward my mother.
Much to my surprise, she turned rather pink and began to flutter her false lashes at Mr. G."Ian! What a surprise to meet you here."
Mr. G looked a little flushed, too.
"Do you two know each other?" I asked. Silly question, given the goofy looks being exchanged. I tried to recall what I'd ever told my mother about my boss. I had a horrible feeling none of it had been flattering.
"We met a few months ago, at Jemima's wedding," she told me. "You remember, the one with the ghastly little bridesmaids in pea-green chiffon."
Mother can never resist adding fashion footnotes to something, even when she means to be telling you something serious. I had a hazy memory of having to listen to all the fashion minutiae from a wedding Mother had been to before Christmas. The daughter of one of her old school friends, I think. I'm sure I would have noticed if she'd mentioned anything as important as her fraternizing with my boss.
"You never pay attention, Emma," she complained.
"Exactly." Mr. G nodded in agreement.
Good grief, they were even ganging up on me now!
"You ought to go and do some work," my mother said. "Your sister is counting on your support. This is a very important event for her and why you're wearing that hideous coat I can't imagine."
Well, that put me in my place. Fortunately, I spotted Sara in her bright pink outfit, jumping up and down at the back of the crowd and pointing toward a door in the far wall.
"You're absolutely right, Mummy. I'll see you both later." Giving her cheek another quick air-kiss, I worked my way through the masses and over to the door.
"Where have you been?" Sara hissed at me. "Fiona's been on my case ever since I got here."
Her costume fit much better than mine did. She pulled me through the doorway into a kitchen at the back of the bar. Fairies of all shapes and sizes collected silver trays loaded with champagne glasses while shirtless, muscle-bound men in bow-ties, waistcoats and devil horns carried out platters of hors d'oeuvres.
"What's Greenback doing here?" she asked.
My face gave me away. I'm not brilliant at fibbing and Sara knows me too well, anyway.
"Oh, Emma! You are such a soft touch. Don't tell me Esme's here as well?" She glared at me.
Sara used to work with Esme Grebe; they had been on the same cosmetics counter but not on the same wavelength.
"No. That's why I asked him."
Sara rolled her eyes. "Spare me the sob story. Come on, you'd better get your coat off and get going or Fi will be on the warpath."
I had a bit of trouble getting out of my coat. Too much movement and my costume threatened to perform a very painful kind of surgery on a delicate bit of my anatomy.
"Wow, Em, what are you going to do if you need the loo? You'll never get your outfit back on." Sara giggled.
"If I have to spend too long wearing this, I may never need to go to the loo ever again," I replied.
One of the bow-tied waiters thrust a couple of trays full of champagne flutes at us. "There are people dying of thirst out there," he said. I swear he flounced as he walked away from us.
"Get a load of her!" Sara muttered darkly.
We each picked up a loaded tray and made our way out into the reception area. The noise level hurt my ears as soon as the door swung open. The raffle and tombola ticket sellers were in full flow and the place looked packed with people.
On the wall above the crowd hung large black and white photographs of the bachelors taking part in the auction. I recognised the picture of Rob. It had been taken a couple of years ago after we had graduated. He'd given one to Fiona, but I hadn't realized until now that she'd kept it.
Mother and Mr. G were nowhere in sight. I looked for Rob but he must still have been in 'celebrity central.' My fairy costume soon attracted a certain amount of unwanted attention and my bum got pinched twice before I managed to dispense all my glasses. I retreated back to the kitchen to refill. Four more trips and my feet were hurting and worse still, I had been ogled, propositioned and bruised by a hundred different elbows.
I drank the last glass of champagne on the tray myself, ignoring the affronted gazes of the assembled society guests. To be honest, I didn't care. I don't think a single part of me didn't ache. And dinner had still to be served, or the auction held yet.
Guests started to file through the polished double doors into the dining area and take their places at snow-white, circular tables. I found it hard to believe the gallery wasn't a proper restaurant. Fiona had transformed the floor-space into an incredible fantasy setting, like the inside of a posh chocolate box. I hobbled around the bar as it emptied, collecting up dirty glasses and wishing I'd worn shoes with a lower heel.
Fiona and Niall stood near the doors while Fiona did her hostess-with-the-mostest bit. Something about her stance caught my attention. She looked as lovely as ever, with her long blonde hair twisted up under a little twinkly tiara and her silvery, fairy-godmother dress fitted in all the right places, but something didn't appear to be right.
A bright spot of color lit each cheek and she seemed a touch too animated. Niall didn't look at all comfortable; he raised his hand as if to touch her arm and then dropped it back down again, as if having second thoughts. I maneuvered myself nearer, even though almost everyone else had been seated in the dining area and I should have been helping to serve the first course.
"Niall, will you stop fussing! I am perfectly all right."
Fiona's voice carried over to where I skulked with my tray. I expected her to notice me, but she and Niall must have been wrapped up in their dispute. I didn't catch Niall's answer but Fiona gave him one of her famous looks, (she's inherited the talent from Mummy), then sailed off into the dining room, leaving him to trail along behind in her wake.
The diners had already begun to tuck into their soup before I caught up with Sara. She'd slipped out of the fire exit to have a crafty ciggy.
"Where did you skive off to?" Sara sucked at her cigarette with the same fervor Jessie, her baby, reserved for her dummy.
"I wasn't skiving! I was collecting up the glasses in the bar." I told her about Fiona and Niall. Any other couple having a spat wouldn't be news, but Fi and Niall never disagree on anything ever. For one thing, Niall is not that brave. My sister in full flight is not something any sane man would want to experience more than once.
"So, what do you think it was about?" Sara ground out her cigarette butt with the toe of her stiletto and popped a breath mint into her mouth.
"I don't know," I replied. "Unless pre-wedding nerves have set in."
The fire door banged open and the same waiter who'd had a go at us earlier stuck his head out.
"If you two ladies would like to honor us with your presence, I think you'll find there's work to be done." He scowled and flicked a disapproving glance at my cleavage. "Oh, and may I remind you the champagne is reserved for the guests." He disappeared back inside and Sara looked at me with one eyebrow raised.
"It was only one little glass. My feet hurt." I tried to look pathetic.
"Did I say anything?" Sara said. "Oh, well, back to work, Cinderella, before the wicked stepmother comes back!"
By the time the coffee cups had been placed on the tables, my feet throbbed and I longed to take off my shoes. The last event of the night, the bachelor auction, was about to start and the atmosphere in the room pulsated with energy. With a few glasses of champagne, the well-heeled, decorous society ladies had miraculously transformed into a rampant hen-party.
Pheromones mingled with expensive perfume as Fiona tapped her spoon against her glass to obtain the attention of the crowd. I slipped behind a huge slab of marble labeled 'Reclining Nude' and eased my aching feet free from my shoes. Sara sidled up next to me, tucking her mobile phone up the leg of her fairy costume.
"I called Mum a minute ago. Jess is really miserable; I think she's cutting another tooth." Sara had dark smudges of fatigue under her eyes and even her blonde ponytail had drooped.
"Why don't you go home, Sara? I'll get your money off Fiona."
Her face lit up for a second then fell again. "I can't. The auctions about to start and Fi asked me to work 'til one."
"There's not much to do now and it's already gone half-eleven. Go home, Sara."
She didn't put up much of an argument. I snuck her out of the fire door and waved her off before creeping back to my hiding place behind the statue where I'd left my shoes. Fiona handed the mike over to the professional auctioneer, ready to start conducting the bidding.
The bachelors sat on tall chrome stools in a row along the centre of the stage. Rob's skin paled when the first guy was helped off his stool by two tall, skinny fairies and led to the front of the stage.
The crowd went wild. The first bachelor was announced as a Right Honorable somebody-or-other and the dream date offered was a hot air balloon ride over his estate followed by a candlelit supper. As an offer, it seemed to go down well with the ladies and the bidding flew along.
The final sum ended up more than my annual salary and I wondered how much Rob's date would fetch. An impoverished travel agent with a clapped-out sports car wasn't about to reach the same level of bids as a Hooray Henry with a title. I couldn't bear to watch.
Bachelor Number Two stepped up to the mark while the first chap was claimed by the winning bidder, a sturdy, horse-faced woman in blue taffeta. Number Two turned out to be a dot-com tycoon who offered to pilot his date in a private jet for lunch in Paris. His bids rose even higher than the first bachelor, proving money is more important than a title these days, I suppose.
Rob was led from his seat by the twiglet twins and the auctioneer read the spiel from her little card. I peered through the gaps between my fingers as she did her stuff.
"Bachelor Number Three is Rob. Twenty-four years old, Rob likes fast cars and foreign travel. His lucky date can look forward to a special moment aboard his yacht in Spain followed by a romantic dinner for two in an exclusive restaurant. So if you'd like a bit of yo-ho-ho, this sexy sailor is the man to bid for!"
I laughed. Rob doesn't have a yacht; he doesn't even own a lilo. I can only guess Fiona had persuaded a friend to loan him their yacht...although somebody other than Rob would have to sail it. I mean, Rob wouldn't know where to start. I expected someone had to go along on these things anyway to act as a chaperone.
The bids started to come in, not as high as the other two, but then again, Rob isn't a millionaire and doesn't have a title. He is much better in the looks stakes, though. The hammer went down and a tall, familiar-looking brunette whose face I couldn't quite place crossed the stage to claim him. Fiona's mother-in-law-to-be shepherded them both away to have more photographs taken.
My feet pulsated with pain and I needed to pee. I hoped Rob wouldn't forget he'd promised to take me home. My mother and Mr. G had been absorbed in each other's company all night. I thought I'd seen them holding hands when I served the desserts and I'd dropped two chocolate profiteroles on some poor bloke's lap.
I eased my poor, puffy toes back inside my shoes and slipped out from my hiding place. The last bachelor had been auctioned and Fiona began her speech praising the generosity of the bidders. The snarky head waiter gave me a nasty look as I emerged, so even though my bladder felt about to rupture, I hobbled about collecting glasses from the tables and half-heartedly tidying up.
A huge round of applause signaled the end of the event and people started to head for the cloakrooms to collect their coats. Fiona moved to the door with the chairman of the Foundation to see them out. I couldn't see Niall or his mother.
One of the twiglet fairies gave me a nudge. "We can collect our money; it's ready for us in the kitchen. We should get a decent whack for working Valentines."
I needed to collect Sara's money before anyone noticed she'd gone. Fortunately Mr. Snarky (who seemed to be in charge of the envelopes) got distracted by one of the other fairies so I forged Sara's signature on the pay list and picked up her envelope before he could realize she had gone missing.
The lobby looked deserted by the time I'd managed to collect my coat and head back out in search of my lift. Mother and Mr. G stood talking to Fiona. At least, Mother stood; Mr. G swayed from side to side like a sailor on the high seas. My bladder hurt so much, it took all my concentration not to plait my legs as I teetered across the lobby to join them.
"Darling, you mustn't panic. Listen, come home with me tonight and you can talk to Niall in the morning." Mother sounded distressed.
Something was wrong. Fi dabbed at her eyes with a soggy tissue and Mummy's face looked as if she'd been struck by lightning.
"What's the matter?"
Neither of them answered me. Fi hiccupped and patted at her eyes even harder than before.
"What's going on?" I asked. "Where's Niall?"
Fiona shrugged her shoulders and Mother glared at me. "I'm taking your sister home with me. She and Niall have had a slight difference of opinion."
At this, Fiona let out a wail and bolted down the stairs toward the exit.
"Now, see what you've done!" Mummy dashed off after Fiona, leaving me and Mr. G staring at one another.
"It's been a very pleassshant evening," he slurred. "Thank you so much for your kind invocation, Emma."
Mr. G must have enjoyed a little too much champagne. And where the hell had Rob gone? I hoped he hadn't run off with his date and forgotten me. God, I needed to pee.
"I wonder if you and Rob might be good enough to give me a lift home...? I think I may be a touch over the limit." Greenback swayed sideways and, catching hold of his elbow, I propped him up against a pillar before he fell over.
"Psst, Emma!" I heard someone hiss. Thank heaven it was Rob and at last we could go home. He peered round the edge of the cloakroom door, almost as if he didn't want to be seen.
"What are you doing?" I said. "Come on, I want to go home!"
"Has she gone?"
"Has who gone?"
Mr. G started to slide down the pillar so I pulled him back upright again. "Will you stop pratting about and take me home!"
"Only if you're sure she's gone," he said.
It wasn't like Rob to avoid Fiona.
"There's no-one here except me and Mr. G," I told him. "Now, please take me home before my bladder bursts and my feet catch fire."
Rob emerged from the cloakroom and after a quick look around, came over to us.
"Who were you hiding from?" I asked. "Fiona?"
Rob looked at me as if I'd gone mad. "No. It's Gilly, the date from hell."
"Tell me on the way home," I said, trying to steer him toward the door.
"What's he doing here?" Rob stared at Mr. G, who grinned beatifically at him in return before sliding down the pillar again.
"He needs a lift home; he's had too much champagne."
Rob sighed and slipped an arm around Mr. G's waist. "You'll have to give me a hand, Em."
Mr. G smiled at me, breathing alcohol fumes in my face. We supported him between us and staggered together down the steps. After the suffocating warmth of the gallery lobby, the icy air hit me like a bucket of water. I wanted to cry from the pain in my feet, my full bladder and the raw bits of my body where the fairy costume had dug into my flesh and rubbed.
We slipped and slid our way across the frozen pavement and, panting from the exertion, leaned Mr. G against the side of Rob's car. "How are we going to fit him in?" I asked.
Rob's pride and joy is primarily a two-seater. There is a back seat but it's designed for very short people or Gucci-clad poodles, not sixteen stones of inebriated male boss.
It's a good thing glares aren't deadly or I would be pushing up daisies now (I must be immune from years of living with my mother). Rob stalked around to the driver's door, muttering something unpleasant under his breath. With a click of the switch, he started to lower the folding roof.
"What are you doing? We'll freeze to death." The words hung in a vapor in front of my face to emphasize my point.
"Do you have a better idea?"
Even if I did, from the look on Rob's face, I could see this might not be the best time to mention them. And my bladder hurt so much all I could think of was home. Between the two of us, we managed to wedge Mr. G in the tiny space behind the front seats. I heard a few sinister ripping noises from under my coat when we heaved him into the car but to be honest, I didn't care.
We drove back to my flat at a nice sedate speed. Rob didn't want to attract any police attention as we were overloaded, and let's face it, we made an odd enough sight already--a sports car with the top down on what felt like the coldest night of the year, containing an indecently dressed fairy, a bloke dressed up like James Bond and a fat man wedged in the back singing old Duran Duran songs. If the police did see us they would think the circus had come to town.
"If he throws up I'm holding you responsible," Rob warned me.
Mr. G moved on to the chorus of "Rio."
"Why is it my fault?" I tried to turn around to check on Mr. G, but my knees were under my chin from where Rob had pulled the seats forward. I didn't dare risk moving; I didn't think the costume had any stretch left in it, not that there had been much to begin with.
"You gave him the invitation!" Rob exclaimed.
"I didn't know he'd get so drunk."
For heaven's sake, how come I got to be held responsible for the antics of a fifty-year-old man?
From the dismissive snorting sound on the driver's side, Rob obviously felt I had to be the one at fault. I tried to distract myself from the agony in my bladder. I'd have joined in with Mr. G's singing but I didn't know all the words. I'd never realized there were so many traffic lights in London before and how come they were all on red? If we didn't get home soon Rob would have a puddle on his front seat. I tried to make a list in my head of what I needed to do when I got home.
Things to do:
Go to the loo.
Burn this stupid costume.
Rub the free samples of Clarins lotion Sara had given me all over my sore bits.
"So, who placed the winning bid for you?" Thank God we were almost there.
"Didn't you recognize her?" Rob asked incredulously.
"I thought she looked familiar but I wasn't close enough to see." I didn't tell him I'd been hiding behind a sculpture resting my feet.
"Do you remember the girl I saw in the summer? The one who dragged me past every jeweler's window in town?"
I tried to remember, but Rob has had quite a few girlfriends. "Is she the one who took you to meet her family and got you property details?" Of course, now I knew why I'd recognized her! Rob used to hide in the office storeroom when he saw her coming, leaving the rest of us to make excuses for him.
"That's the one--Gilly, mad as a box of frogs."
Mr. G switched to Roxy Music and the mournful strains of "Jealous Guy" wafted from the back seat. Thankfully, we pulled up outside my flat. I almost cried with relief when I saw the familiar outline of the scrubby, overgrown bushes in the front garden.
"Have we stopped?" Mr. G popped his head up from the back, breathing stale alcohol over me while I fumbled in my coat pocket for my key.
Rob flung open his door and strode around the car, ready to help pull me out. I couldn't do it on my own; my knees were wedged under the dashboard and between my ill-fitting costume and dire need for the bathroom, I wasn't in any fit state to even try.
Mr. G tried to clamber out from the back seat before Rob managed to tug me free.
"We're just dropping Emma home. You can get in the front in a minute." Rob didn't sound very happy as he wrapped his arms around my waist and yanked me out of the car. I hung onto him for a moment, letting the blood circulate back down to my poor, swollen feet while I got ready to make a dash for my flat and the loo.
Mr. G stumbled out of the car behind me and I heard the tinny sound of something scrape along the bodywork of Rob's beloved motor. I winced and hoped it wasn't anything serious.
"We going in for coffee, then, eh? Jolly good idea." My boss swayed alongside me.
I wanted to get inside the flat and out of my fairy outfit as fast as humanly possible. Clutching my key I took a step towards the front door.
"Wait!" Rob grabbed hold of my arm.
"What's the matter?"
He peered into the darkened area near the front door. The bulb had gone in the outside light and we'd been meaning to replace it.
Rob darted off down the path.
"'Wos he doing?"
Mr. G staggered up against me knocking me off balance so I slipped on the frosty pavement. Crashing noises came from the shrubbery in front of the house, followed by muffled shouts and the sound of scuffling. A light clicked on in one of the upstairs windows and Steven from the flat above emerged from behind the blind.
"What's going on?" Toby, his partner came to join him.
"Rob?" I felt really scared now. What was he doing? It could be a burglar; he might pull a knife on him or anything. "Rob, be careful!"
"Shall I phone the police?" Toby leaned out of the sash window trying to peer into the shadows.
"Keep still." Rob's voice emerged from the bushes as if he was giving orders to somebody. I crept a bit nearer, with Mr. G hanging onto me for dear life.
"We'll come down." Steven and Toby left the window and a few seconds later, a light appeared in the hallway, spilling out shards of colored light through the glass half-moon in the top of the communal front door.
It swung open and illuminated Rob, who looked rather disheveled, sitting on someone who lay half-covered by the bushes.
"I found this bastard lying in wait by the front door," Rob panted triumphantly.
"For God's sake, Emma," cried the man beneath Rob. "Tell him who I am!"
The world ceased to turn and air stopped entering my lungs.
"Marco?" I gasped.
Four pairs of eyes turned towards me.
"You know this guy?" Rob demanded.
The man underneath him jerked and Rob rolled off on to the floor.
"Of course she knows me," the man said. "She is my wife."
* * * *
* * * *
Steven and Toby gaped at me open mouthed. Rob looked at me as if I'd grown two heads, and even Mr. G straightened up to stare at me, wide-eyed.
What could I do? I took the only reasonable course of action open to me. I ran past Toby and Steven, unlocked the door of my flat and bolted myself in the loo. At least with an empty bladder and wrapped up in my comfy fleece dressing gown, I could think.
The utter bliss of freedom from my awful costume and having a pee that felt like Niagara Falls! Once finished and undressed, I heard the rumble of male voices inside my flat so I wrapped my dressing gown around me more securely and went in to the lounge to face the music.
They were all in there. Steven and Toby had made themselves mugs of tea; Mr. G sat slumped in the corner on a kitchen chair while Rob and Marco glowered at one another from opposing armchairs.
Marco. His dark brown eyes met mine and my heart developed the funny irregular beat that always seemed to happen whenever he came near me.
"Is it true, Emma? This guy's telling the truth?" Rob still looked as if he was about to haul Marco off to the police station at a moments notice.
"Emma is my wife. We married while she was working in my country." Marco looked at me to confirm his answer.
Steven and Toby's faces were alight with interest. I can't explain how I felt; this had to be happening to someone else. Not me, Emma Morgan, reluctant travel agent, crappy fairy waitress, girl who couldn't get a date on Valentine's Night.
"It's true," I said.
Even my voice didn't seem right or sound as if it belonged to me. I sat down next to Toby on the settee, my legs wobbling as if someone had extracted my kneecaps and replaced them with marshmallows.
I couldn't stop looking at Marco. I couldn't believe he was here, and he'd found me. God knows what he must have thought when I'd turned up blue-chested and red-nosed, crammed in the front of Rob's car with a musical drunk sitting in the boot.
"What was he doing skulking around the front door?" Rob asked. "And why have you never mentioned him before, Emma?" He drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair. Bits of twig still clung to his trousers.
What could I say? How do you tell people you were married months after the event? Especially when the marriage has been the biggest mistake of your life. Anything I said now would make me sound even more pathetic and sad than I really am.
"Emma did not know I was coming here, so when I arrived and she was out, I decided to wait for her." Marco gave a careless shrug as if everything was all quite normal. He dominated the room. He seemed more alive, vibrant, and colorful than anyone else I'd ever met.
Rob looked at me and I knew he must be trying to assess what was going on, attempting to make sense of it all.
"I had reasons." I sounded defensive.
"Does your mother know?" Rob's eyes continued to bore into me, making me squirm in my seat.
"You are such a dark horse, Emma." Steven hugged himself with delight.
"Mmm, and I can see why you wanted to keep him all to yourself," Toby added.
Rob switched his glare to them.
"Look, I didn't tell anyone, okay?" I said. I'd wanted to. I'd wanted to shout it from the rooftops the day Marco and I married. Funny, isn't it, how things turn out? My memories of our wedding are a bit like Marco himself--vivid, Technicolored and larger than life. God, I'd been so stupid.
Rob snorted and shook his head in disbelief.
"Does Sara know?"
I gave a reluctant nod. Sara had been the one person I had told, the exception to the rule.
A gentle snore came from the corner of the room. Mr. G slid down on his chair and slept, his jowls resting against the wall as he dribbled open-mouthed onto the woodchip.
Rob's expression said it all: hurt that I hadn't told him, confusion about Marco's status in my life, and worst of all--betrayal.
Marco stretched out in his chair, his long, denim-clad legs spreading out on to my favorite Ikea rug.
"It's so romantic, a secret wedding." Toby sighed and sipped his tea.
"It wasn't meant to be a secret," I said. "It's just...well, everything happened so fast." It sounded feeble even to my ears. The wedding had taken place over six months ago and getting married wasn't the sort of event you forgot to mention.
"I think," Marco leaned forward in his chair, "Emma looks very tired and we have many things to talk about." His eyes met mine and my heart gave an involuntary squeeze.
"Emma?" Rob still looked dubious about leaving me alone with Marco.
"It's fine, really. I'll see you tomorrow." And try to explain, I added silently.
Rob enlisted Toby and Steven to help him get Mr. G back into the car. Toby looked reluctant to leave. I think he hoped for more gossip and I knew he'd be back down in the morning on some pretense so he could find out all the juicy details.
The door closed and Marco and I were alone together for the first time since the aftermath of our wedding. Of all the times I'd imagined meeting him again, I had never pictured it like this. He looked as good as ever--better, even--while I wore a tatty fleece dressing gown with my hair a mess, and I didn't want to think about what my make-up must have looked like.
"My beautiful Emma." He caressed my cheek with a large brown thumb and my heart wobbled. "Why did you run away?"
The rat! He knew full well why I'd done a bunk! I turned away before the touch of his hand undid my irritation or anything else for that matter.
"More to the point, what are you doing here?" I folded my arms and tried to look indifferent.
"To see you, of course. You left in such a hurry, we had no time to talk, for me to explain." He lifted his hands as if to reach out and hold me and I stepped back to avoid his touch.
"You didn't exactly rush." I'd been back in England for over six months and until last night, I hadn't heard a thing from Marco. No phone call, letter, e-mail...not even a Christmas card.
"I didn't know where you were."
Damn, how did he manage to inject that injured tone into his voice?
"I have been so sad without you." He reached out to stroke my hair, twisting it gently around his fingers.
"Don't, Marco." I put my hand on his to stop him. Bad move.
"I love you, Emma."
God knows I wanted to believe him.
"I'm tired, Marco. We'll talk about this in the morning, okay?" It occurred to me that I didn't know where he was staying. Did he plan to spend the night here? Where had he left his luggage?
He leaned forward and kissed my forehead, his lips delicate on my skin. "Of course. I'm sorry."
"Where are you staying?"
"I left my bags at a friend's house." He paused, and I realized he wanted me to ask him to stay. A mental image of Marco lying in bed next to me flickered temptingly through my mind.
"There are some blankets and a pillow if you want to sleep on the settee." I squished the thought flat and bolted for the safety of my bedroom.
* * * *
When I woke the next morning, my mouth felt like the bottom of a birdcage and my eyelids were still glued together as I tried to read the time on my watch. I gathered up what remained of my wits and tried to figure out what had woken me. The overly loud, prolonged ringing of my front doorbell had to be a pretty good clue.
I stumbled through the living room past the hunched up bundle of blankets covering my husband, who still snored blissfully on my sofa. As I yanked open the front door, I half expected to find Toby standing on the mat, eager for a chat. Instead, Sara's partner, Shay, who had been leaning on the door, nearly plowed into me, knocking me to the floor.
Now, ordinarily I'm very fond of Shay. He's great company, good humored and devoted to Sara and Jessie. But why he'd landed in my hall at some un-Godly time on a Sunday morning I wasn't quite sure.
"Hi, Em. Sorry, did I wake you up?"
I tried the family death glare but I don't think I've mastered it.
Shay looked at me, his dark eyes sympathetic. "Late night, huh? You look rough."
I gave up on the glare. "What do you want?"
"I'm looking for Sara and Jessie. I couldn't get any answer at home or on Sara's mobile. I didn't want to trouble Ma-outlaw unless I really had to and I remembered you had the spare key. Any chance of a coffee?"
We trooped back past Marco and into the kitchen.
"Sara and Jess probably stayed at her mum's. Jessie wasn't feeling too great last night. Sara thought she might be teething again."
Shay nodded. "Where's the coffee, Em?" He rummaged through the cabinets. I handed him the jar of instant crystals, though there were only dregs left in it. I needed to add coffee to my list.
Things to do:
Tell mother I'm married.
Get a divorce.
Buy more coffee.
"How did the gig go?" I asked, as he poured hot water from the sink into his cup. Apart from Sara and Jess, Shay's great love in life had to be his music.
"Hard to say. The record company guy didn't show." He took a slurp of coffee and grinned. "How was the auction? Sara's promised me a private showing of her costume."
I wouldn't be giving mine another outing, that was for sure. The very thought of trying to squeeze into it again made me feel sick.
"It seemed to go well. I think Fiona raised quite a lot of money." I told him about Rob and about Fi's row with Niall. A cough came from the sitting room. I'd forgotten to tell him about Marco.
"Another friend of yours, Emma?" Marco appeared in the doorway, and I felt my face burn. He leaned on the doorframe wearing just his white Calvin Klein's and looking as if he slept here every night of the week.
Shay didn't as much as bat an eye--as if he walked in on me with male houseguests in their underpants every day of the week. "Thanks for the key, Emma. I'm sorry I disturbed you, I didn't realize you had company." He nodded at Marco as my husband stepped aside to let him pass. The front door banged shut and a few seconds later, I heard the dull roar of the exhaust on Shay's van accompanied by the 'thump thump" of his stereo as he pulled away.
Marco moved into the kitchen and filled the kettle. My kitchen is much too small to contain me and an almost naked man. Particularly a man I found physically way too attractive, even if my brain told me he wasn't good for me.
"Help yourself to coffee. I'm going to take a shower." Preferably a nice cold one. I didn't bother explaining about Shay. I figured I might as well let Marco think what he liked. I got a bit of a buzz giving him the illusion that I might be considered a desirable and sought-after woman.
Minutes later I stood under the tepid trickle of water passing as my shower and tried to come up with a plan. I needed to talk to Marco. I had to find out if he intended to stay in England. I had to find out if he intended to stay married to me.
After switching off the shower, I wrapped myself in a towel. I sat on the loo seat wanting to bury my head and blub like a two-year-old. The only thing stopping me was the thought that I'd already cried enough tears over Marco to last me a lifetime.
"Emma, are you finished in there? I need to use your bathroom."
I pulled my dressing gown back on and opened the door. He darted past me and pulled the door shut behind him before I had time to answer. From the sound of running water a moment later, I guessed he wasn't wasting any time in using up the last of the hot water. Marco had always been very particular about his hygiene and appearance.
The phone rang as I finished drying my hair. I toyed with the idea of letting the answering machine take it but then, thinking it might be Sara, I picked it up.
"Emma, you have to come and talk to Fiona!" my mother cried. No greeting, no how-do-you-do-today-darling, just this loud, plaintive screech. I moved the receiver away from my ear, wincing.
"What's the matter?" I asked. I don't know what good Mother thought my speaking to Fiona about something would do. Fiona would never listen to anything I said.
"It's Niall. Fiona won't tell me what's happened but she's dreadfully upset."
I'm not being unkind, but Fi only has to break a nail to be dreadfully upset, so I didn't feel unduly concerned.
"Perhaps it's private, Mummy."
She snorted. "Fiona never has secrets from me."
I wriggled guiltily on the edge of the bed. "If she doesn't want to tell you, I'm not sure she'll tell me, either."
"At least you could try. She's locked herself in her bedroom."
I sighed. Fiona always locks herself in her bedroom when she's put-out about something.
"What music is she playing?" When Fi's upset, the music she plays gives the best clue as to how serious the problem is. A mild upset and she plays soul; angry mood and its rock music.
"I don't know. It's some sort of racket."
"Put the phone near her door. Let me listen."
Mother did and I heard the distinctive sound of Bros. "I'll be right over," I said. Fi only dug out her old albums when she felt really, really upset. Bros meant it must be serious. I managed to get Mummy to calm down and told her to put the kettle on.
Marco had dressed and was posed, styling his hair in the sitting room mirror as I walked through to the kitchen to collect my bag and keys.
"I've got to go out for a while. When I get back, we need to talk." I hoped he wouldn't ask me where I intended to go. He might take it into his head to come with me.
"Okay. What time will you be back?" He turned to face me.
"I'm not sure, probably in a couple of hours." I wondered what he planned to do in my absence. I didn't like to tell him to go but I didn't trust him enough to let him stay in my flat while I wasn't there.
"I have to go to my friend's house. I'll see you later."
He left the house with me, kissing my cheek goodbye at the tube as if we made the journey together every day of the week. I'd almost arrived at Mother's house when I realized I didn't know who Marco's friends were or where they lived. Worse still, I had no way of getting in touch with Marco again other than waiting for him to reappear on my doorstep.
A crisis always calls for an emergency remedy, so I'd fortified myself with a Big Mac on the way. I wiped "secret" sauce from the corners of my mouth, hid the wrapper in the bottom of my bag and rang Mother's doorbell. Faint strains of "When Will I Be Famous" floated down the stairs into the hall as Mummy opened the front door.
"Oh, Emma, I'm glad you're here. Perhaps she'll talk to you." She ushered me inside and took my coat, her gaze lingering on my hips. "Have you put on weight, darling?"
I ignored her last comment and followed her into the kitchen. "Do you know what Fi and Niall argued about?"
"She won't say. She keeps crying and saying she can't forgive him."
The last time Fiona wouldn't forgive Niall it had been because he'd called a napkin a serviette and told her dinner guests she'd bought the pudding from Harrods' food hall. He had been in the doghouse for weeks over that misdemeanor.
I carried a cup of tea upstairs and rapped cautiously on Fiona's door. She didn't actually live at home any more, but whenever she felt distressed, she fled back to Mother's and took up residence in her old bedroom.
"I don't want to talk."
"It's me, Emma. I brought you a cup of tea."
The door opened a crack and she peered out. I held up the cup.
"I've got a big bag of chocolate buttons in my pocket," I added. I'd picked up a packet of Fiona's favourite comfort food from the station kiosk while waiting for my train. The door opened fully and I went into Fiona's room. She looked awful. Her eyes were red and blotchy from crying and her hair hadn't seen the straightening iron.
"You look dreadful," I said. "What's happened?"
She plopped down on the bed and buried her face in her handkerchief. "Oh, Emma, it's Niall..." She sniffed. "He doesn't want to marry me any more!" The end of her sentence came out as a wail. I sat down on the bed next to her, placed the tea down on the dresser and put my arm around her shoulders.
"It's probably pre-wedding nerves." I couldn't take in what she'd said.
"No, it's not. He doesn't love me." Big sobs shook her body.
"Well, did you argue or something? People often say things they don't mean when they argue." I didn't know what else to offer her. I'd expected a tiff over the number of bridesmaids or the price of the wedding favors, not to hear the wedding had been called off altogether!
Fiona blew her nose. "We were discussing the seating plan and he threw it up in the air and..." She began to cry again. "Oh, Emma, he sounded so nasty!"
I passed her a box of tissues from the dresser. "Well, doesn't that prove what I was saying? He's feeling the stress of all the preparations."
She shook her head fiercely. "When we went to the Crystal Foundation auction, he said he'd been doing a lot of thinking." She paused. "Then he said he'd realized we were making a terrible mistake and he didn't love me anymore."
I gave her a hug. Damn Niall--how dare he do this to Fiona! I know she has her faults but, blow it all, she's still my sister and she loves the idiot.
"What am I going to do, Em? I'll be a laughing stock."
"I can't believe this is happening, Fi. It all seems so strange." I couldn't believe my ears. Niall's never struck me as the impulsive type. Something must have happened to trigger it off. The wedding was all arranged, the organist booked, flowers ordered, everything. I opened the bag of chocolate buttons and popped one in my mouth, needing the sugar.
"You have to talk to him, Fi," I said. "I'm sure you can work things out."
She sniffed and smacked my fingers out of the way before plunging her hand into the bag of chocolate. "I can't, it's too upsetting." She stuffed a pile of buttons into her mouth. "Can't you talk to him, Em? See if he'll listen to you."
I started to feel like a U.N. peace envoy. How come I'd been voted the great negotiator all of a sudden?
"What am I going to say?" Fiona is so much like Mother sometimes it's scary. Apparently, I take after Daddy. This, according to Mummy, is not a good thing.
"I don't know!" she cried. "See if you can find out why he doesn't want to marry me anymore! There has to be a reason. I've thought and thought all night but couldn't come up with anything." Fiona leaned towards the dressing table mirror and frantically examined her face for wrinkles. "Oh God, Emma, look at my skin! It's because I'm losing my looks, isn't it?"
There was no answer to that. I left her slapping on fifty-pound-a-jar face cream like it had gone out of fashion and went back downstairs to report to Mother. I found her in the kitchen, industriously cleaning the sink.
"How much did you manage to overhear?" She didn't bother to deny it. We both knew she'd been lurking in the hall with her ears flapping like Dumbo.
"Not a lot. You had the door closed."
"Niall's dumped Fiona," I said. "She says the wedding's off."
"Nonsense!" Mother said. "I'm sure this is all a storm in a teacup. It's probably pre-wedding nerves. Niall and Fiona are a perfect match."
"That's what I said."
She gave me one of her looks. Apparently, having me think the same thing as her wasn't reassuring.
"She needs to talk to him." Mummy peeled off her yellow rubber gloves and draped them over the tap.
"She doesn't want to. She asked me to instead."
From the expression on her face, Mother didn't think much of this idea. "Well, I suppose it's worth a try," she said after a moment. "Poor Fiona has always been highly strung. I expect she'd find it too upsetting." She paused for a moment, her face thoughtful. "In any case, it never looks good to be seen to be running after a man."
I wondered if this might be a good time to tell her about Marco. There would never be a brilliant time to tell her I'd married a Caribbean beach barman in secret over six months ago and now he'd arrived here in England wanting to meet his in-laws.
"Mummy," I began. "I need to talk to you about--"
The doorbell rang and she bustled off into the hall calling, "Tell me in a minute!" over her shoulder.
The sound of voices carried into the kitchen, I wondered if it might be Niall coming to tell Fiona he'd made a terrible mistake, prepared to beg her forgiveness with a huge bouquet of roses.
"You'd better come in," I heard my mother say. "Emma's here."
A huge bunch of flowers had arrived all right, but the man carrying them wasn't Niall. Rob looked a bit sheepish when he saw me sitting on one of Mummy's brushed aluminum Conran stools.
"It's so thoughtful of you to bring Fiona some flowers, Robert, dear," Mother said. "She's a little upset this morning so she's stayed in her room. I'm sure she and Niall will sort things out, though. It's a touch of pre-wedding nerves."
Mummy knows how Rob feels about my sister--we all do--and while she's very fond of him, she's never fancied him as husband material for Fiona. I think she hoped he'd transfer his affections to me, but Rob's never seen me in that way.
Rob raised a questioning eyebrow and tapped his ring finger with his free hand while Mummy had her back turned to me, asking me silently if I'd broken the news of my marriage. I shook my head and mouthed a silent "no." He gave me a disapproving look.
Mother turned around in time to catch me glowering back at him. She pursed her lips and sent me a 'don't be rude to guests" death glare. I wanted to ask Rob how he'd heard about Fiona and Niall's split but I didn't dare while Mummy might hear.
"I'll go up and see if Fiona's feeling better," Rob said as he took the vase of flowers Mother had finished arranging. "Isn't there something you wanted to tell your mum, Emma?"
He disappeared into the hall before I had the opportunity to kill him. Mother fixed me with another look. My stomach rolled with the same sick feeling I used to get whenever I had to present her with my school report card.
"Well, Emma?" she asked.
* * * *
* * * *
All credit to Mummy, she took my news on the chin. Rob came straight back downstairs when he heard the scream and helped Mother into the lounge while I poured her a large gin and tonic.
"I always said you took after your father." She took a fortifying gulp of alcohol. "Well, I suppose I'd better meet my new son-in-law, hadn't I? You can bring him for dinner tomorrow night, Emma."
She fixed me with the look and I knew there would be no point arguing. I hoped Marco would agree to come. Always assuming I could find him, of course.
Fiona couldn't be coaxed from her room to see Rob, so he gave up trying and offered me a lift. He continued the theme of Mummy's lecture in the car on the way home. The paintwork on his car was a sore subject; he insisted Mr. G had scratched it and since it had been me who'd invited Greenback along, then it had to be my fault.
"How did you know about Fiona and Niall?" I needed to change the subject away from me, Marco and the merits of car polish.
The back of Rob's neck turned pink, a dead giveaway that he had something to hide. "Niall told me."
"Niall told you he'd called off the wedding? When?"
"Last night at the auction. He took me to one side and asked me to keep an eye on Fiona as he had something to tell her that she wasn't going to like."
"What else did he say?"
The back of Rob's neck turned crimson. "He just said he'd been trying to talk to Fiona for days."
That sounded more like Niall, but I felt sure Rob knew something more that he hadn't told me. He's not very good at keeping secrets, and perhaps deep in my subconscious, this had been one of the reasons I hadn't told him about Marco.
"And what had he been trying to tell her for days?" Whatever this big secret was, I was determined to wheedle it from Rob. If I didn't know what had changed Niall's mind about marrying my sister, then I couldn't set about changing it back again, could I?
"He didn't say exactly," Rob mumbled, making a great show of slowing down for a pedestrian crossing.
"But you know why he's called the wedding off, don't you?" I persisted.
He swerved suddenly into a clear space at the side of the road and jerked the handbrake up. He wouldn't look me in the face.
"Promise you won't go mad."
"Why would I go mad? Oh, my God--he's gay, isn't he? He's selling drugs? He's--"
"Emma! Shut up!" Rob raked his hand through his dark hair, leaving it sticking up in spiky little tufts like a militant hedgehog. "Niall's met someone else."
"No! You're joking!" Fiona never left Niall alone for long enough for him to find another woman. He was the kind of man who needed someone to pick out his underpants; he'd never have the initiative to meet someone else on his own, surely.
Rob shook his head. "It's true. He planned to tell Fiona after the auction but they had a row and well..." He shrugged.
"Do you know who she is?" I tried to think of likely candidates. The daughter of one of his mother's friends perhaps? Niall's mother had always appeared to be nice to Fiona but I got the impression she would prefer someone more blue-blooded. Niall's mother is a terrible snob.
Rob shot me a glance. "Do you know Glenda?"
Glenda, who looked as genuine and realistic as the plastic rubber tree standing in the corner of Niall's consulting room. Glenda, with her brassy blonde highlights and the wire-framed specs. Miss Hygienically Polished Frosty Knickers. I'd never liked Glenda.
"Niall's fallen in love with her?" It didn't sound any more believable when I said it out loud. Fiona would be devastated. Fiona would kill her.
Rob squirmed on his seat. "There's something else."
I didn't need to be Sherlock Holmes to guess what had to be coming next. "She's pregnant, isn't she?"
He glanced at me. "Sorry."
So, my sister's fiance had been playing doctor-and-nurse with his secretary. "That sneaky, conniving, two-faced rat," I said. "How long has it been going on?"
"Since Bonfire Night." Rob coughed apologetically.
Fiona had been ill on Bonfire Night and she'd missed the big fireworks party and barbeque Niall's mother held every year for family and friends. I'd assumed Niall had gone alone, but instead, it appeared he'd taken Glenda.
"Oh, hell! Quick, get down!" Rob grabbed me and tried to push me down behind the dashboard of the car. He ducked next to me and tried to look inconspicuous.
"Who are we hiding from?" I hissed, my face squashed against my knees and the peak of my knit cap all bent up. I found traveling in a sports car with the top down did your hair no favors anyway and being shoved under the dash without warning definitely didn't help.
"It's Gilly. She's seen us. She's coming this way!"
I bit my tongue and didn't point out that she would have to be blind to miss seeing a six-foot-two-inch male trying to hide in a roofless, low-slung, distinctive car like Rob's in the middle of winter.
Calvin Klein's Obsession perfume reached us a fraction of a second before she did. I sat upright, took off my cap and tried to act nonchalant.
"I can't wait for our date," Gilly said. "We'll have to meet up and discuss the arrangements." She blanked me completely. I tidied my hair back into a ponytail, folded my arms and tried to keep from freezing to death while Rob made non-committal noises next to me.
Gilly prattled on; she was quite pretty if you like the doe-eyed, besotted look. Her clothes were expensive and her boots were to die for. You don't live with fashionistas like my mother and sister for years without learning something about clothes. She even had the obligatory rat-sized mini-pooch wearing a little Burberry check coat inside her handbag.
I could see why Rob had dumped her, though. The girl was completely crazy. And boy, could she talk. It felt like being verbally mugged for fifteen minutes. Rob finally managed to shut her up and we escaped, leaving her blowing kisses after us from the curb.
My nose had turned blue. "Why is the roof down? I'm frozen."
"The mechanism jammed last night when we put Greenback in the car."
I couldn't say anything to that otherwise I would end up spending the rest of the day feeling guilty and passing wrenches to Rob while he took the roof to bits.
I spent the remainder of the journey simultaneously worrying about what I would say to Fiona and if our local hospital knew how to treat frostbite. It wasn't until we pulled to a halt outside my flat that I remembered I had other things to worry about.
The light was on in my lounge and I knew I'd turned it off before I'd left. I'm one of those people who obsessively checks switches and locks and things. When I'd been at University, I'd had a bad experience with a tumble drier, something to do with not emptying the lint collector. The firemen that came out were very nice and even returned for a party I'd held the same night but it still wasn't an experience I wanted to repeat.
The front door opened as we came up the path and Toby stepped out, a look of suppressed excitement all over his face. This was not good.
"Emma, I tried to get you on your mobile but you've got it switched off. So I hope it's all right, but we've given your husband the spare key to your flat so he can move his stuff in."
It's also never good when someone tells you bad news and smiles whilst they do it. It's like watching David Blaine doing one of his magic tricks; your eyes tell you one thing while your brain tells you something completely different.
Rob muttered under his breath and Toby stood there beaming at me as if waiting for me to pat him on the head or throw him a stick.
"What time did Marco get back?" Too flipping quickly if you asked me, but I tried to sound casual. Rob appeared to be preparing to go into attack mode again, while Toby, on the other hand, looked smitten by my wayward husband's charm. Someone needed to stay calm and in control, so I guessed that person should be me.
"He got here about an hour ago. We helped him carry his cases in."
I walked inside the communal hall, Rob hot on my heels. The front door of my flat stood ajar and two large blue suitcases and a holdall blocked the way into the lounge.
The alien smell of home cooking filled the air. I don't cook. I can defrost, microwave and make toast, but haute cuisine isn't one of my talents. In fact, shopping isn't one of my talents, either (at least not for groceries) so I guessed Marco must have found time to shop as well as collecting his stuff.
I stepped over the cases; Steven sat in the armchair nearest to the door drinking beer and chatting to Marco. The dull roar of a rugby crowd came from the television in the corner.
"Hey, babe, we were talking about you." Marco stepped forward to kiss my cheek in a practiced move. The kiss undid me; I swear I had been ready to slap the man for his sheer brass neck but somehow the touch of his lips on my cheek sent all my thought processes haywire.
"Supper's cooking. It'll be ready in about half an hour." He cupped my face tenderly between his hands. "You feel cold. Take your coat off and sit down by the fire."
Dazed, I shrugged off my jacket and sat down. Rob immediately bagged the other armchair, leaving Toby to hang about on the other side of the settee.
The loud pop of a cork sounded from the kitchen and Marco reappeared, brandishing glasses of bubbly, which he handed out to everyone, although Rob's sour expression was enough to send the champagne flat.
"Please raise your glasses in a toast to Emma and me, and to the future." Marco stood behind me, his hand resting on my shoulder. The heat from his fingers spread to warm my soul as I sipped my champagne.
Steven and Toby cooed like a pair of turtle doves and gazed soppily into one another's eyes. Rob stood up and muttered some excuse about having to go, then he pushed past Marco, put his glass in the kitchen and left. I didn't follow him. Maybe I should have but I didn't know what to say.
I took an extra big gulp of champagne and choked as the bubbles went up my nose. Marco appeared to be intent on moving into my life again. From the way his hand moved to massage my shoulder and sent little shivers of delight through my body, he was intent on moving back into my bed, too.
Things to Do:
Get rid of Steven and Toby.
Find my La Perla knickers.
Steven and Toby picked up on the vibes emanating from our end of the settee and reluctantly made their excuses. The front door hadn't quite closed behind them before Marco slid onto the couch next to me.
I vaguely remember him taking the empty glass from my hand before his lips claimed mine and any coherent thoughts flew right out of my head.
We never got around to eating whatever it was Marco had cooked. I threw the dishes away the next day because the black bits on the bottom wouldn't budge, no matter how hard I scrubbed.
Instead, we finished off the rest of the champagne and ate take-away pizza in bed, which sounds nice but makes the bed clothes crumby.
Curled up in bed next to Marco with my head on his bare chest, as I listened to the rain pelt against the windows, I felt very snug and very smug.
* * * *
I wanted to stay home the next day and spend the time in bed with Marco, but instead, he announced he had some business to attend to and had to leave early.
He left before me, so I stayed in bed for a few more minutes to revel in the smell of the sheets from his cologne and the warmth where his body had been next to mine. Even discovering he'd used all the hot water for his shower couldn't dent my good mood as I set off in the rain for the office.
When I arrived, Greenback was out; he'd gone to check on the staff in one of his other shops, which meant he would be out of my hair for the day. It also meant Rob was in charge. Normally that meant we would have a laugh and lark about a bit more than we would if Mr. G was about. But Rob looked as if he'd sucked on a lemon all night. I thought he'd be as happy as a dog with two tails now that Fiona and Niall weren't an item any more, but he seemed to have other things on his mind.
That reminded me; I needed to call Fiona and see how she'd been coping. Then I could pave the way ready to break the news about Glenda so it didn't come as too much of a shock.
"You're late, Emma." Rob dumped a pile of post on my counter.
"I know." I did my best to smother a yawn.
He looked at me.
"Sorry, I didn't get much sleep last night."
Rob's expression turned even more sour.
"I can live without hearing the details of your love life, Emma." He stalked off into Mr. G's office.
The repairs on his car must have been worse than I thought; he wasn't usually this crabby, even in the morning.
The shop always went quiet before lunchtime on Mondays which gave me a chance to catch up on my paperwork and sneak in a call to Fiona. She had decided to stay at Mummy's.
"How can I show my face? It's so embarrassing. I've had to call so many people and cancel all sorts of arrangements."
"It's better to find out about Niall now though, Fi. It would have been worse to find out after the wedding." Uh, oh, that didn't come out right.
"Find what out after the wedding?"
"Um, that you weren't suited." The hole grew deeper; maybe I shouldn't have rung Fiona after all.
"Huh! Well, you're a fine one to talk. I'm not the one who got married and kept it a big secret for six months!"
"I know and I'm sorry I didn't tell you but I had my reasons at the time. Listen, Fi...about Niall. I'm really not sure it's--"
Fiona cut me short. "The rat bag! The bloody rat bag! He's sent me a text to ask for his engagement ring back!" She hung up on me with a sharp click.
I delved in the bottom drawer of my desk for some comfort food, then remembered I'd finished off the last of my secret stash of biscuits on Saturday. The weather was absolutely miserable now outside, so dark it looked more like night-time than midday as the rain pelted down against the windows.
I hoped Marco wasn't out in the wet; he didn't like the cold or rain. Amazingly, he'd agreed to come to Mother's for dinner with me that night. I wasn't looking forward to it at all. Fiona would either still be spitting mad at Niall or sobbing into her soup. Mummy would give Marco the third degree, and if Rob was still in the same mood as this morning, he'd just sit there and glower at everyone.
I wasn't sure why Mummy had invited Rob. I think she must have thought he might distract Fiona or redress the balance of a mostly female table.
God, I needed some chocolate.
The little palm trees on my tropical island screen saver waved their branches enticingly at me, sending me into a lovely daydream involving me, Marco and a secluded private beach.
A frantic knock on the plate glass of the shop window got my attention. Sara huddled under an umbrella outside with Jessie in the buggy, drenched to the skin by the pouring rain.
Once I reassured her Mr. G was safely out of the way, she squelched her way into the shop. The water ran off Jessie's buggy raincover in great puddles onto the floor.
"Shay said he met Marco at your flat yesterday." She collapsed her umbrella, sending another deluge onto the laminate and sat herself down on the chair in front of my console.
"He turned up out of the blue. I didn't even know he was in the country."
Sara stared at me suspiciously for a moment, then leaned forward to undo Jessie's cover. "Well, what does he want? And how did he find you?"
"I'm not sure. He says he loves me and wants us to make a go of things."
Sara snorted. "That's rich! Where's he been for the last six months?" She folded Jessie's cover back and adjusted the sleeping baby's blanket. "He didn't seem very interested in making a go of things when you found him in someone else's bed the day after your wedding, did he? Or when he stole your savings and Rob had to lend you the money to get home?"
I shifted on my seat. "I think he's changed, Sara. He seems to be sincere about getting things right between us."
She pulled a face. "Emma, this is the man who lied to you, cheated on you, stole your money and hasn't bothered getting in touch with you for months!"
The worst thing was, I knew everything she said was true but when I was with Marco, none of it seemed important. Besides, we'd talked a lot last night, in between doing other more interesting things.
"What are you going to do, Em?" Sara's blue eyes bored into mine.
"He's moved in."
"Blimey!" Sara's not often lost for words.
"I'm taking him to meet Mummy tonight. She's summoned us to dinner."
"Is he going to go?"
"Yes." I must admit I felt a bit smug when I told her Marco wanted to meet my mother. Sara had been so negative about Marco's reappearance, it felt nice to be able to say something good about him.
"Blimey!" Sara's vocabulary had deserted her, it seemed, with the news of Marco's return. She kept her eyes fixed on my face. Sara might be my best friend, but she also does a good job as a human lie detector. I know Marco is a rat but he's my rat, or at least he says he is.
I changed the subject and told her about Fiona and Niall's break-up. She didn't look surprised.
"At least you won't have to wear that ghastly bridesmaid frock or have to put up with Niall's mother calling you 'poor Emily' anymore."
She had a point. I hadn't thought about that. Niall's mother always treated me as if I was a bit simple; she even asked Fi once if I was adopted. Fiona didn't tell me about this--I overheard the old bat asking.
Granted, Fiona and I don't look like sisters. She's tall, blonde and supermodelish while I'm short, dark and not. So I can see why Niall's mother might have been a bit skeptical about my genes, but it still hurt.
"I can't believe Niall was stupid enough to ask for the ring back," Sara said.
"Or brave enough. The only way he'll get that rock back from Fiona is to amputate her finger." We were both silent for a moment, as we contemplated Niall's fate when Fiona caught up with him and learned the full story.
The shop door opened and more customers came in. Sara pulled the raincover back over Jessie's pram and stood up, ready to leave.
"Give me a call and let me know what happens." She swiveled the buggy around. "And Emma, be careful. Good sex isn't everything, you know."
The young city stockbroker-type who'd come into the shop out of the rain leered at me as he opened the door for Sara to leave.
I didn't get a lunch break until three o'clock. Rob stayed in Mr. G's office and I'd been too busy with people desperate to get away for Easter to remind him that I hadn't eaten.
Still, the stockbroker chap spent a lot of money booking himself and his girlfriend on a trip to the Far East and I needed the commission. Never mind that he stared down my blouse whenever he thought I wouldn't notice.
Thankfully the rain had stopped by the time I finally escaped down to the deli. There wasn't much food left and the staff had started to wipe the counters down when I got there. Once I'd scarfed down half a slightly dry Mexican wrap, I switched my mobile on. I'd had it on charge all morning; the battery had been completely flat for the last few days, so it wasn't any wonder Toby and Steven hadn't managed to get me yesterday when Marco had moved his stuff in.
Sure enough, all their missed messages popped up, one by one.
"Emma, Marco's here with all his cases. When are you coming back? Give us a call." Toby.
"Emma, would it be okay if we let Marco into your flat? Ring us back." Steven.
"Emma, we've let Marco in with the spare key." Toby again.
"Emma, I'll see you back at the flat later. Love you, baby." Marco's voice, deep and unexpected, sent a pleasurable thrill down my spine. My day suddenly seemed less crappy and I still had a smile on my face when I got back to the office and discovered Mr. G had arrived.
* * * *
* * * *
Rob sat behind my console with Mr. G wedged into one of the customer seats opposite him. The shop was empty; the two girls who work Mondays with me are both part-time and finish early so they can collect their kids from school.
I could tell from the sudden silence as I walked in that they had been discussing me. Mr. G began to shuffle files and looked very Greenbackish while Rob simply appeared uncomfortable.
"Ah, Emma. Nice lunch?" Mr. G asked. "Splendid, splendid. Most interesting evening, Saturday. I'm looking forward to meeting your husband properly tonight. I'm afraid I may have had a little too much champagne at the auction. Alcohol disagrees with my blood pressure medication." He spluttered to a halt with a nervous laugh.
I know Mummy had received two nasty surprises in the last twenty-four hours but, honestly, what was she thinking of by inviting my boss to what might well shape up to be the most awful dinner party of all time?
"It was very kind of your mother to invite me to dinner, Emma. Rob, here's going too, I gather."
Rob didn't say anything; he busied himself with pretending to look up the cost and availability of flights to Alaska in an effort not to get involved.
"Well, that's all...erm...splendid, Emma." Mr. G made a feeble attempt at sounding hearty before vacating his seat with remarkable speed for a man of his size. He bolted for the safety of his private office.
Rob avoided my eyes. Instead, the in-flight catering arrangements of Air Alaska continued to exert a morbid fascination.
"What's going on?" I moved around the back of my console and blocked his exit so he couldn't make a run for it.
"Nothing! We're concerned for you, Em, that's all." He half-turned on my swivel chair, still somewhat engrossed by the views of Alaska's unspoiled wilderness.
I grabbed the arms of the chair and spun him around to face me, forcing him to tear his attention away from pictures of white-water rafting in the great outdoors.
"Well, don't be! I've had a lecture from Sara and I'm sure Mummy will have plenty more to add tonight. Marco and I have a lot of issues to sort out and, yes, we've had our problems, but a bit of support from my friends wouldn't go amiss."
I straightened up and let go of the chair. I know Marco's been a git in the past but if I could give him another chance, then surely so could everyone else. They hadn't even got to know him properly yet.
Rob raked his hands through his hair. "Fair enough, Emma."
I'd expected a fight, so his acknowledgment that I might have a point took the wind out of my sails a bit.
"I called Fiona earlier." Perhaps the mention of my sister's name might cheer him up and stop him meddling in my love life.
"How is she?" He looked concerned.
"Spitting mad. Niall text-messaged her this morning and asked for the engagement ring back."
"You didn't tell her about Glenda, did you?"
"Not yet, but we need to tell her soon. It'll be awful if she hears it from somebody else." I wasn't looking forward to breaking the news to Fi.
Fiona has a terrible temper. Don't get me wrong--I think Niall deserves all he has coming to him when Fi does catch up with him but she deserved to be told properly about his infidelity.
"She might have found out already if she's spoken to Niall," Rob said.
"Do you think he'd tell her? He didn't have the guts to do it when he gave her all that crap about cancelling the wedding because they weren't right for each other."
Somehow someone who can't ask for his engagement ring back face-to-face isn't likely to announce to the fiancee they've cheated on that they've got their secretary up the spout. At least, I didn't think so.
"Niall wouldn't, but Glenda would."
I hadn't thought of that. Of course, if Niall's mobile was switched off, then Fiona would be bound to try his office. The implications hit both of us at the same time and we stared at each other in silence. "Call her," Rob suggested.
I fished about in my handbag for my mobile, dislodging a wad of old receipts and empty cheeseburger wrappers in the process. Rob sighed and picked them up off the floor while I dialled Fi's number and waited for her to answer.
"It's turned off," I said. "She's got it on voice mail. Now what, Dangermouse?"
"Nothing we can do, Penfold. We'll just have to wait until tonight to find out what's happened." Rob's always very practical in a crisis.
Mr. G popped his head out of his office door. "Can I see you for a moment, Rob? Oh, and Emma, by the way, does your mother prefer red wine or white?"
"Red." He was out to impress Mummy all right. It wouldn't surprise me if he turned up tonight with a box of chocolates and a bunch of flowers.
For once, I finished work on time and Rob stayed behind with Mr. G to help lock up. I called the flat on my way home to see if Marco was back, but the answering machine kicked in so I assumed he wasn't there.
Most of the shops had end-of-sale final reductions and I couldn't resist a really cute strappy top in Monsoon's window or a 'to die for' pair of half-price shoes in the store near the tube station.
The shoes squeezed my toes a bit when I tried them on, but I figured that was because my feet were still sore from Saturday and anyway, they were such a bargain, it would be silly not to buy them. I would just have to remember not to walk long distances in them.
Bargain shopping takes time, so when I let myself into the flat, I was later than I'd intended to be. Marco still wasn't home. He'd unpacked all his clothes into my wardrobe (which was a bit of a squash), and his flight bag still cluttered up the hall. I tripped over it when I let myself in.
It contained something heavy, judging by the rapidly-developing row of bruises on my shin. If it was duty-free booze then I could use a drink. Fortification with alcohol looked likely to be the only way I would survive dinner at Mummy's that night while retaining any degree of sanity.
Marco and I had finished all the champagne the other night and the dregs of white wine in the fridge door that had been there so long it had nearly turned to vinegar. A bottle of duty-free gin would be a very nice find.
I opened the zipper along the top of the bag and couldn't see any bottles inside, only a layer of carrier bags. I delved down under them. Whatever weighed so much had been wrapped carefully into brick-shaped bundles and sealed up with duct tape.
There had to be a perfectly innocent explanation. It couldn't be what it looked like. Marco wouldn't leave something criminal like a stash of drugs right where I would fall over them, would he? I had to be rational about this. This was my husband.
The sound of a key in the front door lock made me jump and I pushed the mystery parcel back inside the bag and scuttled into the lounge in the nick of time.
Marco strolled in. "You not ready yet, babe? I thought we had to be at your mum's in an hour." He flicked a glance at his watch before stooping to kiss me on the mouth.
"Um, no, I just got in. I did a spot of shopping on the way home." My heart pounded like mad and guilt burnt in bright red spots on my cheeks. I shouldn't have looked in his bag. "So how was your day?"
"Good." He grinned and kissed me again. "You'd better get moving Emma, or we'll be late and I don't want to make a bad impression." He hustled me out of the lounge and into the bathroom.
I heard him move around the flat as I turned the taps on. Whatever was inside those packages couldn't be too suspicious, could it? Or otherwise he wouldn't have left the bag out in the hall--and he must have carried it through customs. The parcels probably contained something stupid like his boxing trophies. I had obviously watched too many episodes of Murder She Wrote.
It didn't take me long to get changed. I could set world records for the speed in which I can get ready to go out. A lifetime of running late means I can change clothes and re-do my make-up in five minutes flat.
"...yeah, man, no problem. I'll take care of it tomorrow. Later, okay." Marco snapped his mobile shut as soon as I entered the bedroom.
"Who was that?" On the one hand I really wanted to know, but on the other hand, after finding the packages, I felt a bit scared.
"I'll tell you about it later, babe. Let's just say I've got some good news for us." He reached inside the wardrobe and pulled out a jacket. "Come on, let's go and you can introduce me to your family."
Marco refused to tell me any more about his news even though I begged and pleaded all the way to Mummy's house. His expression darkened when the taxi stopped and he noticed Rob's beloved rust heap parked in the road.
"I didn't know your friend would be here tonight."
"Mummy asked him to try and cheer Fiona up. She's devastated over splitting up from Niall."
I slipped my arm through Marco's, pinned a smile on my face and waited for Mummy to answer the bell, but Fiona opened the door instead.
"Emma. And this must be Marco!"
I was left to stand on the front doorstep with my mouth open while my sister grabbed my husband and pulled him into the house.
"I thought you said she was devastated?" Marco muttered when I caught up with them in the hallway.
Fiona must have better powers of recovery than I suspected. Her hair had been restored to its normal, glimmering blonde perfection. Somehow she'd found time for a manicure, and I didn't remember seeing that particular dress before.
Marco seemed impressed as we followed her into the dining room. Mummy stood by the fireplace, gin in hand, as she talked to Rob and Mr. G.
"I see marriage hasn't improved your timekeeping, Emma." She gave Marco a swift assessing glance, and stepped forward to greet him with a kiss on the cheek. "So, this is my new son-in-law."
"I'm delighted to meet you, Mrs. Morgan," Marco said.
Mummy raised an eyebrow. "I doubt that, but welcome to the family. Help yourselves to a drink; I need to check on dinner."
Fiona poured large splashes of gin into Mummy's Waterford crystal glasses. She waved a bottle of tonic water over the tops with careless abandon before handing a glass to Marco and another one to me.
"Cheers and good luck to both of you." We all clinked glasses and Fiona swallowed the contents of hers down in a single swallow, then poured herself another one.
"That's better!" she declared. "Now Marco, come and sit next to me and tell me how you and Emma met." Fiona settled herself down on the settee, crossed her long slim legs in front of her and patted the space next to her invitingly.
"I'll go and see if your mother needs any help." Mr. G excused himself and disappeared off toward the kitchen.
"How many drinks has Fi had?" I muttered to Rob.
"I'm not sure, but that's her third since I've been here."
I glanced over at the sofa where my sister sat chatting animatedly while Marco hung on her every word. I took a generous swig from my own glass; it looked as if it would be a very long evening.
"Fiona knows about Glenda," Rob warned.
"Oh, hell! Since when?"
Mr. G wombled back in, carrying a tray of nibbles. "Dinner will be ready in about twenty minutes."
Rob and I grabbed a bite to eat while Fi and Marco continued their conversation without a pause.
"She's taken the news better than I thought she would." I tried to keep a snippy note out of my voice. My green-eyed jealousy monster had raised its head at Marco's blatant male appreciation of Fiona's legs.
"Don't be so sure."
The warning note in Rob's voice stopped me mid-bite. "What do you mean?"
Rob sighed and shot a worried glance in Fi's direction. "Well, you know Niall asked for the ring back and Fiona planned to try and track him down?"
"She found Glenda at the office."
My eyes widened. "And?"
"That's all I know--except she's not wearing the ring any more and she's been out shopping." He took a sip of his drink.
"She gave the ring back and went shopping?" I asked. "No scene? No attempt to stuff Glenda into the paper shredder, nothing?" I could see what he meant. This wasn't like Fiona and she had certainly been out for Niall's blood when she'd received his text.
"I don't know what happened. When I asked her, she smiled at me and said everything was under control."
My drink went down the wrong way and Rob thumped my back. Fiona was up to something and if I was Niall, I'd be worried.
"Dinner's ready, come and sit down. Marco you sit here next to me." Mother bustled in and shooed us all toward the table where the starters were ready.
Fiona wobbled on her heels a little when she stood up. "Whoops." She had to steady herself on Marco's arm until she reached her seat.
Mr. G sat on the other side of Mother with Fiona next to him. I ended up seated in between Marco and Rob.
Mummy is a superb cook and so is Fiona. I think it may be another genetic trait I missed out on. I would have enjoyed the delicious goat-cheese starter much better, though, if Mummy hadn't given Marco a grilling all the way through the first course the Spanish inquisition would have been proud of.
Marco took it quite well. One thing that working in a bar teaches you is the art of making conversation with anyone and Marco's a good talker.
Finally all the plates were empty and Mummy stopped the interrogation. Fi stood up to help take the plates into the kitchen and fetch the second course but teetered on her heels again and sat back down in her chair with a thump.
"Allow me, Charlotte." Mr. G leapt to his feet and accompanied Mummy into the kitchen. Fi shrugged and helped herself to another glass of wine from the bottle on the table.
"So what are your plans for the future, Marco?" Rob leaned back in his chair and took a sip of his drink. I don't think Rob likes Marco. Rob's always been a bit protective, kind of like a big brother and I think his ego took a dent when he learned about my marriage.
Marco didn't look up from fiddling with his dessert spoon.
"I've got a few business options coming up with some friends of mine, so Emma and I can make a proper start to our married life." He flicked a glance at me and my tummy flipped over.
"That's nice. Marriage is a wonderful thing." Fiona beamed glassily at us, and even though I knew she was pissed, I wondered if she'd lost her mind.
"Fiona, are you okay?" Rob asked.
"Never better." She downed the rest of her drink and refilled the wine glass again, spilling a few drops onto Mummy's antique lace tablecloth.
Mr. G came in with the second course, followed by Mummy with tureens of vegetables. Rob and Marco both got up to help them and ended up having a mini tug of war over the sauce boat.
Eventually we all settled back down again. We politely passed one another the serving spoons and complimented Mummy on the food.
"Is that a new dress, Fiona?" I felt sure I'd seen an identical model in one of the snooty little boutiques I'd visited on my way home and it had carried a very hefty price tag.
Fi looked pleased with herself. "Yes, I couldn't resist it. I did a spot of shopping this afternoon."
Rob raised an eyebrow warningly at me.
"I thought you said Niall had texted you? What did he say?" I couldn't help myself; I had to ask.
Mummy clattered her knife loudly onto her plate with disapproval.
Fiona shrugged, picked up her wine glass, and took a sip. "Oh, I had the dubious pleasure of cornering his floozy." She contemplated her immaculate nails with a satisfied smile.
A bad feeling settled in the pit of my stomach. "Did you give the ring back?"
I only just heard Mummy's indignant intake of breath. I was too intent on Fiona. She had loved her engagement ring.
"Kind of." She looked like the cat that'd swallowed the canary.
"What do you mean, kind of?" Rob took the words right out of my mouth.
"Well, it was a very valuable ring and if I'd seen him personally, then naturally I would have given it to him."
We all stopped eating and watched Fi with a kind of morbid fascination.
"I could hardly entrust something so expensive to a mere secretary to pass on to him," Fiona continued. "So what could I do?" She lifted her chin defiantly and smiled at us.
"What did you do?" Marco leaned forward and looked into my sister's eyes. Fiona blinked and shook her head a little as if to clear it of some of the alcohol she'd drunk.
"Well, I didn't know what to do at first. I mean, I couldn't get hold of Niall and it wasn't something I could pop in the post."
Mummy put down her knife to reach along the table and squeeze Fi's hand.
"Then as I was walking along looking for a cab, I saw it. The perfect solution." She brightened momentarily.
"What solution?" I was frightened to ask. What on earth had she done?
Fiona beamed triumphantly. "I pawned it!"
* * * *
We all gaped open-mouthed at Fiona.
"I saw one of those shops that have a sign in the window that says they give you money for jewellery or electrical things" she said. "So I took in the ring and they gave me the money."
A low appreciative rumble of laughter came from Marco's direction, so I kicked him hard on the shin.
"I posted the receipt through Niall's letterbox," Fiona continued. "The man said they would keep the ring for thirty days and if it's not collected, they'll sell it."
"And you went shopping with the money?" I wasn't as shocked as I should have been. Fiona has a ruthless streak.
"Oh, not just that money!" she exclaimed. "Gosh, this dress on its own cost more than that. No, Niall gave me some credit cards on his accounts when we were engaged, so I used them."
"How much did you spend?" Rob eyed Fiona's dress as if trying to work out how approximately one metre of velvet and a few sequins could possibly equate to one diamond ring from Tiffany's.
"I'm not sure. I maxed them all out, though."
Mummy patted Fi's hand in reassurance before picking up her knife again to slash at a potato. "Well, I do think Niall has behaved very badly," she said.
I couldn't believe my Mother had taken all this so coolly, but then again, this was the woman who'd scored herself a nice bundle of alimony from my father when he went off with the secretary from his golf club.
Marco's shoulders shook with laughter and I knew he had enjoyed the story of Fiona's revenge on Niall's pockets. Mr. G applied himself to his dinner with renewed vigor, while Rob shook his head and moved the wine bottle out of Fiona's reach.
"Sister-in-law, you got class." Marco raised his glass in a mock salute.
Fiona giggled and lifted her own glass to chink it noisily against his. Envy stabbed me in the ribs like a knife. All my life, I've been a bit jealous of Fiona.
Marco doesn't like me to be possessive. One of his favorite phrases is "trust me, babe." And I used to, once, but now I'm not so sure. The mystery packages I'd found in his travel bag popped back into my memory and an uneasy feeling surfaced in my stomach.
As soon as dinner was finished and the last of the pudding dishes cleared from the table, Mother collared Marco and led him away for further interrogation, and, I suspected, to show him my baby pictures.
Rob talked to Fiona while he poured her copious cups of black coffee. I got left with Mr. G. Is it just me or is there something a bit creepy about your boss fancying your mum?
"Your sister seems to have taken her disappointment well," he said, and nodded over to where Fiona sat giggling and draping herself against Rob.
"Yes," I said. "Though I don't know what Niall will do when he gets his credit card statement. Or when he realizes he has to go and pay for the ring all over again if he wants it back from the hock shop."
We both took sips of our coffees.
"How is Mrs. Grebe? Have you heard from her lately?" Intent on his hot pursuit of my mother, I wondered if Mr. G had forgotten Esme's existence.
"Ah, Emma. Sadly, Mrs. Grebe and I seem to have reached a parting of the ways. She has decided to remain in Scotland for the foreseeable future." He cleared his throat and assumed a wounded puppy expression--never an attractive look for a man of his age, especially one who resembled a toad.
An awkward silence fell and I felt mean. Where on earth was Marco? I needed someone to come and rescue me. I looked over to Fiona who had persuaded Rob to try a party trick that involved sticking a teaspoon on the end of his nose. Marco was my only hope.
After what seemed like an eternity of making small talk with Mr. G, my husband reappeared.
"Time we were going, babe." Unusually for Marco, he looked flustered. I wondered what Mummy had said to him. I didn't think my baby pictures were so awful, although one of me with no teeth taken on a bad hair day wasn't very attractive.
"The cab will be here in a minute. Better get your coat." Marco bundled me out of the lounge door into the hall.
Mummy met us as she came down the stairs. "Leaving so soon?"
A car horn sounded outside. "That'll be the taxi." Marco flung open the front door.
Mummy embraced me in a fierce hug. "Goodnight darling. Give me a call." She turned to Marco who'd already gone outside. "Goodnight, Marco. Remember now we've got to know one another, you mustn't be a stranger."
Marco frogmarched me to the taxi and hustled me inside before he jumped in next to me. I didn't even have time to say goodnight to Fi or Rob.
"Is everything okay?" I asked.
There were little beads of sweat along his top lip and I wondered if he felt unwell.
"Yeah, babe. No worries."
I wasn't convinced but figured it was probably a consequence of having left a nice warm climate to arrive in England in the middle of winter. "Did you get on alright with Mummy?"
I hadn't expected my mother to be thrilled at my choice of husband and forgetting to tell her I'd got married hadn't been one of my best ideas. Mummy had gone through a bad time when Daddy ran off with his secretary and it had left her rather wary of men. Even so, I hoped that once she got to know Marco, they would like one another.
"Yeah, we got on okay. We just chatted a bit. You know."
Marco seemed preoccupied. I wondered if he might be headed for flu.
"What did you say your mum did for a living, Emma?"
"She works in an office. Something to do with government administration, I think." Perhaps Mummy had offered to help Marco find a job; though what skills Marco could bring to a Whitehall office I had no idea.
Going back to work, albeit part-time, had been another bone of contention after Daddy had left. Mummy had not been pleased when she'd found out that he'd salted away his retirement fund to some tax haven in the Bahamas and had somehow wangled it so she couldn't touch it.
She still did okay, but Fi and I don't ever tell her when we speak to Daddy because it only causes trouble. That reminded me...
Things to do:
Tell Daddy I'm married.
Find out what's in Marco's bag.
Get Fiona to teach me that teaspoon-on-the-nose trick.
By the time we were home and I was snuggled up in bed next to Marco, it felt too late to badger him about the contents of his bag. It didn't look good that I'd snooped inside it in the first place. I decided to leave it until morning. Maybe then he'd tell me more about the plans he'd hinted at in the cab when we'd been on our way to Mummy's.
I overslept the next morning. I'd been so tired after the dinner party that I'd forgotten to set the alarm. As I hopped around the flat on one foot, trying to pull my tights on, I figured any questions about Marco's plans would have to wait until I got home from work.
He was still fast asleep in bed with only his hair visible over the top of the duvet as I swallowed my coffee and headed out the door.
Luckily, I made it into work about five minutes ahead of Mr. G. Even if he did fancy my mother, he would still have had something to say about me being late for the third time in as many weeks.
Rob was already checking the emails, ready to write the Offer of the Day cards for the window. "You're cutting it fine again this morning, Emma," he said.
"Sorry, I overslept. At least I beat Greenback."
Mr. G went straight to his office after he'd grunted a good morning in our direction. Rob finished writing out the cards and I added a few artistic touches to them with felt pens. You know the kind of thing, smiley suns, bucket and spades--that sort of stuff.
"Oh, hell!" Rob stopped as he lifted the display board. I followed his gaze to where Gilly tottered along the pavement on her high heels toward the shop.
He turned to me in wide-eyed horror. "Hide me!"
"Too late," I said.
Gilly waved happily, looking far too bright, chirpy and perfectly made-up for this time in the morning. "Morning!" She breezed into the shop in a swirl of Burberry and Karen Millen. Her ratty little dog's head poked out of the top of her handbag.
"Hello, Gilly." Rob did a good impression of a rabbit trapped in headlights.
I carried on adding swirly lines to the cards and pretended not to listen.
"I had to come right over. I am sooo excited about our date and when I got the letter from the Foundation this morning, I thought I'd better come and see you straight away." Gilly beamed at him.
"What letter?" Rob asked.
I underlined Costa del Sol in blue, and tried to look inconspicuous.
Gilly placed her bag on top of my artistic handiwork and started to scrabble about under her Chihuahua. Triumphantly, she retrieved an envelope with the Crystal Foundation's gold and blue crest on it.
"This letter. The one with all the details about our trip. Oh, it sounds so romantic." She offered it to Rob.
He took it with all the enthusiasm of a man being asked to handle a scorpion. After he'd read the contents his normal, healthy-looking olive complexion had a pasty tone.
"It sounds great, Gilly." He looked as if she'd handed him a death sentence.
"What is it, Rob?"
I shouldn't have spoken. Gilly, who had been gazing misty-eyed at her reluctant date, suddenly noticed I was there.
"Aren't you Fiona Morgan's sister?" She gave me a quick top-to-toe assessing look. "You don't look much alike. I heard her fiance dumped her for his secretary."
I hadn't liked Gilly much before, but now I decided I didn't like her at all.
"Actually, she dumped him. He cheated on her." News in Fi's circle travelled fast.
"Whatever." Gilly clearly wasn't interested in anything that didn't involve herself. "We can meet up tonight then, Rob, to discuss our plans for the date."
"I'm a bit tied up tonight, Gilly."
"Oh?" She picked her bag up and petted the miserable dog.
"I...erm...have to...um...fix something on the car."
It sounded a lame excuse even to my ears. Mind you, I've always been better liar than Rob and I'm rubbish at it.
"I could come over to you. It's been ages since I've been to your place," Gilly suggested.
"Er, no, I don't think that would be a good idea. I mean..." He looked at me in desperation.
"Rob needs to take the car to a friend's garage tonight. It's about an hour's drive away." I made a point of picking up the cards that Gilly had flattened and slotted them noisily into the plastic holders.
Gilly looked discomfited for a split second, and then recovered her composure. "Oh, but surely that isn't going to take all night! Meet me at Toscini's at half nine." She hitched her bag further onto her shoulder, causing her dog to yap in protest, and without giving Rob another chance to get out of it, marched from the shop.
"Terrific, I'm doomed," Rob muttered. He banged the display board back into the window so hard that three of the cards jumped out of the holders.
I leaned over and popped them back in again. "You could just not go," I suggested.
"Huh! You haven't seen the contract the Foundation makes you sign. If I back out of this date thing or if Gilly backs out because of something I do, then I become liable to pay the Foundation for the money Gilly pledged."
"You're joking! That's mercenary!"
"I wish I was."
Poor Rob. He looked so dejected and no wonder--Gilly would eat him for breakfast. Don't get me wrong, Rob's a pretty tough guy. I mean, he tackled Marco when he thought he was a burglar. But when it comes to women, he's too much of a gentleman.
"What did the letter say exactly?"
"The date is set for March thirtieth and the yacht's moored at Puerto Banus on the Costa del Sol. Gilly and I are to be flown first class to Malaga where we'll be met by a stretch limousine and taken to the boat. There, we'll be served with a champagne lunch. We then spend the evening having dinner in a five star restaurant before returning home the next day." He looked wretched. "I have to spend the whole day with Gilly."
The telephone rang and I went to answer it before Greenback could stick his head out of the office and remind us we were meant to be working.
"Hey, babe, what time do you get to go for lunch today?" Marco's voice--dangerously sexy--tickled my ear.
"Twelve. I've got the first hour."
"Cool. I've got a little surprise for you."
"What kind of surprise?"
"You'll see. Meet you at twelve." He hung up.
I wondered if the surprise had anything to do with the contents of his flight bag. But the phone rang again before I had too much time to think about it. By the time I'd dealt with what felt like a million inquiries and bookings, it was lunchtime.
Rob made himself scarce when Marco came in to see me. Fortunately, I'd just finished with my last customer as he arrived.
I grabbed my bag and coat and told Mr. G I was off to lunch. Marco looked really pleased with himself.
"Well babe, what do you think?" He pointed to the silver BMW parked at the curb.
I blinked in stunned surprise. "You've bought that car?"
"Come on, I'll take you for a ride."
We pulled away with the stereo player thumping out hip hop.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"That's the second part of the surprise." Marco grinned.
The interior of the car smelt like a mix of new leather and pine. A little green cardboard tree dangling from the rear view mirror was responsible for the pine but the leather was pure new-car smell. I tried to figure out how Marco could have acquired a new car.
"Did you get a job?" It had to be a pretty cool gig if it came with a brand new, top-of-the-range BMW.
"Here we are." Marco bagged a space at the curb, beating an elderly lady in a red Ford to the punch.
"And where exactly is here?" I didn't recognize the road.
"We've an appointment with the bank. Come on."
Baffled, I followed Marco inside. It wasn't my bank, so what on earth was he up to?
When we emerged some forty minutes later, I was joint signatory on a bank account which held a seriously scary amount of money.
"Where did you get all that money?" Marco had never had any money before--let's face it, he'd "borrowed" all my savings when we got married. He'd been so broke, I'd even bought my own wedding ring and paid for the service.
"I told you, I made some good investments. I'm paying you back with interest, okay? Then, when a good opportunity for a business comes up, you and me will be sweet, babe."
Marco dropped me off back at the shop. I should have felt really excited; I mean Marco had made a big effort. And with the car and everything, I should have been buzzing. I don't know why I wasn't. Maybe I needed to adjust to having Marco back in my life again. Or maybe it was my conscience worrying about the contents of his bag.
I covered the shop for Rob while he went for lunch, which wasn't long. I think he was worried Gilly might still be lurking about.
When lunch had finished and the rush had died down, I rang Sara and told her about Marco's car and the money in the bank account.
"And you don't know where he got the money?" Her voice was instantly suspicious.
"From a business investment, he said. He used the money he had from me for his stake and now he says he's paying me back. He hadn't stolen my money, after all." I waited for her to probe deeper.
"Guess I'll know where to come for a loan then." Sara's voice sounded forced. Was she jealous or something?
"So, how are things with you and Shay?"
"Oh, the usual." She brushed me off. "Listen, Emma, have you met any of Marco's so-called business associates yet?"
Her question threw me. "No, not really. I think they're just some people he's networking with. He seems keen to suss out some kind of investment for us to get into."
"Oh, I just wondered. Shay thought he recognized a couple of guys talking to Marco the other day. They were outside the club where Shay's been gigging."
She had held something back, I could tell by her tone. "And? Spit it out, Sara."
"Look, Em, Shay didn't say too much, just that they were bad news, that's all."
"Fine." I knew I was abrupt. What was it with my friends these days? Why couldn't they just be happy for me?
"Emma, it's probably okay. I thought I should tell you, that's all," Sara said, back-pedalling.
The shop had filled up with customers again and Rob signalled me to get off the phone.
"Well, thanks," I said. "I'm sorry I snapped. I have to go, I'll call you later."
I hung up on Sara and plunged straight into helping a harassed mother of twins plan her Disneyland break. But all the time I nattered on about Mickey Mouse and the Magic Kingdom, my mind went over what Sara had said.
Perhaps Marco had been right when he said I didn't trust him. I'd accused my friends of having no faith in him when I had behaved the same way. After my customer left, I doodled a new list on the edge of a Thomas Cook brochure.
Things to Do:
Be more positive.
Stop being so suspicious of my husband.
Find out what was in his travel bag.
Mr. G left early, so Rob and I locked up.
"Are you going to meet Gilly tonight?" I asked.
"If I don't, she could cause a lot of trouble. I guess I'll be okay in a public place." Rob locked the traveller's cheques and deposits in the safe. He didn't sound as if he thought he would be okay.
"Couldn't you take someone with you?"
"Yeah, I'll ring Madonna and ask to borrow her bodyguards." He switched off the office light and locked the door.
"That's not what I meant and you know it." We did a last check of the workstations and put our coats on.
"Normally I'd ask any of you guys, but if Fiona goes, Gilly will either cut her dead or pump her for gory details about Niall all night. Shay is gigging and Sara has to stay with Jess. Meantime, you're all loved up with Marco." We walked outside together and Rob locked the front door.
"But you're going to Toscini's, so Marco and I could call in for a drink or something. We wouldn't be with you as such, but if Gilly got difficult you could sort of accidentally bump into us and we could rescue you."
Rob finished setting the shop alarm and we waited for the shutter to descend.
"I appreciate the offer, Emma, but I don't think your husband is going to be very excited about it."
"That's my concern. We'll be there." Whether Marco likes it or not, I added to myself.
* * * *
Toscini's looked packed. It wasn't a place I usually went to. The drinks were too expensive and you had to shout over the music to make yourself heard.
I had wracked my brain all the way home for a way to persuade Marco that spending an evening there was a good idea. In the end, I needn't have worried. Marco had suggested it himself to celebrate buying the new car.
I couldn't see Rob or Gilly anywhere in the crowd. Marco left me by the doors while he braved the crush at the bar to get us both drinks.
"Emma!" Rob appeared from nowhere and made his way through the crowd toward me.
"Where's Gilly?" I expected her to follow him, hot on his heels. I wondered if she would bring her dog.
"No idea. I don't think she's here yet. Where's Marco? Or have you left him at home?" He scanned the crowd.
"He's gone to get the drinks. Look, there's Gilly."
I didn't bother to explain to Rob that coming here had been Marco's idea and that I hadn't told my husband that Rob would be at Toscini's, as well.
Rob followed the direction of my gaze. Gilly had squeezed into the shortest skirt and the strappiest vest top I think I'd ever seen.
"At least she hasn't got the dog with her," Rob said, watching Gilly wobble on her spiky heels.
"You'd better go and get it over with, Dangermouse."
"Wish me luck then, Penfold. I'm going in."
I squeezed his arm in sympathy and watched him walk reluctantly away into the crowd. My feet had already started to ache--not a good sign. Maybe it had been a mistake to wear my bargain shoes that night. There was a serious shortage of chairs in Toscini's; either that or we should have arrived much earlier in the evening to claim the few that were there.
Marco must have gone to France to fetch my wine. Being a lone female without a drink in a wine bar frequented by lots of single men is not a good idea. In the timeframe between Marco going to the bar and Rob turning up, I got propositioned twice.
I decided if Marco didn't come back with my drink soon, then I would go home. Rob could fight Gilly off all by himself.
"Sorry, babe, I got talking to a guy I know at the bar." Marco handed me a drink that smelled like a vodka and Coke. God, he'd been at the bar so long he'd forgotten what drink I'd asked for. And how come he'd managed to find someone he knew to talk to? I swear if he went to the moon, he'd bump into some friendly Martian who just happened to be passing.
"Listen babe, I'll be right back. There are some people he wants to introduce me to." Marco pressed the glass into my hand and disappeared before I had chance to wail "But what about me?"
I took a gulp of vodka and glowered at the melting ice-cubes that floated forlornly on the surface of my drink. After five minutes and almost half the glass, I decided to go and find Marco.
Perhaps I should find out a bit more about these mysterious friends of my husband. He didn't seem to be in any hurry to introduce me, as usual, so I might as well go and introduce myself.
As I made my way through the crowded room, I wished, not for the first time, that I was taller. Even with my heels on I still couldn't see more than a couple of feet in front of me. By the time I'd bumped into and apologized to half a dozen people, I was disgruntled, grumpy and my feet were definitely not happy, either.
"Oops, sorry." I knocked into someone else.
"Emma Morgan?" Gilly looked at me as if I was something nasty stuck to the bottom of her shoe.
"Hello, Gilly." Uh-oh, major booboo. She was not supposed to know I was here. Guess Rescue Plan A, the casual interception, had been blown.
"What a surprise, you being here tonight."
I didn't like the emphasis she put on the word 'surprise.'
"Hi, Rob," I said weakly, and hoped he wouldn't give away that this was a put-up job.
"Emma! Are you here on your own?"
Rob would never win an Oscar for his acting. Gilly, meanwhile, folded her arms and tapped the toe of a Jimmy Choo-clad foot on the polished laminate floor.
"Um, I was looking for Marco. We're out celebrating tonight."
An "I don't believe you" expression settled on Gilly's perfectly made-up face. "What a coincidence," she said sweetly. "And here I was thinking you might have followed us. Where is this mythical man of yours, Emma? You must have come up with him mighty quickly; after all, you were single and dateless on Valentine's Night."
Ouch, Gilly didn't pull her punches. I consoled myself with the thought that I wasn't as dateless and desperate as she was, seeing as this was the woman who'd bid thousands of pounds for a single date with my best friend.
"Well, where is this husband of yours? If he exists at all..." Gilly added in a nasty tone.
If it wasn't so difficult to get drinks in this place, I'd be tempted to toss what was left of my watery vodka and coke right into her smug face.
"Oh, he exists all right." Rob winced. I think he still carried some of the bruises from his first meeting with Marco.
The crowd parted and I caught a fleeting glimpse of my errant husband talking with a small group of people. I was about to point him out to Gilly and wipe the smirk off her supercilious face, when I realized he had his arm around the waist of the beautiful girl who was stood next to him.
I had an immediate flashback to Antigua, where day in and day out I'd watched Marco flirt with the tourists, working the crowd until they were putty in his hands while tropical rum cocktails whizzed over the bar as if prohibition was imminent.
"Well, don't let us keep you, Emma." Gilly slipped her arm through Rob's and started to pull him away.
"See you later, Emma." Rob noticed Marco and the girl. I could tell by the way his jaw tightened and the pitying look in his eyes.
I took a big swallow of my drink and headed in Marco's direction. Up close, it became clear that he was the main man in the small group of people. A roar of laughter went up at one of his jokes and he was slapped on the back by one of the men. The pretty girl remained glued to his side, simpering and fluttering her fake lashes.
As soon as Marco noticed me, he took on a contrite expression and let go of the girl. He reached out a hand to pull me into his circle. "This is my lovely Emma."
"Yo, Emma." They greeted me with disinterest, then ignored me as Marco continued to entertain. The girl looked daggers at me and carried on eyelash-batting at my husband. The group laughed at another one of Marco's bar stories; I'd heard them all before.
I finished my vodka and debated interrupting Marco to ask him to get me another drink. The people in the group were all complete strangers to me, although they seemed very well dressed and both the men and the women wore plenty of gold jewelry.
Every now and then, the crowd would part and I'd catch a glimpse of Rob and Gilly. Rob looked thoroughly miserable while Gilly laughed a lot and gestured with her hands. At least somebody had enjoyed the evening.
Rob caught my eye to semaphore desperation signals at me with his eyebrows.
"Isn't that your friend, Rob?" Marco said.
"He's meeting his ex-girlfriend," I replied. "The one who bid on him at the auction the night you came home. She got the letter about their date today. It's in the Costa del Sol and she wanted to finalize all the details."
One of the men in the group interrupted our conversation, then murmured something to Marco I didn't quite catch.
"So when is this date?" Marco asked me.
"Thirtieth of March. They fly to Malaga and then get taken by car to Puerto Banus to spend the day on a private yacht."
Marco exchanged a glance with his friend, who in turn gave him a short nod, then he said, "Rob doesn't look very comfortable with his lady." There was an understatement if ever there was one. "Maybe you should go over there," he suggested.
If I'd had anything left in my glass to drink I probably would have sprayed it everywhere. Okay, so where was my husband and who was this stranger in his place?
"Come with me, then, and I'll introduce you to Gilly," I said, tugging on his arm to dislodge him from his friends. At least now I'd get one-up on her. Petty, I know, but so satisfying.
"Emma, I see you found Marco," Rob said as we approached. His face brightened at the sight of us, which, considering he and Marco didn't like one another much, showed how desperate he must be for a distraction.
"Gilly, this is my husband Marco. Marco, Gilly." I was tempted to add, What do you say to that then, you silly cow? but that would have been childish.
"Gilly, Emma told me how generous you were with your winning bid at the auction." Marco took Gilly's hand and raised it to his lips to kiss it. "The Foundation must be very close to your heart for someone as lovely as you to give up their time and money for such a worthy cause."
Rob and I stood there like two spare parts while Gilly blushed and giggled like a teenager.
"Well, I always think you should do what you can to help these things," she said.
Oh please, I thought. Pass me the sick bucket.
"Is he taking the piss?" Rob whispered in my ear.
"You won a date on a yacht?" Marco still held her hand.
"Yes, in Spain. Have you ever been to Puerto Banus?" Gilly gazed into Marco's eyes.
"It's somewhere I've always wanted to see."
This was going too far. I shivered as if someone had walked on my grave. I saw Marco's friend watch us from a few feet away and wondered what his interest was.
A big chunk of conversation must have whizzed over my head while I'd gazed around the bar, because the next thing I heard was Marco say, "That would be great, wouldn't it, Emma?"
I blinked at him like an owl. "Sorry?"
"I said to Gilly, we could go over to Spain with her and Rob. They could have their time on the yacht then maybe we could all meet up. Perhaps stay an extra day and make a weekend of it."
Okay, this is definitely not my husband. Alien abduction! Call up Mulder and Scully! What the hell was going on?
"I...I'm not sure," I stammered. "I mean, Gilly's trip is all organized." A weekend with Gilly? Oh, my God, I think I'd rather get my nipples pierced.
Rob looked like a drowning man who'd been thrown a lifebelt. "It'd be fun, Emma!" he urged.
Fun for whom? Rob clearly wanted me to agree. Marco, for some reason, seemed to think he'd had the greatest idea since sliced bread. Even Gilly nodded her approval. Although, if she held my husband's hand for much longer I might have to remind her of whom exactly her date was with.
"Well, if Mr. G will okay it, I suppose a holiday would be nice." There isn't much point working in a travel agency if you don't travel anywhere. Even if one of your traveling companions was a fully paid-up member of Stalkers Anonymous. It would be nice too, I supposed, to spend some quality time with Marco.
The last-orders bell sounded and Rob offered to get us all a final drink. I went with him to help carry the glasses.
"Thanks for agreeing to come to Spain, Em," he said. "I can't tell you the relief of knowing I'm not going to spend all that time on my own with Gilly."
The laminate floor near the bar glistened wet from a spilled drink and my new shoes slipped on the surface. Rob popped his arm around me and scooped me upright. He held me close until we got near enough for me to lean on the bar.
"Is everything okay, Em, with you and Mr. Smooth Talker?" he asked. "I know I'm butting in again but earlier, when you were with those other people, you looked almost as miserable as me."
I took my wine glass straight from the bartender's hand and swallowed a gulp. "Everything's fine," I said. "Marco can't help flirting with anything in a skirt. It's like breathing; he doesn't mean anything by it. I mean, we still have a lot of issues to work through. Our marriage didn't get off to a great start but I suppose all this kind of stuff takes time."
Rob gave me a sympathetic hug. "Remember I'm here for you if you need me." He looked at me as if he was about to say something else, but then turned around. We picked up the other drinks and headed back to our respective partners.
Gilly and Marco stood chatting away like old friends. I'm not even sure they'd noticed that we'd been gone. Marco's other friends appeared to have left and the crowd inside the bar had gradually dispersed into the frosty night.
"Do you want to go on to somewhere else?" Marco asked, and quickly finished the rest of his drink. I thought he had asked me, but he looked at Gilly instead.
"Rob and I have to work tomorrow," I said. Christ, I sounded like my mother. Why didn't I invite everyone back for a nice mug of Horlicks?
Gilly pouted. "That's such a shame. It's early yet. Come on, Rob, don't be a spoilsport."
Marco looked at me and I knew he wanted to go.
"Okay, just for a while then," I mumbled. Maybe I'd be able to sit down. My feet seriously hurt.
"Oh, goody, we'll go clubbing!" Gilly announced, and off we went.
Two hours later in a rather dim place called Eclipse, my head thumped along with the music. Marco and Gilly were somewhere out on the dance floor and Rob sat on the chair opposite me, a hyper-expensive bottle of Japanese lager cradled in his hands.
I watched a girl walk past wearing what looked like a tinfoil bikini and I felt conspicuously overdressed. Gilly, it transpired on our arrival, was on first-name terms with half the doormen in London. We got waved up to the head of the queue and inside before you could say 'stringfellows.'
It had been a long time since I'd gone out clubbing. Living abroad and then Sara having baby Jessie meant my night outs now tended to be a Chinese or Indian dinner with the gang from work. Except when Fiona press-ganged me into taking part in one of her charity events.
I stood up to try to see Marco and Gilly. But they were nowhere in sight, lost among the sea of people on the dance floor. I wanted to go home. I suspected Rob, too, would have slipped off ages ago if he'd had the chance.
"I can't see them anywhere." I flopped back down on my seat.
"Gilly can party for England." Rob yawned and stretched out as much as he could on his chair.
"I'm going to feel crap in the morning," I said.
Rob glanced at his watch. "It is morning."
"We're a couple of miserable old farts, aren't we?"
Rob grinned. "No, it's just we have to get up early for work. If they don't come back in the next five minutes, I'll take you home."
"You're on." I wriggled around in my seat in an attempt to get comfy. "Hey, there's that bloke I saw talking to Marco in Toscini's earlier."
Rob turned his head to see. "The big guy? The one wearing all the gold necklaces who's standing by the pillar?"
It was definitely the same man. He had been the one who'd nodded at Marco when we'd been talking about Spain. Rob and I watched as he met up with two other men. Although they were all smartly dressed, they all had the same thick-set appearance, as if their heads had been joined directly to their shoulders without the benefit of necks.
Marco's friend seemed to give them some kind of instructions, because they nodded in agreement then dispersed in different directions.
"Interesting fellow," Rob remarked.
Something about the man made me uneasy and I didn't know why. He'd been pleasant enough when he'd been in the group at Toscini's. True, he had a face only his mother could love, but that wasn't his fault. It was late and I felt tired. I suppose if I was honest, I was jealous of Gilly's monopolization of Marco and it had made me paranoid.
"Five minutes is up," Rob said. "Stay here, Em, and I'll go and see if I can prise the dancing queen off the dance floor. Then maybe we can get at least a couple of hours' sleep." Rob put his empty bottle down on the table and walked off to find his date and my husband.
From my chair, I watched the bullet-headed man scan the crowd. He must have spotted whoever he'd been searching for, because he raised his hand and beckoned them over. A massive swathe of dancers meant I couldn't see who it was. Perhaps it was his henchmen, or maybe a girlfriend. I tried to be charitable with the second guess.
Rob came back with Gilly in tow.
Gilly looked vague. "I'm not sure. We were dancing, and then he said he needed to speak to someone." She flopped down on Rob's chair.
"We'll give him a few minutes to show. If he doesn't appear I'll see if I can find him." Rob gave my shoulder a friendly squeeze.
Gilly fidgeted about on the seat. Her cheeks were flushed with patches of red and her eyes looked glassy. "I don't see why we have to go now. There's ages 'til the club shuts."
"Some of us have to work, Gilly." My patience had worn thin and my bed called me.
Gilly scowled and looked petulant. Fortunately, Marco strolled toward us from the direction of the dance floor.
"I need to go home, Marco."
He glanced at Gilly and Rob. "Sure, babe. We'll go find a cab."
He'd left the precious new set of wheels at home. He'd only had the car for one day and had already discovered how difficult it was to park in town.
We stood shivering in the doorway of the club while Gilly collected her jacket. Tiny flakes of snow whirled down from the night sky, the light from inside the club making them appear yellow in the darkness.
How come Gilly's legs hadn't taken on the same unbecoming mottled blue tinge that mine had? Life wasn't fair, especially as she had a lot more leg on show than I did.
The taxi rank was empty, so it appeared as if we'd have to freeze and dither for a while longer until a black cab came back. Gilly had looked as if she would have a stroke when I mentioned the word, 'mini-cab" as a suggestion.
"Marco, can I offer you and your friends a ride?" Bullet-head's voice made me jump. He emerged from the shadows inside the club doorway and stood behind us.
"I...that's very kind of you," I began. Riding anywhere in a car with this man sounded decidedly unappealing to me. "But I...I'm sure--"
He cut short my protest with a raise of his leather-gloved hand. "I insist. I'll have my driver bring the car around. I have some business to attend to here. He'll drop you wherever you need to go."
Gilly's face lit up at the mention of a personal driver and a few seconds after Bullet-head had spoken into his mobile, a sleek black Mercedes pulled up at the curb.
"Thank you very much." Gilly beamed.
Bullet-head opened the rear door for us, while Marco got in the front next to the driver.
"Not at all. For my friend Marco, it is a pleasure. You, too, Emma."
Bullet-head smiled at me as I climbed in and I wondered why his remembrance of my name sent a shiver down my spine.
* * * *
The car glided off into the traffic and Rob gave the chauffeur (also without a neck) Gilly's address. The plan was to drop Gilly off first, then Rob, and finally me and Marco.
It took me a few minutes to work out why the back seat of such a large car felt so cramped. Gilly had tried to cozy up to Rob, who sat in the middle, and he in turn had attempted to put some space between them. I ended up squished against the door.
"This is very kind of your friend, Marco." Gilly didn't seem to have any qualms about accepting a lift from a complete stranger. Not even one who looked like a budget version of a Bond villain. She snuggled in closer to Rob.
Luckily for him, Gilly's home wasn't far from the club. We watched from the car as she tottered up the stone steps to her front door, clinging on to the wrought iron handrail as she went.
"I'll call you!" She opened the front door and waved us off, blowing exaggerated kisses in Rob's direction.
The car moved off again. Rob sank back against the luxurious leather upholstery with a sigh of relief. I gave him a sharp dig in the ribs to encourage him to move over now that Gilly had gone.
"Sorry, Em." He shifted across a fraction and, at last, I could ease my cramped leg away from the door.
"Thanks for the rescue tonight," he murmured in my ear, his breath warm on my face. His arm brushed against mine and the length of his thigh pressed against me.
"That's okay." His proximity had a sensually disturbing quality and I felt a bit guilty, as if I'd done something naughty. Tiredness does strange things to the brain, I guess.
The car stopped again, this time outside the large, modern block of flats where Rob lived.
"Well, this is me. Thanks again, Em" He kissed my cheek and jumped out.
I expected Marco to get out ready to come and sit in the back with me, but he didn't. Instead he stayed in the front passenger seat next to the driver. Their heads were together as they talked in low voices and I couldn't quite hear properly. The chauffeur's eyes met mine in the rear view mirror and he turned the radio on.
By the time he dropped us off outside the flat I could hardly keep my eyes open. There were a lot of things I wanted to say to Marco--none of them very complimentary--but sleep had to be my priority.
I set the alarm on my mobile and fell into bed without removing my make-up. The mattress dipped as Marco slid in next to me and began to snore.
Things to do:
Wake up in time for work.
Find out who Mr. Bullet-head is.
Work out why I feel like I've come home with the wrong man.
No, scrap the last one, that couldn't be right. I loved Marco. Didn't I?
By the time the alarm sounded, all too soon, my head buzzed. I couldn't figure out where I was at first as my mascara had welded my eyes shut. My reflection in the bathroom mirror wasn't a pretty sight. I resembled Morticia Addams' twin sister on a bad hair day.
Marco didn't stir; I don't think he even heard the alarm. Car or no car, it looked as if I still had to get the tube into work every day.
I met Toby as he collected his bike from the shared hallway on my way out of the flat.
"Ooh, you look a bit rough today, Emma. We heard you come back last night...or should I say this morning." He gave me a wink.
"Yeah, we went clubbing. Got back later than we'd planned." I didn't feel in the mood to launch into a big explanation.
Toby opened the front door and wheeled his bike outside. "I like the new car, very flashy. It looks as if things might look up for you now that Marco's here."
I pulled the door shut behind us. Toby straddled his bike and began to fasten the helmet buckle under his chin. He fancied himself in his cycling clothes, always wearing tight Lycra shorts and a nifty little black helmet. He changed into a suit when he got to work.
"Maybe," I said.
Toby stopped fiddling with his chinstrap and looked at me. "Trouble in paradise already?"
"No, not really. I'm tired this morning, that's all. I'll be fine once I've had some more coffee."
I shouldn't have said anything. Toby would be bound to tell Steven and they would want to spend hours discussing my problems. They'd come up with more and more outrageous solutions until I chucked them both out of my flat.
"Well, we're here for you, Em. Although I wouldn't kick Marco out of my bed in a hurry." He grinned and wriggled his eyebrows suggestively.
"Thank you for that note of support, Dear Deirdre. I'll bear it in mind." I gave him a gentle push and he wobbled off down the path, laughing.
I arrived late at work. Fortunately, so did Rob, and there was no sign of Mr. G. It was a good thing, because we were fifteen minutes late lifting the shutters. I heard the phone before we finished switching off the alarm and opened the door.
"Hello, Pack and Go. This is Emma."
"Emma, thank goodness. You haven't seen Fiona, have you?" Mummy sounded panicky.
"Not since we were all at yours. I spoke to her yesterday though, and she sounded fine. Why? What's the matter?" It wasn't like Mummy to flap, so something had to be wrong.
"I'm probably being silly, but she went out last night and didn't come home. I thought she might have gone back to her own place but her housemates haven't seen her."
"Have you tried her mobile?" My brain didn't function well enough to deal with a crisis first thing in the morning, and we ought to try the obvious things first.
"It was the first thing I did, but it's switched off. I called Sara in case Fiona had gone there, but they haven't seen her either."
"What's the matter?" Rob mouthed at me from across the shop.
I covered the mouthpiece with my hand. "Mummy says Fiona didn't come home last night."
It wasn't like Fiona not to let anyone know where she was.
"You don't think she's done anything silly, do you?" my mother fretted.
"Oh, Mummy! She seemed fine yesterday at teatime." At least, I thought Fiona had sounded okay. "Did she say where she was going when she left?"
"All she said was that she had to pop out and not to wait up for her."
"Well, then, I expect she's gone to see a friend somewhere, stayed later than she thought and slept over. She'll phone soon or come home." That must be the most likely explanation.
"You don't think I should ring around to the hospitals?" I re-evaluated my opinion of Mummy not being a flapper. Now I knew where I'd inherited my talent for melodrama.
"Give her until lunch time. We'd feel silly if she strolled in this afternoon and we'd reported her missing." I managed to reassure Mummy a bit more until she rang off.
As I put the phone back down, I wondered if I'd done the right thing. Suppose Fi was lost or missing. Visions of me and Mummy appearing on Crimewatch clutching a picture of Fiona flashed through my mind.
"Where do you think she's gone?" Rob looked worried.
"I don't know. I can see why Mummy's upset though. It's odd, Fi's phone being off."
The shop door opened and some customers walked in, so we didn't get a chance to talk any more. Every time the phone rang, I expected it to be Fiona. Or Mummy to say she'd heard from Fiona.
By the time twelve o'clock rolled around, I had begun to contemplate phoning the hospitals myself when the shop door opened again and my prodigal sister meandered in.
"Where have you been? Mummy's been worried about you." I kept my voice low to avoid scaring off a prospective customer who had filled her arms with skiing brochures from the rack.
Irritatingly, Fiona looked her usual, immaculate self which was pretty bloody annoying considering I'd tortured myself all morning with images of her floating Ophelia-like down the Thames.
"Oh, honestly, I only went out for a drink with a friend," she said. "You know what it's like when you get talking. It got late, so I stayed over."
"Mm-hm." I knew there was something she wasn't telling me. "You could have phoned."
Fiona tossed her shiny blonde hair. "You're turning into Mummy! The battery's down on my phone and I forgot."
"What do you want, anyway? You never usually come to see me at work."
"A little bird told me that you and Marco intend to go to Spain with Rob and Gilly on the Foundation trip."
It must be a little bird with a flipping big beak if Fi had heard that, especially as Mummy had posted her missing to all and sundry since before nine o'clock this morning.
"Who told you?"
Fiona looked smug. "Let's say I have my sources. Anyway, I want to go, too. I've got all the details in my bag about the flight and hotel."
"You'd better give them to Rob. He's organizing our booking."
Rob had finished sorting out the ski customer, so Fi tootled across the shop to see him.
I rang Mummy to let her know she could call off the search. Fi made herself at home in front of Rob's console and pointed out something on the wad of papers she'd pulled from her handbag.
There wasn't time to go over and see what she intended to arrange as more customers started to arrive thick and fast. The rush didn't die down until it was time to lock up and then we virtually had to turn the lights off on the last customer in the shop to get him to go home.
I decided to pop in to see Sara and baby Jessie on my way home. I'd felt a bit mean ever since I'd snapped at Sara on the phone the other day. Sara's been one of my closest friends since we were at junior school together and I never liked it when we argued.
I heard Jessie crying even before the front door opened. Sara looked tired. Dark circles were under her eyes and she looked skinnier than ever.
"Are you okay, Sar?" I asked.
"Jessie's teething again. She's got five now and I'm not getting much sleep," she said dully and led the way into the lounge.
Jessie sat in her high chair drawing yogurt patterns on the plastic tray with her podgy little fingers.
"Hello, Jessie bear. It's Auntie Em."
Jessie peered at me and flashed me a smile before resuming her yogurt art.
"That's all she'll eat at the moment, yogurt." Sara sighed and extracted the empty pot from Jessie's fingers before she cleaned them with a wipe and lifted the baby out of the chair.
It wasn't like Sara to be so down, even when she was tired.
She handed Jessie over for me to cuddle while she put a kettle on. Jessie grinned toothily at me and dribbled on my jacket.
"Is everything alright between you and Shay?" I disentangled Jessie from her attempts to strangle me with my necklace.
"Yes, fine. Why wouldn't it be?" Sara bumped the mugs of tea down onto the mantelpiece out of Jessie's reach.
"Nothing, it's just that you don't seem very happy." Talk about walking on eggshells.
Sara slumped into an armchair and burst into tears. "Oh, Em, it's Shay. I think he's got someone else." She fished around in the pocket of her cardigan for a tissue and blew her nose.
"Sar, he wouldn't. Shay loves you. What makes you think there's someone else?"
Sara sniffed and grabbed the tissue box off the shelf. "He's being so secretive and a couple of times he's lied to me about where he's been."
"But that doesn't have to mean there's someone else. What did he say when you asked him about it?"
"Nothing." She blew her nose hard on a tissue.
"What do you mean nothing? He must have said something."
Jessie gurgled happily on my lap and tried to bite the leather strap on my handbag.
"I didn't ask him," Sara said.
"I saw him with her. Mum had Jessie for me so I decided to treat myself to a Starbucks. I was sitting in the window when they walked past together."
"And you're sure of what you saw?" I couldn't believe it. Of all the couples I knew, Sara and Shay were the last two people in the world I could envisage as having problems.
"Of course, I'm sure!" Sara snapped, and then let out a despondent wail. "Emma, what am I going to do?"
I rescued my handbag from Jessie and gave her one of the squeaky toys littering the laminate floor of Sara's lounge.
"Talk to him. What else can you do?"
"Suppose he wants to leave me. What about Jessie?" Sara pulled a fresh handful of tissues from the box.
"Don't jump to conclusions, Sar. First you need to know where you stand." I'd want to know, if it was me.
"I could ignore it and wait for it to blow over." Sara hiccupped and dabbed at the remains of mascara on her cheeks.
"If Shay has got someone else, you can't just ignore it."
Sara rounded on me, causing Jessie to look up from her game, a pout on her little lips. "Why not? It's probably my fault. I mean look at me, he probably doesn't fancy me anymore."
Since Sara is incredibly slim, blonde and, when not completely knackered from lack of sleep, drop dead pretty, I found this a hard line to swallow. "That's ridiculous."
"No, it's not. You should have seen her, Em. She had a gorgeous suit on and her hair was all done. I look like a charity shop reject compared to her."
I didn't answer for a minute. In a way, she was right. Money has been tight for her since Jessie'd been born and I couldn't remember the last time we'd shopped for something for Sara. All her money went on Jessie.
Then it hit me--Marco had put oodles of money in our new joint account. I could use some of it to treat Sara. After all, he'd said it was to pay me back for the money he'd taken from me when we got married, so really, it was my money too.
"I still think you should talk to him."
"Like you did with Marco before you left him in Antigua and came back to England?"
Maybe she had a point. I'd made a proper hash of that. Although things seemed to have worked out now, if I'd adopted Sara's head-in-the-sand ostrich attitude, who knew what would have happened.
"It's my day off tomorrow," I said, "Ask your mum if she'll have Jessie and we'll go shopping, my treat."
Sara looked doubtful.
"It'll be fun! You'll feel better if nothing else. Marco's paid me back with interest on the money he borrowed so why can't I treat my best friend if I want too?"
"Okay, I'll ask Mum to watch Jessie."
Jessie beamed up at us while dribble ran down her chin and onto her bib. How could Shay even think of seeing another woman when he had a beautiful baby and a great girlfriend at home?
Marco was out when I got back. He'd left the bed unmade and a heap of wet towels lay dumped in the bathroom. I wondered how long he would be. The fridge was almost empty and I'm not one of those people who can create the perfect fluffy omelette from a nub of stale cheese and an egg.
At least now that Fiona's wedding had been called off, I didn't have to watch the calories. Although, if we did go to Spain in a few weeks maybe I should try to lose a few pounds. With Fiona and Gilly strutting around all slim and glamorous in little micro bikinis I would feel like Miss Piggy.
Things to Do:
Start an immediate diet.
Buy a new bikini.
Pray that Gilly and Fi retain five pounds in water from the flight while I miraculously lose five.
I abandoned my half-formed plan to dial for a pizza and poured myself a bowl of cornflakes. I added a note to pick up a weeks supply of SlimFast when I went shopping tomorrow.
I clicked the telly on as I changed into my pajamas. I only half-paid attention to the news program that had started. By the time I'd stuck the dirty towels in the washing machine and sat down with my cornflakes, I'd missed the weather.
I heard Marco's key in the front door just as I shovelled an extra large spoonful of cornflakes into my mouth. Intent on catching up on the soaps, I was completely unprepared for Marco to walk in followed by Mr. Bullet-head.
To his credit, Mr. Bullet-head appeared unfazed by the state of the flat and the sight of me in my pink Minnie Mouse pj's. Which was a damn sight more than I was at seeing him; I shot off the sofa and into the bedroom, grabbing my dressing gown. I made a mental vow to kill Marco as I went.
I peered through the crack of the open bedroom door into the lounge and shrugged my robe on as fast as I could.
Mr. Bullet-head appeared to be in high good humor. He slapped Marco on the shoulder and shook his hand. He stowed something in his jacket pocket and I caught murmurs of "a good deal" and "plan can go right ahead."
"Emma, delightful to meet you again." Mr. Bullet-head smiled at me, revealing a gold tooth, as I rejoined them.
"Excuse the state of the flat. Marco didn't tell me we expected company."
"No problem, Emma. I'm sorry I disturbed your supper."
My cheeks burnt as I tried to nudge my bowl of soggy cornflakes out of sight with my foot. Marco steered Mr. Bullet-head towards the door. This must be intended as a flying visit.
"Goodbye, Emma." Mr. Bullet-head smiled at me again. He nodded at Marco, "I'll be in touch about the shipping."
He walked off down the path to the Mercedes which waited for him at the curb, the engine running. I bided my time until Marco had closed the door.
"Right, who exactly is that man?" I demanded, planting my hands on my hips. "And what kind of business is he in?"
* * * *
"Everton is an old friend from home," Marco said. "He dabbles in all kinds of business, import and export. He owns a couple of bars and some nightclubs." He shrugged as if it was no big deal.
I tried to get my head around the idea Mr. Bullet-head's first name was Everton.
Marco strolled back into the hall and headed for the kitchen. "Everton was very taken with you last night, babe."
Ordinarily I'd be flattered, but the thought of Everton Bullet-head finding me attractive gave me the creeps. Marco reached into the fridge for one of his cans of iced tea.
"Marco, you'd tell me if you were involved in anything really dodgy, wouldn't you?" I asked.
Marco took a swig from his can. "Babe, everything's cool."
Should I ask about the contents of the bag? Oh, hell, I had to know. "You wouldn't get involved with drugs or anything?"
Marco's eyes narrowed. "Hey, what's with the questions? You know I do some Ganja." He stroked my cheek with his finger. "You worry too much, babe. Maybe you should try some."
I gritted my teeth. "Are you doing any work for Everton?"
Marco put down his drink and took me in his arms. "He's an old friend, babe. Trust me."
And as he slid his hand under my dressing gown to stroke my breast, I did. It was later when Marco lay peacefully asleep beside me that I realized he hadn't answered my question about working for Everton.
* * * *
I had arranged to meet Sara at her flat quite early so we could go shopping. Marco sat up in bed, propped against the headboard with his hands behind his head and watched me as I dressed.
"I hate it when you stare at me while I'm dressing." It made me aware of all the things that were wrong with my figure.
"You're sexy, babe. Have a good time shopping," he said, as I put on my lipstick.
I saw his reflection smile at me in the mirror. "Do you fancy going out for dinner tonight?"
"Okay, it would be nice to go out."
The diet could wait one more day, and anyway, sex is supposed to burn lots of calories so I must have lost loads of weight last night.
I left Marco in bed, dodging out of his reach when he tried to entice me back under the covers for a quickie. He said he planned to visit some premises which might offer some scope for a business. I would have pressed him for details but I'd promised Sara I'd be on time.
In the end, I was only fifteen minutes late, quite good for me. Sara had her coat on ready and waiting to go. Her mum sat in the kitchen feeding Jessie her breakfast.
"Shay's in bed. He did a gig last night." Sara whispered and picked up her handbag.
"Humph! It's about time he packed that nonsense in and got a proper job," Sara's mum remarked as she spooned cereal into Jessie's open mouth. "It was all very well before you had the baby but he needs to realize he's got responsibilities now."
Normally Sara would leap in to defend Shay, but this time she bit her lip and said nothing. I thought it best if we left as quickly as possible. Sara and her mum have a very volatile relationship; if Sara said something was black, then her mum would immediately argue it was white.
"Thank God you turned up when you did." Sara banged the front door shut behind us with considerable force. I didn't comment. I wasn't sure who Sara felt most angry with, her mum or Shay.
By the time we stopped for a slice of Sara's favorite Rocky Road cake and a latte at Starbucks, we'd acquired several carrier bags and Sara looked more like her old self. I had to admit it was really enjoyable spending Marco's money. I suppose in reality, it was my money with lots of interest, but it still felt more like a lottery win.
"How's married life shaping up?" Sara took a contented bite out of her cake.
"Okay, I think. It's strange having Marco in the flat. It's strange Marco being here." I told her about Everton and the trip to Spain.
Sara nodded and her ponytail bounced up and down as she dropped crumbs onto the tabletop. "I never thought you'd have Marco back after the way he treated you. I guess now the shoe's on the other foot." She put down her cake as if her appetite had disappeared.
"Have you thought about what you're going to do?" I hoped she'd changed her mind and planned to talk to Shay.
"I've thought about nothing else." She frowned. "I don't know what to do."
I tried to think of something helpful to say, but before I had a chance to speak, Sara leant forward with a glint in her eye.
"Emma, there's Fiona! Who's she with?" She nudged me and pointed toward a table on the far side of the coffee shop.
I didn't have as good a good view as Sara, so I shuffled around on my chair. By leaning backwards as if reaching for something from my bag, I managed to get a glimpse.
Fiona had her best coat on, one I longed to be slim enough to borrow. I didn't recognize the man with her. Smartly dressed with a strong and distinguished face, he looked at least twenty years older. Since his hand was on hers and stroking her fingers, it certainly wasn't a business meeting.
"Well, who is he?" Sara asked, gawking for all she was worth.
"I don't know. He does look familiar though." The longer I looked, the more certain I became that I'd seen him before, though I couldn't think where.
"Let's go over." Sara picked up her mug and swallowed the last of her latte. "Come on!" She gathered up the bags and grabbed my arm to hurry me along.
Fiona's eyes widened with dismay when she spotted us heading toward her. She untwined her fingers from those of her companion. "Sara, Emma, what are you doing here?"
Her man friend broke off from whatever he'd been saying to stand up politely. He was very good looking, just a little, well...old.
"We've been shopping. It's Emma's day off." Sara gave Fiona's friend a pointed look.
"Won't you join us?" The man pulled out the chair next to him. Sara flashed him a beaming smile and sat down.
Fiona's face took on a sucked lemon expression as I took the other vacant seat.
"I'm Sara and this is Fiona's sister, Emma. And you are...?"
"Paul Goddard." He shook Sara's hand then turned to shake hands with me. "I'm delighted to meet you, Emma."
Paul Goddard. I'd heard his name before. I trawled through my memory banks of Fiona's friends and acquaintances, but couldn't find anything certain.
"Paul, would you go and get the girls coffees, please?" Fiona smiled at him and he moved off to obey after he'd asked us what we'd like.
As soon as he'd gone to the counter to get more lattes, Fiona pounced.
"What are you two doing here? You can't stay."
"Oh, really, and why not? What are you up to?" Sara asked and settled onto her seat as if she planned a long visit.
"Got it!" I exclaimed. "I know who he is!"
Fiona and Sara ignored my outburst and carried on bickering. I finally remembered where I knew him from--Paul Goddard was the big cheese of the Crystal Foundation. He'd started it in memory of his wife, after she'd died of cancer ten years ago.
"I'm not up to anything, as you so elegantly put it. Paul and I have a lot to discuss. In private." Fiona glowered at us.
"You look very friendly for people who aren't up to anything. If it's all above board, why are you skulking around in a coffee bar?" Sara challenged.
"Because until a short while ago, I was engaged, and there are people out there who might see Paul and I together and make more of it than there really is," Fiona huffed.
If Sara and I hadn't seen the two of them hold hands, we might have believed her. Paul came back with our coffees. He seemed really nice, but age-wise he's more of a match for Mummy than for Fi. It would be like me dating Mr. G! Urgh, scrub my skull out with carbolic at the thought.
"Have you two known each other long?" Sara was immune to the look Fiona shot her. Years of living with her own mother had helped to give her an incredibly thick skin; so Fi didn't make any headway with her glares.
"We've worked together for a few years now, haven't we Fiona?" Paul smiled at Fi. From the look on his face, he was besotted. Uh-oh, I thought. Rebound romance!
"Oh, you work together." Sara sipped her latte and tried to look innocent.
"Charity work." Fiona struggled to talk through her gritted teeth.
"You're connected with the Crystal Foundation, aren't you?" I felt certain I knew who he was now.
"Yes, Fiona helps us with our fundraising. I'm trying to persuade her to carry on helping us. It would be terrible if we lost her expertise due to the unfortunate business with Niall."
Sara choked on a mouthful of coffee and coughed hard to clear her throat. "Oh, yes, that would be terrible."
"Well, I expect you two have lots more shopping to do." Fiona whisked my mug away and shoved it on an empty table behind us before I'd finished my drink.
"We're not in any..." Sara began.
I kicked her ankle.
"...hurry but then again, there are quite a few more shops we want to go to." Sara glared at me and rubbed her ankle surreptitiously under the table.
It would be better to let Fiona carry on with whatever it was she was up to. No doubt I'd find out all about it in due course when Mummy got wind of it. We gathered up our carrier bags, said goodbye to Fiona and Paul and headed back to the high street.
"Spoilsport," Sara muttered as I dragged her past the display of tiny jeans in Baby Gap's window. Sara had perked right up after running into Fiona. Speculating about my sister's love life had distracted her from thinking about her own.
We finished off our spree with a visit to the nail-bar for a manicure. It felt like the old days before Shay and Marco and Jessie, as I sat alongside Sara, singing to the radio and giggling with the manicurists.
It started to get dark so I said goodbye to Sara and headed for home. I imagined sitting down to a nice cozy dinner with Marco. I wondered where he planned to take me. He'd found his way around the city pretty fast considering he hadn't been in the country long.
It would be nice to spend some quality time alone together. Since he'd arrived, we hadn't had much chance, and when we had, we hadn't bothered to use the time to talk.
I heard Marco on the phone when I let myself into the flat.
"Yeah, it's all cool. Everything's set to go. No probs, man. Yeah, you can trust me."
I dumped my bags down on the sofa and went into the kitchen to get a drink. Marco finished off his conversation and then hung up. "You and Sara have a good time?" he asked me.
"Yes, it was really nice. It's been ages since we went out and had some fun together." I flashed my nails at him. "What do you think?"
I guess nails aren't a man thing. I poured some Coke from the bottle on the worktop. It tasted flat and warm. "So, where are we eating tonight? Do I need to glam up?" Maybe I could wear the nice new top I'd got the other day from Monsoon.
"How does the new Mexican restaurant near Toscini's sound?" Marco grinned and waited for my reaction.
It was rumoured to be wildly expensive and to get a table meant you either had to sleep with the maitre'd or be a blood relative of the cook.
"Have you got a table?" If he had, it called for the new top. Hell, for dinner at the Mexican, I might even wear the torturous shoes again.
I put my glass down so I could give him a hug.
"How long have I got to get ready?"
"Couple of hours. I thought we would go for drinks first." He slipped his arms around my waist. "Everton's sending the car for us at eight."
"Everton? I thought it would just be you and me?" I was glad my face was buried against his chest so he couldn't see my expression. My heart sank--so much for a cosy, romantic evening for two.
"He got us the table. It's just you and me, Everton, and a few of his friends. These are important people, babe. We're with the in-crowd."
If Everton and company were the in-crowd, then God only knows what the out-crowd looked like. I suspect me, Sara, and Rob were part of the on-the-edge-of-the-planet-we-were--so-far-out-crowd.
All the prospective pleasure in the evening fizzled out of me. I felt as flat as the fortnight-old Coke I'd just sipped. Marco continued to talk, oblivious to the sudden rigidity in my spine.
"Tonight is going to be so cool, babe. Everton is really taken with you. He's the kind of guy who, if he likes you, will really help you business-wise." He hugged me again, unable to hide the jubilation in his voice. "You and me are going places, babe. You'll be able to wave good-bye to that travel agent job and we'll be sitting pretty."
Okay, so I'm not the world's greatest travel agent. It certainly isn't top of the great jobs list and Mr. G isn't the best boss. But it's my job and I like working with Rob and the others.
A pile of estate agent leaflets casually dropped in a heap by the phone caught my eye.
"What are those?"
Marco kissed me on the lips and broke off the embrace to snatch up the details. He waved them under my nose.
"I got these today. I thought we could look at some of them tomorrow."
I looked at the leaflets. "These are flat details!" Then I spotted the prices and the locations. "These are expensive flat details!"
"We need to start looking, babe. This place was fine when you were here on your own, but we need somewhere with a bit more space."
I followed his gaze around my lounge, seeing it through his eyes. The old-fashioned, wall-mounted gas fire that popped when you turned it on. The peeling bit of wallpaper in the top left-hand corner by the bay window. The stain on the carpet I'd covered with my Ikea rug.
"It's not that bad." I felt compelled to defend my home.
"You deserve somewhere better than this. Wait until you see some of these places."
He led me to the sofa and started to enthuse about Jacuzzis and kitchens with clean lines. It was hard not to be swept along by Marco's excitement.
Maybe we should look for a new place, I thought. He had a point about space being in short supply since he'd moved in. Not to mention hot water. I swear Marco must have been a cat in a previous life, he spent so much time and care preening himself.
I left him to gloat over the details while I soaked in a blissfully hot bath with a Lush bath bomb and an illicit Galaxy bar. I'd hidden the chocolate in my dressing-gown pocket and forgotten all about it until now. A huge, white penthouse apartment and the life of a lady of leisure had a certain appeal.
But something wasn't right with this picture. Though I didn't like or trust Everton and his cronies, the explanations Marco gave me for the money and his business plans were plausible I suppose. But...
And that was exactly it. But what? Marco had asked me to trust him and I didn't have a definite reason not to. Chocolate crumbs had melted on my boobs, so I popped the remains of the Galaxy bar in my mouth and washed away the evidence with my Hello Kitty wash mitt. Perhaps I could find out more during dinner. If I had to spend time with Everton, I might as well get to know him better. Perhaps his company might grow on me. Then again, so might a wart.
Marco took even longer to get ready than I did. I have to say, though, my husband is a very handsome guy. Six-foot-two of mocha-latte hunk with dark soulful eyes a girl could drown in. I could never figure out what he saw in me. Don't get me wrong. I'm not ugly, but Marco is like Fiona; one of life's golden people, blessed with good looks, personality and charm by the bucketful.
Everton's chauffeur was very prompt. He knocked on the door as I deliberated over whether I should wear the cute shoes with the kitten heels, or the funky lime-coloured wedges I got in the January sales. I went with the kitten heels; for once I put comfort before fashion. My feet were puffy from all the shopping I'd done with Sara.
We followed the chauffeur with no neck down the garden path. I was pretty sure Toby and Steven had seen us leave from upstairs. Everton had remained seated in the back of the car waiting for us, which felt a touch disconcerting. For some reason, I'd imagined he would meet us at the wine bar before we went on to the restaurant.
"Emma, you look lovely, as usual." Everton's gold tooth gleamed in the car's interior light.
"Thank you." I was sandwiched between Marco and our generous host as the car pulled away.
"Marco tells me you and your friends have made arrangements to go to Spain for the weekend."
"Um, yes, there'll be quite a crowd of us. My sister's decided to come too."
"Your friend will be staying on a yacht, Marco said?"
"Only for a day. It was a prize in a charity auction." I wasn't quite sure what Everton found so riveting about all this, unless he had a secret yearning to join the sailing fraternity.
"Who does the yacht belong to?" Marco joined in with the questions.
"I'm not sure. Fiona knows. It's someone who supports the Crystal Foundation. Apparently he's due to sail back to England a few days after the charity date."
Everton and Marco exchanged glances. Maybe Everton had thought of buying a yacht after all. "I've always had an interest in sailing."
Ha ha, I was right!
"Where is the yacht moored normally in England?" Everton asked.
"Salcombe, I think. I only know because Fiona was faffing on about possibly using it to get some extra publicity for the Foundation."
The car slowed to a halt outside Toscini's and the chauffeur jumped out to come around and open the door. Everton climbed out first then extended his hand to help me.
Mother would approve of his manners. He tucked my arm through his while Marco climbed out of the other side of the car. I noticed Everton had a small spider's web tattoo on the back of his hand near the gold strap of his Rolex watch. Marco had a similar design in the same place. He told me once that he'd had it done years ago when he was still at school. Weird coincidence.
* * * *
Marco stayed to talk to the chauffeur as Everton swept me across the road and into Toscini's as if we were minor Hollywood celebrities on a night out.
Everton smelled of Armani. Actually, once I took a closer look, I felt pretty sure the suit was Armani, as well. Toscini's looked just as busy as the last time we'd been there. My escort stood in the doorway with me on his arm as if he was the lord of all he surveyed. I wished Marco would get in and rescue me.
"What do you think of this place, Emma?"
Everton's question caught me off-guard. "It's always very busy." That sounded lame.
"No, I meant what do you think of the setting, the ambience?"
Ambience, not a word I would have thought of from Everton. "Um, well, it's very nice, I suppose. People must like it or it wouldn't be so popular. I wish there were more seats, though."
Everton smiled and displayed his gold tooth more prominently. "People drink faster--and therefore drink more--if they're standing up."
I wasn't sure why he'd asked me about Toscini's, but thankfully Marco came in to join us.
"The others will be at the bar," Everton announced, as if he had x-ray vision and could see right through the densely-packed throng. Marco took my hand and we followed Everton as he cut a path through the crowd.
"What were you saying to Everton?" Marco whispered in my ear.
"He asked me what I thought of Toscini's."
"What did you say?" His tone sharpened.
"I said it needed more chairs." I felt a touch irritated. "Why all the fuss?"
"He owns it." Marco's expression was speculative.
I blinked, stumbling momentarily in surprise. Well, I suppose that explained a lot. I knew some of the business ideas Marco had involved bars or restaurants.
"The club we went to with Rob and Gilly--does he own that too?" Time I found out more about our new friend, Everton.
"Uh-huh, and a whole load of others."
The bartender must have seen us coming, because a bottle of champagne stood freshly-opened in a bucket of ice and a tray full of glasses was at hand.
Three people stood waiting for us, two women and a man. They might have been introduced to me the other night, but I wasn't sure. I didn't recognize any of them.
The man appeared older than Everton and Marco, probably in his early forties, and one of the women looked as if she might be his wife or girlfriend. Gilly would have loved her Jane Birkin handbag. The other woman must have been Everton's date for the evening. She attached herself to his arm as soon as he approached the bar.
The bartender appeared as if by magic He ignored the crowd waiting to be served (which was three deep by now) and poured out the champagne and produced Tapas platters from under the bar.
Everton handed me a glass of champagne as I nibbled at a slice of spicy sausage from the Tapas plate. The two stick-thin women exchanged supercilious glances and just accepted a glass of champagne.
The men were busy chatting so I thought I'd try to talk to the stick insects.
"So, what did you say you did?" I asked Everton's date. I was well aware she hadn't said. But, since I hadn't even caught her name during the introductions, I had to start somewhere.
"I'm a model." She looked very bored.
It explained the anorexic expression, I suppose.
"What about you?" I thought I'd better ask the other one in case she felt left out.
"Sorry?" A vacant look flitted across her face.
"What kind of work do you do?" God, this was hard.
"Oh." She brightened slightly. "Work?" She thought for a minute. "I'm a personal assistant."
Right, and I belong to Mensa. I abandoned my attempts to talk to Dumb and Dumber and carried on tasting different Tapas while half-listening to Marco and Everton's conversation.
"Those are very high in calories. Are you doing Atkins?" Stick Insect stared accusingly at the umpteenth slice of Chorizo, which I was about to pop in my mouth.
Cheeky cow! I stuffed the sausage into my mouth and chewed it quickly. "What diet do you recommend?" The Stick Insect's face lit up and even Einstein looked interested. I'd found their level.
By the time we rolled out of Toscini's and on to the Mexican restaurant, I'd eaten nearly all the Tapas, drunk several glasses of champagne, and knew the pros and cons of every diet on the planet.
I also knew far more than I ever wanted to about colonic irrigation, detox therapy and illegal appetite suppressants. Eating dinner would be fun.
The cold air outside made me feel a bit woozy. Maybe I'd drunk more of the champagne than I thought.
"Hey, careful babe." Marco caught hold of my elbow to steady me as we stepped inside the door.
Stick Insect and Einstein had begun to discuss dress designers by the time we were seated at the table. It felt like being at home with Fiona and Mummy.
The restaurant looked really cool. The interior designer had done a good job. The table area was a cross between minimal industrialist and Aztec temple, while the bar area reminded me of old spaghetti westerns. I half-expected Clint Eastwood to come striding through the service door.
The waiters bought us a tray of margaritas along with the menus. Marco sat on my left and Stick Insect on my right. Marco and Everton continued to talk. Einstein speculated with the Stick Insect on the number of calories in her margarita. I took a swig of my drink and tried to focus on the menu. Putting my glass down, I picked up some bread from the wooden platter in the centre of the table and nibbled it. I needed to soak some alcohol up fast or I would be in trouble later.
"Really, Emma!" Stick Insect frowned at me. She fished in her clutch purse for her mobile phone. "I'll give you my therapist's number. She's marvelous at sorting out eating problems. I mean, I was a size twelve until she took me in hand." She whispered the last remark conspiratorially at me as if she'd confessed something really shameful.
She found the number from her list of contacts, scribbled it down on a napkin and tucked it inside my handbag. Great! I'll add it to my list.
Things to Do:
See a diet therapist. (Not!)
Have a colonic washout. (Yeah, right!)
Never, ever, under any circumstances agree to see these lunatics again.
The food tasted great, which was a good job really. It helped to make up for the company. The scary thing was that, listening to Stick Insect and Einstein swap tips on diets, brands of bottled water and manicurists, I had the feeling that this might be the kind of future Marco envisioned for me.
I know being a travel agent isn't my first choice of career, but at least it's something. Einstein and Stick Insect seemed to be there only to bolster their partners' egos.
I tried to listen in on the men's conversation but it consisted of a lengthy discussion of numbers and figures--boring. Marco and Everton glanced at me occasionally and took turns asking, "Enjoying yourself, Emma?"
I didn't want to upset Everton. I guessed he wasn't the kind of man it would be wise to upset, so I smiled a lot and said, "lovely, thank you" and "great" in the appropriate spaces.
At last, the evening drew to a close. Thankfully, Everton ordered taxis for us so at least we didn't have to take another ride in his car.
"My baby will want his bit of sugar on the way home," Einstein confided with a wink while we were in the loo. Argh, too much information. The thought of Everton Bullet-head getting his leg over with Einstein in the back of the car on his way home made me feel sick. Or maybe it was because margaritas and champagne aren't a good mix. Either way, I felt queasy.
"Don't forget to call my therapist!" Stick Insect called after me as I escaped into the back of the taxi. Since I'd flushed the napkin with the phone number on it down the restaurant loo, the chances of me getting a colonic irrigation or having my poo examined by an 'expert' wasn't great. SlimFast suddenly seemed like an attractive proposition.
"What did I tell you, babe?" Marco said, grinning. "Wasn't that a great night? I'm glad you and the other girls hit it off so well."
"Oh, yeah, they were a bundle of laughs." The sarcastic inflection in my voice appeared to escape him, as he carried on talking at a rate of knots.
"Everton plans to open a new club soon," Marco burbled on, full of enthusiasm.
"Really." Perhaps Einstein and Stick Insect would pole-dance for him. Then again maybe not--you need boobs to be a pole-dancer, or so I'm told.
"...so it's going to be a fantastic opportunity for me," Marco concluded.
I'd missed something. That'll teach me to go off into a daydream when I'm being told something important. I don't think I'd have made much of a career as an international spy. (Which, incidentally, had been one of my top three career choices when I was at school.)
The taxi drew to a halt outside the flat just as Toby and Steven were dropped off by some friends.
"Out late again, Emma? You are such a dirty stop-out!" Steven helped me out of the taxi while Marco sorted out our fare.
"Where was it tonight?" Toby asked as he slipped his arm through Steven's.
"The new Mexican restaurant near Toscini's."
"Oh, my God! It's so hard to get a seat in there." Steven looked envious.
"Isn't that the place owned by that gangster?" Toby asked.
Marco joined us.
"A friend of Marco's owns it." I wasn't surprised people thought Everton must be a gangster; he certainly looked the part.
"Everton's a wealthy and influential man. He has enemies, that's how these crazy rumors start. He's really a kind and generous person, isn't he Emma?" Marco looked to me for confirmation. His eyes flashed with irritation and I sensed the guys had hit a nerve.
"He's very kind to you." I meant to say "to us" but I still felt uneasy about Everton, even if he was an old friend of Marco's.
Marco grinned. "It's best to stamp on these rumors as soon as they start. Everton would be very hurt if he thought people misunderstood him. It wouldn't be wise to hurt his feelings." He opened the door into the communal hall.
Steven and Toby glanced at each other uneasily and started up the stairs.
"Night!" I called after them, but they'd let themselves into their flat and didn't hear me.
"Funny how rumors start, isn't it?" My imagination ran away with me again. Everton couldn't really be a gangster. Could he? Oh, God, all my doubts about Marco's involvement with him bubbled back up.
"Yeah, funny." Marco disappeared into the bathroom.
Well, thank you, Mr. Reassurance I thought. I dropped my bag on the sofa and went to get a drink of water from the kitchen. My head had already started to ache from the drinks.
"Marco, have you seen the aspirin?" I opened the kitchen drawers and started to rummage through them. Heaven only knows where I'd left the spare headache tablets; Toby had borrowed the last of the ones I kept in the bathroom when he'd accidentally bumped his head walking into a cupboard door that Steven had left open.
Marco's passport lay at the back of the junk drawer. I had a quick peek for a giggle; passport photos are always good for a laugh. As was typical, Marco still managed to look good even on his passport. Ratbag! I look like Ozzy Osbourne on mine.
I was about to close it to put it back in the drawer when I noticed they'd made a mistake with Marco's name.
"What are you doing with that?" Marco snapped, as he reached over and snatched the passport from my hand. I hadn't heard him come back in from the bathroom.
"I was looking for the aspirin."
"Well, don't mess with my stuff." He looked cross and a shiver ran up my spine.
"It's only your passport. It's not as if I was going to lose it. Anyway, how come your name's wrong?"
Marco paused for a second. "It's not wrong. It's just how they printed it; they put my middle name first, that's all." He stuffed the passport back in the drawer. "Come on, babe, let's go to bed."
He clicked off the lights and led the way to the bedroom. Too tired to debate any further, I followed him. I wasn't happy with his answer, but if I didn't get to bed, I'd fall asleep in the kitchen.
My eyes didn't feel as if they'd been shut for more than a few minutes when I heard the phone ring. I tucked the duvet over my head and shuffled further down the bed to bury my head in the pillows.
Through the wadding, I heard Marco answer the phone and start talking to somebody. A minute later he snapped on the bedside lamp. I screwed up my eyes against the light flooding the room.
"What are you doing?" Ugh, my voice wasn't working properly and my tongue felt fuzzy.
"Its okay. Go back to sleep, babe." He scribbled notes onto a little pad as I disentangled myself from the quilt to peer blearily in his direction.
"What time is it?"
Marco ignored me and carried on scribbling. I groped around on the bedside cabinet until I found my wrist watch. Squinting at the dial, I realized it was five-thirty. Who knew there were two five-thirty's in a day?
Marco jumped out of bed and shrugged into his jeans.
"What are you doing?" I asked. "Where are you going?"
He tucked the phone under his chin, still listening to whoever was on the other end. "It's okay, go back to sleep."
By now of course, sleep was a distant memory. "Who are you talking to?"
Exasperated, he glared at me before throwing on his shirt. "It's Everton." He resumed his phone conversation while he hunted for his shoes. "Yeah, it's cool. I've got it covered." Finally he hung up.
"Well?" I wasn't very pleased at being woken up at the crack of dawn. Didn't Everton ever sleep like a normal person?
"I've got to go out babe; Everton wants me to do a favor for him." He slipped his shoes on and grabbed his jacket from the chair at the end of the bed.
"What kind of favor? Where are you going?" God, Everton only has to say "jump" and Marco says "how high?"
He leaned over to kiss me on the lips. "I'll only be an hour, then later this morning, we'll go and look at some of those flats."
With that, he went. I heard the door of the flat close and the communal door bang shut. Then the BMW engine started up and roared away.
Frustrated, I gave the pillows a thump and settled back to sulk. What had Princess Diana once said? Something about there being three people in her marriage? I knew how she felt.
I was thoroughly awake by now, so the chance of a nice, long, lazy lie-in had gone. Marco's flight bag, the one that had held the mysterious packages lay empty and bundled up in the corner. I never had found out what was inside.
I hesitated for a good ten seconds before I jumped out of bed to start rummaging in the wardrobe and chest of drawers. Okay, I did feel a little twinge of guilt. After all, Marco had asked me to trust him yet here I was ferreting around in his possessions. What on earth I thought I would find, I really couldn't say. Not that it made any difference, because I didn't find anything other than Marco's clothes. No mystery parcels, no secret stash of anything more interesting than several new pairs of Armani briefs.
I decided to give up and treat myself to a big bowl of Coco Pops. Feeling better for a sugar boost, I snuggled into the corner of the sofa and flicked through the T.V. channels. Kid's cartoon, stock market update, a political discussion, and breakfast news talking about a gangland shooting. I turned it off, not interested by any of it.
I leafed through the flat details Marco had left out. If any of them involved living near Everton, Einstein or Stick Insect, they were a no.
The phone rang and I dived on it, expecting it to be Marco telling me he was on his way back. Instead it was Mummy.
"Hello darling, are you alright?" This was odd; my mother never rings me this early in the morning when she knows it's my day off, especially not to ask me about my health.
"Fine, Mummy. Why wouldn't I be?"
"No reason, I was just asking. How's Marco?"
"He's fine, too."
"You're up early."
Blimey, what was this? Twenty questions? "Marco had to go out; his friend needed a favour."
"Is everything okay between you two, Emma?"
Uh, oh, now what was coming? "Fine, Mum."
"You would tell me, wouldn't you if anything was wrong?" She sounded anxious.
"Mummy, everything is great. We're going out later to look at some flats together because we need somewhere a bit bigger now we're back together." I tried to make my voice sound as reassuring as possible. Mummy would be the last person I'd ever tell if it all did go pear-shaped with me and Marco.
Normally I wouldn't have said anything about the flat hunting, either, because knowing Mummy, she might insist on coming with us.
"Oh, well, that's nice." She didn't sound very convinced. "You will make sure it's a nice neighborhood darling, won't you? I mean, it's on the news about that terrible shooting near Toscini's early this morning."
"Near Toscini's? We were only there last night." I hadn't realized the news footage I'd flicked through earlier had been of Toscini's.
"See what I mean? And that place always looks so respectable. Some quite nice people go there."
I had to admit, an icy chill ran through me when I thought about it. Although by the time the evening news came on tonight it would probably turn out to be some kind of domestic incident or a nutter with a firearm fetish. Not a thought that gave me much comfort, but better than the other thoughts I had.
"How's Fiona?" I changed the subject to do some fishing of my own. I wondered if Mummy had got wind of Fi's new man yet.
"She's gone back to her own flat. Niall's been phoning after her, and I told him where to get off." Mummy sounded quite indignant.
"I don't suppose he's very pleased about having to pay a pawnbroker to reclaim Fi's ring." Not that I had much sympathy for Niall. He'd made his bed and all that.
Mummy snorted. "That man treated your sister very badly. I don't know if she'll ever get over it."
Hmm. So Mummy didn't know about Fiona's new sugar daddy. That wasn't like Fi at all. I mean, she might keep a thing or two from me, but from Mummy? Never, or so I would have thought, and yet apparently she had. Why? I wondered.
* * * *
After Mummy rang off, I decided to dress up ready for the great flat hunt. I mean, if I did go with Marco to look around all these posh apartments, I'd better try to look the part.
I almost weighed myself while I was still in my bra and knickers but after the conversation last night, thought better of it. If it wasn't for the fact that I loved food so much, I'd be tempted to become anorexic after listening to Stick Insect and Einstein.
By the time I finished my third cup of coffee, my head had begun to buzz and there was still no sign of Marco. Half of my precious day off had gone, and I still sat there like a lemon, all dressed up with no place to go.
I had decided to give up and go out to get some groceries and SlimFast when Marco rang. It was difficult to hear him; the reception was dreadful and his voice kept breaking up.
"Emma, I won't be back until late."
At least, I thought he said until late; he might have said until eight.
"Where are you?"
"...hospital...accident, Everton asked me to take someone over..." The phone went dead.
Great, now I would spend the rest of the day worrying. Who'd been in an accident? I wondered uneasily if this was connected in some way with the shooting Mummy had mentioned, but Marco had definitely said an accident.
My breakfast of Coco Pops had worn off and my stomach rumbled. I couldn't put off the grocery shopping any longer, so I trolled off down the road to the local shop.
Mr. Vassilanas's shop used to be your bog-standard newsagent-corner store, but last year his sons had persuaded him to buy and extend into the old cake shop next door. The whole place is now called Value Shoppe and the prices have gone up.
It's not much different otherwise, except it plays canned muzak instead of Radio Two and Mr. Vassilanas has his daughter-in-law, Vera, in a blue apron as his assistant.
I shoved a loaf and some Pot Noodles into a basket, as Value Shoppe didn't appear to carry SlimFast. Turning the corner by the bottles of Diet Coke and the Pringle tubs, I walked slap bang into Rob.
"What are you doing here?" Value Shoppe was a bit out of Rob's way and he looked shifty.
He raked his hand through his hair so it stuck up in cute little tufts along the front. "I was on my way to your house. Your mum rang me early this morning. She sounded worried about you. I promised her I'd look in on you."
I wish my mother would remember sometimes that I'm a twenty-four-year-old married woman.
"You're a bit dressed up for Value Shoppe," Rob observed. "Are you off somewhere?"
I'd forgotten I had on my best designer jeans and suede jacket. "I was supposed to go out with Marco to look at flats but he got a phone call to run an errand for Everton."
"Well, it seems a shame to waste a good outfit." He grinned. "Fancy going out for lunch?"
It had been ages since Rob and I had spent any time together, just the two of us messing about. I knew that since Marco's arrival, Rob had felt a bit awkward. Which was silly really, because Rob's been my friend for years and you'd think he'd know better.
I paid for my groceries and Rob put them in the back of his car.
"Where are we going?"
Rob didn't reply for a second. His attention was focussed on the traffic behind us. "That's weird, I could have sworn..." He shook his head. "Never mind. How about that pub down by the river where we went last year?"
"Fine, it's nice there."
We drove along in a companionable silence for a while. The car roof appeared to be fixed, so even though the heater didn't work, I wasn't as cold as I'd been the last time I'd had a ride in Rob's pride and joy.
"Your mum was worried in case you'd been in Toscini's--you know, when the shooting happened." Rob threw me a quick sideways glance.
"We were there earlier last night but then we went on to the Mexican. We must have been at home for a while when it happened. Why would she think I'd be mixed up in that?"
Rob pulled into the pub car park. "I'm not sure. I think she's concerned about you. And Marco's friend, the one that gave us a ride home the other night, he's got quite a reputation." Rob switched off the engine. "The last news bulletin on the radio said they thought the shooting was drug-related."
"You think Everton's a drug dealer?" Oh, my God! A gangster and a drug dealer, and Marco's out there somewhere doing favors for him! Is Marco involved? Oh, my God, the packages in the hold-all!
Rob looked concerned. "I don't know, Em. You know how rumors start and he does look the part..."
I think he realized he'd scared me, because he changed the subject and opened his door.
"Come on, let's go and get something to eat."
I climbed out of Rob's car with my mind whirring over the implications of what he'd said. Rob halted mid-stride to look around the car park.
"What's wrong?" I looked around too; though God knows what or who it was I was supposed to be looking for.
"I don't know. Paranoia. I keep feeling as if we're being followed."
"Probably Mummy, making sure I don't get kidnapped by the white slave trade."
Rob smiled and slipped his arm around my shoulders to walk me into the pub. I needed a hug. I would usually crack a joke, but I didn't feel much like laughing as we went inside.
The lunchtime rush had died down so we managed to grab a good table. We'd been here a few times before with Sara and Shay. Usually, in the middle of the week, it was full of pensioners, but we didn't mind as the place was pretty and the food good.
I waited until the waitress cleared away the dirty plates from the people who'd sat there before us. Once she'd gone to the bar to fetch our drink order, I asked Rob the question niggling away in my mind.
"Do you and Mummy think Marco is involved in something shady?"
Rob fiddled with his knife, turning it over and over on the table. "I don't know. You know him better than anybody, Em. You've met his friends." He looked up, his eyes serious. "Have you talked to him about them?"
It was like my conversation with Sara bounced right back at me. The waitress returned with our drinks and menus. As soon as she headed back to the kitchen with our orders, we resumed our conversation.
I felt disloyal, talking about Marco like this, but all the talk of gangsters and drug dealers had unnerved me. "Marco doesn't tend to say much about his connections with Everton. They've been friends for years, though."
"Really?" Rob sounded surprised.
I nodded. "It's quite cute. They were friends together at school. They have the same tattoo on their hand by their wrist."
"I think they had them done when they were young. It's a little spider's web near their watch straps. Marco has an empty web but Everton's has a creepy black spider on it."
Rob shuffled on his seat.
"Are you alright?"
"Emma, you do know what those kind of tattoos usually mean, don't you?"
Um, well, apparently not. Color me clueless but I didn't know what he meant. A tattoo's a tattoo; all the celebs have them.
"Tattoos like that usually mean the person wearing them belongs to a gang," Rob said.
I didn't think he meant the Bash Street kids. Okay, so my husband was in, or had been in a gang. I took a deep breath. It wasn't that unusual, so it didn't have to mean anything bad.
"Look, forget I said anything," Rob said. "I'm sure you're right. It may have been something from when they were kids. Everton's probably perfectly respectable. He might just be trading on the past." Rob still looked uncomfortable and I don't think he believed a word of what he'd just said.
I didn't want to think too much about it. I was sick of thinking and second guessing what Marco might or might not be doing. The implications of Marco being in a gang were too scary to think about. I needed to talk about something else.
I fished around for a change of subject. Some friend I was to Rob; I'd been so busy with my own concerns, I hadn't once asked him about his life. I wondered if Fiona had told him she had found someone new.
"Enough about me," I said. "I can't think about all that now. What about you? How are things?"
"I'm fine. I still can't shake Gilly, though. She keeps popping up everywhere I go. It's beginning to freak me out. I know I have to keep her sweet until we've been to Spain, but I don't know if I can do it. I'm so glad you guys are coming with us."
The waitress returned with our meals and we stopped talking for a few minutes while we dug into our lasagne and chips.
"Did Greenback make much fuss about us both being off on the same weekend?" It shouldn't make any difference. We overlapped one day off a week anyway and Rob was deputy manager. I, on the other hand, was definitely never likely to make it any higher than my current lowly position of agency junior.
"No more than usual. He's still seeing your mum. Esme has decided she's found her true vocation in the Scottish Highlands and wants him to divorce her as soon as possible." Rob grinned at the sour expression on my face.
"I emailed Dad to tell him about Marco. I tried phoning, but there's a message on the machine saying he's on vacation. I expect he'll be in touch when he gets back."
Rob didn't say anything. He didn't need to. We both knew my dad was only interested in anything Fi or I did if he thought it would cost him money.
"Mummy hasn't said much about seeing Mr. G. Do you think it's serious?"
Rob had emptied his plate and stole some chips off mine. "Don't know. If he does divorce Esme, it might affect our jobs, though."
"How?" I couldn't think of any way it would affect me unless he proposed to Mummy. What a thought: Mr. G as my boss and my step-dad. I bet even then, I still wouldn't be promoted.
"He'd have to give Esme half the agencies as part of a settlement. I doubt if he could afford to buy her out." Rob stole another chip.
I smacked his hand away from my plate. "Leave me some chips! Esme wouldn't want the shops anyway."
"I'm doing you a favor--you keep saying you want to lose weight! And she wouldn't want the shops, but she would want the money." He leaned back in his chair and grinned, having just speared my last three chips with his fork.
"Rob! I said--!"
"Oh, shit!" The grin evaporated from his face. He sat bolt upright in his chair, ready to run at any moment as Gilly's voice rang out across the pub.
Sure enough, she headed toward us on her trademark high heels with her little dog peeking out of her handbag. Reaching our table, she sat down uninvited on the empty seat next to Rob and beamed at us.
"I drove past and saw your car in the lot," she said. "Wasn't that lucky?"
"Quite a coincidence," Rob muttered into the remains of his lager.
"I'm glad I've seen you, Emma," Gilly said, turning to me.
I almost fell off my seat.
"Rob tells me everything is booked for Spain. We're looking forward to having you and Marco join us for a short while. But you will remember the date on the yacht is just for two, won't you?" She slid her hand along Rob's arm and he moved it out of her reach.
"Oh, of course," I replied. "But there'll be a photographer and a chaperone with you. Apparently it's to protect the Foundation from any litigation risks should one of the auctioned bachelors turn out to be a secret axe murderer or something." I'd only found this out from Fi a few days ago. Personally, having seen the women at the auction (who were all like Gilly), I think the bachelors were more likely to be the ones in danger.
Gilly's eyes narrowed. "Well, I'm sure Rob and I will still find a little space for a romantic moment."
Somehow, I feel Gilly is destined for disappointment. Rob's tried everything to shake her off but she still clings on to the idea that if she can get him alone in a romantic setting, he'll change his mind.
"I think we're only on the yacht for a short time, Gilly." Rob edged away from where she had leaned into him.
I unhooked my bag from the back of the chair. Gilly mentioning Marco's name reminded me I needed to check my messages in case he'd tried to ring me during lunch.
Nothing. Disappointed, I switched the ring tone back on. Gilly continued to witter on and Rob looked increasingly desperate to escape.
When my phone rang as I was about to put it back in my bag, I almost dropped it in surprise. A quick glance at the name flashing on the front before I pressed the connect button told me it wasn't Marco calling, but Toby.
"Emma, where are you? You've got to come home now! The police are here and I can't tell them what's been taken or anything."
"What's the matter? What police?" Oh, my God, it must be Marco.
"You've been burgled! I called back at lunchtime to pick up Steven's dry cleaning and your door was open." Toby's voice was shrill with adrenaline. My pulse slowed down a little once it hit me that Marco wasn't dead or arrested.
"What's wrong?" Rob leaned across the table and took the phone to speak to Toby.
"I've been burgled." Nausea washed over me. Someone had been in my flat, in my things. I'd only cleaned it a few hours ago, too, damn it.
"Oh, my God, that's ghastly. I mean, I know you live in a high crime area but really!" Gilly's face was a mask of disapproval. It was a good thing the waitress had already cleared away our plates or I'd have been compelled to stab her with my fork.
Rob finished talking to Toby, then handed the phone back. "Toby says they've made quite a mess. He can't tell what they've taken. The police want some details from you."
I felt numb; it's not as if I have anything very valuable, except a few pieces of jewelry.
"I'll take you home. Do you want me to call Fi or your mum?" Rob got to his feet and shrugged his coat on.
"No, I'll see what's happened first." My legs felt as if the stuffing had leaked out of them and I was glad of Rob slipping his arm around me for support.
"I'll follow you. You might want some help," Gilly announced and gathered up her doggy-in-a-bag.
I wasn't sure what kind of help Gilly had in mind, but I was too worried about what I might find waiting for me when I got home to argue with her.
Rob said very little as he drove to the flat. I hoped Marco would ring so I could tell him what had happened, but of course he didn't. I could have kicked myself for getting rid of Einstein and the Stick Insect's phone numbers. At least then I could have rung Everton and asked him to try and get hold of Marco for me. I suspected he would be able to find him much more easily than I could. Which made me even more pissed off with my missing husband.
Toby and Steven were outside by the front gate talking to a policewoman as we pulled to a halt. Gilly's pink car skidded to a stop behind us, inches from Rob's back bumper.
"Miss Morgan?" The policewoman looked at her notebook.
"Yes," I said.
Toby and Steven glanced at each other and I knew why. I'd never bothered to use my married name. I'd fully intended to when I first got married, but then it had all gone wrong and I'd flown back to England without Marco. Since then I hadn't thought about using anything other than my maiden name.
The policewoman asked me lots of questions about who lived in the flat, what time I'd gone out, and all that kind of stuff.
"The forensic team is in your flat at the moment, Miss Morgan. Fortunately they were just about to leave another job nearby when we got the call." She spoke in a tone which suggested I should be honored they'd consented to take fingerprints at my lowly burglary. I suppose it had been lucky; when Mummy got burgled a few years ago, no one came and she had to go to the police station to get a crime number.
Gilly stood next to me, her ears flapping as the policewoman explained the procedures. I wanted to get inside my flat to see what had happened.
Two men came out of the front door carrying little bags and boxes. "Okay, love, you can go in now," one of them called as he loaded the boxes into his car.
I wasn't sure what to expect. Years of watching The Bill and Crimewatch left me a bit disappointed that there was no incident tape or crime scene notice by my front door.
The inside of my flat was a complete mess. Everything was everywhere, the contents of my kitchen canisters--not that there had been much in them--were emptied onto the floor. The seat cushions of my sofa and chairs were slashed open and the foam fillings left to hang out. In the bedroom the pillows had been slashed and feathers lay like grey snow all over the floor.
"What were they looking for?" Gilly asked. She'd wandered in uninvited behind me while Rob, Toby and Steven were still outside with the WPC.
I wanted to cry. Everything I owned had been destroyed. Every drawer and cupboard had been tipped out, all my underwear, Marco's CDs, everything. And where was bloody Marco? I don't know why I was angry with him apart from the fact that he'd gone missing.
"I appreciate things are a mess, Miss Morgan, but can you tell if anything has been taken?" The policewoman joined us in the bedroom.
I spotted my jewelry box lying on the floor with the lid broken off. I'd had it since I was little; Daddy gave it to me for my birthday when I was seven. It was white with a picture of Cinderella on the lid and it had one of those little ballerinas inside that turns to the music that plays when you open it.
All my jewelry lay spilled out in a tangled heap of gold chains and earrings amongst the feathers on the floor. "I don't think anything's missing."
"Are you sure, Emma?" Rob picked up the lid of my box. He looked angry.
"It's hard to tell. There's so much mess, but I don't think anything's actually gone." I picked up my wedding ring. I'd only ever worn it for a few brief blissful hours after the ceremony. I tried to slide it on my finger and it wouldn't fit. Maybe it was an omen.
The policewoman's radio crackled into life and she went back outside to answer it.
"What are you going to do, Emma? You can't stay here." Gilly cradled her dog closer to her and stepped over a pile of my knickers to stand next to Rob.
"I don't know." I hadn't thought about it, but I didn't want to stay in the flat tonight. I didn't feel safe. Marco had been right about moving.
"You could sleep on our couch," Steven offered. "But there wouldn't be room for two."
"Thanks guys, but its fine, I can go to Mummy's." And I wasn't going anywhere until Marco came home.
The policewoman popped back in to say she'd had another call and would be in touch in a few days to get us to sign statements. We followed her to the front door, where the lads inspected the locks that had been jemmied.
"You need to call a locksmith," Rob pronounced.
"And the insurance company," Gilly added.
I didn't feel up to doing anything.
"Come up to our flat, Em. I'll make you a cup of tea while you phone." Toby patted my arm.
"I'll wait down here for the locksmith and try to straighten a few things up for you," Steven offered.
I felt really touched by their kindness. Rob gave me a hug and Gilly glowered at me.
"Well, as you seem to be getting sorted out, Rob and I ought to go and leave you to it." Gilly smiled meaningfully at Rob.
"You go, Gilly. I'll stay and help Emma clear up until Marco gets back," Rob dismissed her suggestion.
"Where is Marco?" Gilly asked and peered around as if she expected him to materialize out of the woodwork at any moment.
Toby and Steven looked uncomfortable and Rob developed an interest in the jemmied door.
"I can't get hold of him at the moment. He'll probably get back soon." I wished Gilly and her stupid dog would take themselves back to the land of the Sloanes and leave me alone.
A noise from outside made us all turn just Marco's BMW pulled up in front of Rob's car.
* * * *
Toby and Steven melted away faster than butter on hot toast. Rob took on a defensive stance, while Gilly and the pooch were alive with interest as Marco made his way up the path toward us.
One of the things that had attracted me to Marco when we first met was the way he walked. He prowled like a large, lazy cat, king of all he surveyed. It still made my pulse move up a notch.
"What's going on?" He examined the splintered wood around the lock on our front door.
"We've been burgled," I said.
Marco didn't wait for me to say anything else, but instead pushed past Gilly and into the flat. "Emma, come in here!"
I followed the direction of Marco's shout and found him in our bedroom, scowling at the feathers lying in little grey drifts all over the floor.
"Have the police been?"
"They were here when we got back. They've taken all the details and fingerprinted," Rob answered for me.
"I don't think anything's missing." I felt sick of the whole thing, and for some reason, my teeth had started to chatter. I felt nauseous.
"Good." Marco eyed the wreckage.
"It's as if they were looking for something special," Gilly remarked brightly, as she stroked her dog's head.
Marco's lip curled. "What would anyone expect to find here? Emma doesn't even keep groceries in."
Gilly gave a false little laugh, stopping when Rob glared at her.
"Emma's had a nasty shock. We were about to go upstairs to Toby and Steven's," Rob said.
Marco put his arm around me and gave me a quick hug. "Of course. I'm sorry, Emma, go on up and we'll get the locks fixed."
I left Marco, Gilly and Rob downstairs and went with Toby and Steven. I heard Rob try to persuade Gilly to go home as I climbed the top step.
Toby and Steven's flat had everything mine didn't. Toby had decorated in shades of coffee and parchment; all the contents were coordinated and elegant.
"I've made you some tea, Emma." Steven carried a tray of Clarice Cliff-inspired mugs into the lounge and placed them carefully down on the coffee table.
"You look awful, darling." Toby fussed around, puffing up cushions behind my back.
"I'll have to phone Mummy and see if Marco and I can stay there tonight." The thought of having to tell Mummy about the burglary on top of the talk earlier about gangs and shootings made the nausea come back. I put my mug back down on the tray.
"Emma..." Toby began to speak, but Steven stopped him from continuing with a warning shake of his head.
"What did Marco say?" Steven offered me a biscuit from an art deco plate that matched the mugs.
"Not much. He asked if anything had been stolen." It occurred to me then that he hadn't seemed very shocked by the robbery actually--more annoyed by the mess, and I still didn't know where he'd been all day.
"Em, you don't think that..." Toby began, but his voice faded.
"Don't think what?" I asked, glancing toward him in time to see Steven make throat-cutting gestures.
"What is the matter with you two?" I began to feel ratty with them. Talk about making a drama out of a crisis.
"Darling, I hate to say this, but you don't think this burglary has anything to do with you-know-who?" Steven whispered the last three words.
Maybe I'd strayed into a Harry Potter movie by mistake.
I must have looked blank because Toby added, "Marco's friend--the gangster."
"Why would Everton have anything to do with me being burgled?"
"Oh, Emma, honestly!" Toby threw his hands up dramatically. "Not Everton himself, silly, but if Marco is known to be a friend of his..." He leaned back on the cushions, looking very pleased with himself.
"They could have been searching for something hidden in your flat," Steven agreed with Toby, his expression equally smug. His earlier reluctance to say anything had been overcome by his ambition to play detective.
"Well, thank you, Holmes and Watson. You've been in my flat; you couldn't hide anything larger than a cornflake."
"Mmm." Steven didn't appear convinced.
"You don't even know Everton really is a gangster. It's probably one of those urban myths because he looks so sinister," I persisted, ignoring my conscience's mutterings about tattoos and gang memberships.
Steven flashed Toby a told-you-she-wouldn't-believe-us look.
There was a rap on the lounge door and Rob peered in.
"Gilly's gone home and the locksmith's arrived to do the door. So I'll leave you and Marco to it."
I walked over to him. "Thank you for everything today, Rob. I don't know what I'd have done without you." His cheek felt rough beneath my lips and I smelt the lovely, familiar scent of his aftershave.
"Well...erm...I'll be off then. Hang on in there, Penfold." He disappeared downstairs and I sat back down on the sofa.
"Can I use your phone?" I asked.
Toby handed it over. I got the number from Yellow Pages and called the insurance people. Then I rang Mummy. I'd braced myself for the conversation, so it threw me for a curve when Mr. G answered the phone. I'd forgotten today was half-day closing.
"Um, is Mummy there?" My carefully prepared non-alarmist spiel deserted me completely.
"I'll call her for you. Is this Emma? Is everything all right?"
I heard him shout, "Charlotte, its Emma!" I caught a snatch of brief muffled conversation, and then Mummy came on the line.
"Is everything all right, Emma? Ian said he thought you sounded distressed. It's nothing to do with the shooting is it?"
I hurried to reassure her. "No, Mummy, it's not that. I wondered if Marco and I could come and stay tonight. The flat's been broken into and it's a bit of a mess." I waited for the fall-out.
"Oh, Emma, my poor girl! Do you want us to come and get you? We'll come straight away. What's been stolen? Have the police been? You weren't there when they broke in, were you? Have you called the insurance? How did they get inside?"
I waited until she paused for breath and dived in with answers. "Don't come to get me, nothing's been taken, the police have been. I've told the insurance company and the locksmith's here now to mend the doors. The flat will be fine once I've cleaned up, but I don't want to stay there tonight." To my dismay, I started to cry. I suppose it must have been delayed shock or something.
"Oh, darling, of course you must come. Are you sure you don't want us to fetch you?"
I managed to stop sniffing long enough to decline the offer of a lift. It was only after I'd put the phone down that I realized she'd said we and not I throughout our conversation. Her relationship with Mr. G must be serious.
Toby and Steven still hovered. Toby passed me some tissues.
"Don't even think about apologising." Steven patted my shoulder awkwardly.
"I'm going to go back downstairs. I need to pack a few things and tell Marco we're staying at Mummy's."
"Of course." Toby hugged me and I thanked them both for the tea.
The locksmith had packed up his tools, ready to leave and Marco was busy on his mobile when I got back to the flat.
"No man, nothing gone. Yeah, everything's still cool." He finished the call when he saw me. I guessed from the tone of the conversation, he'd probably been talking to Everton.
The locksmith handed me the bill to pass on to the insurance company.
Marco didn't make a move to tip him, so I delved into my bag and gave the man a fiver for coming out so promptly. Thanking me, he handed over the new keys and left.
"I've told Mummy we'll stay there tonight."
"You frightened, babe?"
"No, but I don't want to stay here tonight, everywhere is such a mess." Okay, so logically I knew the burglars weren't likely to return, but even so, I didn't want to be in the flat.
"Okay." Marco didn't argue. He draped his arm over my shoulders. I wished I knew what his thoughts really were about the break-in.
"Where were you today?" I asked. "I wanted to get hold of you earlier."
Marco's arm stiffened and he removed it from my shoulders. "I told you, I've been doing a favor for Everton, okay? Somebody got sick and I had to take them to hospital. You aren't allowed to have phones on in the emergency room." He sounded impatient.
"I'll pack a bag." I didn't feel in the mood for an argument; I might start to cry again.
I grabbed some of our clothes from the piles on the floor and got the toothbrushes from the bathroom. Even in there had been trashed, with my talcum powder lying in white heaps all over the floor. It flew up into my face and over my hair when the scent made me sneeze.
Marco made no move to get out of the car when we arrived outside Mummy's house.
"You go in, babe. I'll be back later. I've got some business to take care of first." He roared away and left me standing on the pavement with my mouth open, clutching a bag of clothes.
"Emma, darling! Where's Marco going?" Mummy peered down the street after the disappearing BMW.
"He'll be along soon." At least I hoped he would.
Mr. G lurked in the hall. We were about to close the front door behind us when another car skidded up to the curb: Niall's bright red Porsche.
"Oh, dear," Mummy said.
We all turned to see what would happen next. Niall jumped out.
"Good grief, he's got that woman with him!" Mummy muttered, a frown of displeasure creasing her brow.
Niall paused to tug Glenda free from the low-slung passenger seat of the sports car. She shot free like a fat cork from a bottle.
"What do they want?" Mummy murmured, as I stifled a giggle.
"Ah, Mrs. Morgan." Niall hurried towards us, Glenda puffed along behind him. I was shocked to see how pregnant she already looked.
"Niall, to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?" Even someone as thick-skinned and self important as Niall couldn't fail to notice the frosty tone in Mummy's voice.
Glenda caught up with him and attached herself to his arm like a human leech, which was ironically befitting. "We need to speak to Fiona," she panted.
Mummy ignored her. "Niall?"
Niall turned red; he was clearly there under Glenda's orders.
"Fiona is refusing to talk to me and I need to speak with her as a matter of urgency." His lips pursed and he looked like a toddler about to throw a tantrum.
Pompous twit. Why would Fi want to waste her breath on him?
"Can you blame her for not wanting to speak to you?" Mummy glared at Niall.
"I don't think you realize how badly your daughter has treated poor Niall," Glenda piped up.
I've often read in books about people "bristling with rage" and wondered what it meant, but as I watched Mummy look at Glenda, I knew.
"I suggest you and your tart remove yourselves from my doorstep immediately," she said. "I have nothing to say to either of you and neither does Fiona."
Mummy slammed the door in their faces and we heard Glenda wail, "Fiona owes Niall one hundred and eighty thousand pounds!"
A frantic hammering sounded on the front door as the letterbox was pushed open. "Tell her we'll sue!" Glenda screeched, and then they were gone.
"Well, really!" Mummy shepherded us along the hall and into the kitchen. Mr. G toddled along with us, trying to appear unconcerned by the ruckus which had just taken place.
I wondered what on earth Fi could have spent one hundred and eighty thousand pounds on. I know she loves to shop, but even she would draw the line at blowing that much in one spree, wouldn't she?
I escaped upstairs to my old bedroom. Mummy called Fi and left her a message to tell her about Niall's visit.
Mr. G gave me a day off so I could get the flat sorted out and all the paperwork done for the insurance and the police. I still felt uncomfortable with the whole idea of him and Mummy dating. It disturbed the natural order of things.
Two hours later, and there was still no sign of Marco. I toyed with the thought of calling him on his mobile, but it didn't seem worth it. He never answered, at least not for me. He'd ignored it when I'd tried to contact him about the break-in. No doubt he'd show up eventually. I only hoped it would be before Mummy went to bed and put the chain on the front door.
After I'd had a nice soak in the bath with some of Fi's Chanel bath stuff, I called Sara. She sounded suitably shocked and sympathetic about the break-in and offered to meet me at the flat the next day to help clean up. We chatted for over an hour and I felt much better by the time I hung up.
At least Sara hadn't gone on about gangsters and shootings or implied that Marco was caught up in something murky like Steven, Toby and Rob had done. I snuggled down under the Laura Ashley duvet cover and tried to work out how I felt about Marco.
It wasn't easy; Marco still had the power to make my heart beat faster and my whole being ache to be with him. But then there was the down side--I couldn't trust him and I never knew where he was or what his plans for us actually involved.
Sex with him was good--no, it was better than that. It was fantastic. But was that enough to build a future on? Especially when he might be a gangster? I had never envisioned myself as a gangster's moll and the idea of prison visiting didn't appeal.
I heard the front door open and my sister giggle in the hall. I tried to make out who she had with her. Surely she hadn't brought Paul home. There were footsteps on the stairs and more laughter, then my bedroom door opened and Marco came in.
"Hey, babe, thought you might be asleep. Fiona just came in. She is one cool chick, your sister." He sat down on the side of the bed and the mattress dipped under his weight.
"I've been waiting for you," I said. "I thought Mummy might lock you out if you weren't back soon."
He slid a long brown finger down the side of my cheek. "You look tired. I'm sorry we didn't get to look at those apartments today."
I wasn't sure if I felt sorry or not. The break-in had upset me, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to move to the kind of place Marco had in mind for us. I wasn't sure if I wanted to move with Marco anywhere anymore.
He seemed to pick up on my mood and stood to peel off his shirt in one fluid movement. Normally my pulse would race and I would long for him to hurry his undressing. Instead I just felt weary.
He paused for a fraction of a second as if assessing my lack of response before he finished his preparations and slipped into bed beside me.
"Are you okay, babe?"
I turned out the light. "Fine. Tired, I think, like you said."
Marco must have been satisfied with my answer as within minutes he fell fast asleep, leaving me to lie awake in the dark. I stared at the ceiling and tried to think.
Things to Do:
Clean up my flat.
Clean up my life.
Investigate whether Calvin Klein made a line of prison garb.
I didn't sleep very well. After waking up every hour on the hour, I gave up at six o'clock and crept past a still-snoring Marco to go downstairs and make a cup of tea.
The last thing I expected to find when I reached the kitchen was Mr. G in a stripy toweling dressing gown. He held a tray set with two mugs ready to carry back upstairs.
"Ah, Emma. Good morning."
Oh, my God, how embarrassing. Thank heavens I had on my pj's and not one of my shortie night shirts.
"I couldn't sleep so I came down to make some tea," I said.
"Splendid, I've just made Charlotte a drink." He didn't turn a hair as he reached an extra mug down for me.
My toes curled with embarrassment as I turned away to get a teaspoon from the drawer. My brain wasn't up to making small talk with my boss in my mother's kitchen at this hour of the morning.
Besides which, I didn't know where to look. If I looked down I could see his lily-white, hairy legs and if I looked up, his dressing gown had gaped open to reveal an equally pale hairy chest. It was not attractive.
The kitchen door opened again and Fiona drifted in, yawning her head off. "Any tea?"
"I'm making some more now." Mr. G pulled another mug from the cupboard.
Fiona didn't seem at all phased to see Mr. G make himself so at home. Instead she settled down onto one of the kitchen stools and started to leaf through a copy of Vogue that lay on the breakfast counter.
"That's a nice color. What do you think, Em?" She pointed to a lipstick in a cosmetics advert.
"You've got that one." I think she had every shade they made.
Mr. G finished making our drinks and picked up his tray again, ready to leave. "Your mother said to tell you there were some croissants if you were hungry."
The door closed behind him and I sat down on a stool next to Fi.
"Is it serious between him and Mummy?"
Fiona didn't lift her eyes from a fashion spread of skinny girls in sarongs. "Dunno. He's here a lot though."
"You heard Niall and Glenda came looking for you, didn't you? Glenda claims you owe Niall one hundred and eighty thousand pounds."
Fiona continued to placidly flip the pages of the magazine. "She never was any good at maths. I make it nearer two hundred and fifteen thousand. He's probably trying to fob her off with a cheap ring."
I almost choked on my tea. "What are you going to do?"
Fiona looked at me as if I was deranged. "Do? I'm not going to do anything. He owed me big time. It's compensation. Glenda can sing for the money." She slid gracefully from her stool. "Do you want a croissant? There's some cherry jam."
I watched her pad across the kitchen in her ice blue satin pajamas.
"Where does Paul fit in?" I asked.
She tipped the croissants onto the plates and got out the jam. "Paul is a really sweet guy. I'm very fond of him."
I passed her the knives. "How fond?"
"What is this? The Inquisition?" She passed a plate over and came to sit back down, licking a smear of jam from her thumb as she did so.
"Well?" I asked.
"If you must know I'm meeting him in Spain. You know it's his yacht the Foundation is using? Well, I'm going to be Rob and Gilly's chaperone and handle all the publicity. Afterwards, I'm staying on in Spain and then sailing back to England with Paul." She took a large self-satisfied bite of her croissant.
"Are you sure I've got this lipstick?" Fi turned her attention back to the magazine and the subject was closed.
I couldn't wait to meet Sara at the flat to fill her in on this latest gossip.
* * * *
Mummy gave me a lift over to the flat on her way into work. Marco was still in bed, Mr. G had left earlier, and Fiona had retreated to her room with Vogue and the last of the croissants and jam.
"Oh Emma, I didn't realize they'd done this much damage. You'll need new furniture and bedding, everything." Mummy gazed around at the wreckage of my flat.
"Sara will be here soon to help me clean up and the insurance assessor is due this morning too, so hopefully I'll be straightened up in no time." I tried to sound optimistic, but I felt more like crying all over again. The flat looked worse than I remembered and even when it had been all cleaned up, I wasn't certain I would ever feel happy living there again.
"Do you want me to call my office? I can stay and help you."
"No, Mummy, really, it'll be fine." I know it was kind of Mummy to offer but she would take over when the assessor came and be full of the Dunkirk spirit while she cleaned. I couldn't cope with a morning of stories of how Granny had survived the blitz.
"Well, if you're really sure, darling." She sounded doubtful.
"Really Mummy, I'm fine. It looks worse than it is because of the feathers and stuff." I patted one of the slashed sofa cushions to make my point and sent a cloud of bits flying up into the air.
"Promise me you'll call me if you change your mind." She kissed me on the cheek and I managed to ease her out of the flat.
Left on my own, I surveyed the carnage. Gilly had been right when she'd said it looked as if they'd been searching for something. Maybe all burglars left houses like this; I'd never had anything stolen before so I couldn't make a comparison. I still couldn't shake the idea that the break-in was somehow connected to Marco and his activities, though.
I picked up the roll of bags I'd brought with me and headed for the bedroom. My poor broken jewelry box stood on the dresser where Rob had placed it. At least they hadn't stolen any of my jewelry, not that I had much of any value. Some gold earrings, a necklace with my initial on it, and a gold dolphin bangle I'd bought for myself when I'd visited Rhodes with Fiona and Mummy after Mummy and Daddy's divorce.
Perhaps they'd been after money or credit cards. Whoever had broken in must have been sadly disappointed with what they'd found in my home.
I'd hardly begun to scoop the free-floating feathers and bits of foam into a bag when the front door bell rang. Sara stood outside with a big plastic bucket full of cleaning products.
"Sorry I'm a bit late. Shay's taken Jessie to Gymbabes. He dropped me off at the corner. I bought some coffee and milk as you said they'd tipped all your stuff out." She walked past me into the hall. "Gosh, Emma, you weren't kidding. Put the kettle on. I'll get the vacuum cleaner and we'll make a start."
Sara shifted the ransacked contents of the hall cupboard. She unearthed the vacuum cleaner from underneath a pile of old coats and the ironing board Mummy had given me as a flat-warming present but which I'd never used. I had always been too lazy to get it out. I used a folded towel on the kitchen worktop instead.
Obediently, I crunched my way across the carpet of spilled teabags, coffee, sugar and flour that lay across my kitchen floor, and plugged in the kettle.
The sound of vacuuming came from the hall and Sara began to sing. She's one of those strange people who likes to clean. Even before she had Jessie, she was never happier than when she had an excuse to pull on her rubber gloves and get stuck in.
I made two mugs of coffee with Sara's supplies and took one to her.
"Do you want to keep all these old coats, Em?" She switched off the vacuum cleaner and started to pick through the contents of the cupboard.
"I suppose now would be a good time to have a clearout." One of the coats was my old school blazer. It didn't fasten across my bust any more and the last time I'd worn it had been at a St Trinian's-themed charity do of Fiona's.
Sara shook open a black bag and stuffed the blazer inside. We disposed of four other jackets the same way--one my mother had bought me (yuck), one that didn't fit, one that had paint on it, and one that Sara said made me look like the "before" advert for Weight Watchers.
Marco's cases lay on the floor under the coats. The burglars had slashed the linings inside them along with those of my best imitation Louis Vuitton case.
"You should make a list of these, Em, for the assessor when he comes." Sara helped me stack them back inside the cupboard and we made notes on a piece of paper.
With the hall restored to some kind of order, we drank a fresh cup of coffee. I longed to ask Sara about Shay and I knew she wanted to talk.
"I read Shay's text messages last night on his phone. He'd left it on the kitchen counter while he was in the shower." She said it as if she thought I would lecture her on respecting his privacy. Not bloody likely. I'd do exactly the same thing if I was in her position.
"Did you find anything?" I asked.
She shook her head. "Nothing definite, just one text which hinted at some secret he didn't want to tell me."
"You should talk to him." I took another slurp of coffee and felt a fraud because I was as guilty of not confronting Marco as Sara was of avoiding Shay.
"I can't say I've read his texts, can I?"
I didn't reply. I'd been awake all night thinking about my issues with Marco. I could hardly give Sara advice when I couldn't get my own problems sorted out.
Sara switched the vacuum cleaner back on and we carried on through into the lounge. I attempted to reassemble the sofa and between us, we wrestled the most badly damaged things into more bags. The list of items that had been ruined or that needed to be replaced grew longer.
"The trouble is, I'm too scared to ask Shay about this woman," Sara said suddenly.
We were in the kitchen. I held the dustpan while Sara swept the mess into it with a broom. I considered what she'd said. "Scared it's true?" I asked. "Scared he'll leave you? What kind of scared?"
Sara tucked an escaping piece of hair back into her ponytail before continuing. "Scared he doesn't love me anymore." Her voice wobbled and she brushed a heap of flour up into the air and all over my sweatshirt.
"But you could be worrying about something that just isn't true." I wondered what held me back from confronting Marco. Maybe I was scared of something that might be nothing, too. I had to stop watching so much television. It only added fire to my already vivid imagination.
"I can cope with him being unfaithful," Sara said. "Kind of. I mean, since we had Jessie, we haven't had much the chance to have sex as often." She flushed up to the roots of her hair. "But if he didn't love me anymore, then that would be different."
Poor Sara. She loved Shay, really loved him. He and Jessie were her life. I remembered when he'd come to the flat the day after the bachelor auction, he'd been so worried about Sara and Jessie. Surely he hadn't changed so much in such a short time?
"I don't know, Sar, I always thought you and Shay were ideal together. He seems to adore you and Jessie." I tipped the dustpan into the trash bag, releasing another plume of dust which made us both cough.
"But I saw them, Em. I saw how she looked at him and I saw them kiss." Sara grabbed the mop and plunged it into a bucket of soapy water, making suds slosh over the sides onto the vinyl floor of the kitchen.
"But you'll never know if you don't ask him. Is anything different at home?"
"He's not so grouchy, and he gave me flowers." She swished the mop vigorously across the floor and I skipped backwards out of her way.
I wasn't sure if this was a good sign, but for Sara's sake I decided it was best to be positive. "Is that since we went out shopping and you decided you were going to try to change things?"
Sara stopped mid-swipe and considered. "Could be. I don't know any more. I try to read something into every little thing he does. Even him taking Jessie to Gymbabes."
The doorbell rang and I left Sara to the mopping while I answered it. I thought it would be the insurance man, but instead it was Rob in his work suit. He had my groceries from yesterday and takeout Starbucks coffee and cake. "Thought you might need a break," he said.
I took the brown bag with the food from him and he followed me down the hall. "Sara, Rob's here. With cake!"
I put the bag down on the newly-cleared worktop and got the cups and cakes out.
"Looks better in here," Rob said.
"Don't come in here yet. The floor's wet," Sara ordered, shooing me and Rob back into the lounge. We perched on the tattered remnants of the sofa and slurped our drinks.
"Thank you for this. I am so hungry." I took a bite of cake.
Rob rolled his eyes in mock despair. "Emma, you're always hungry. I remembered your shopping was still in the boot when I got home last night, so I thought I'd bring it over."
"How did you get rid of Gilly?"
Rob groaned. "Please don't talk to me about Gilly. She's driving me crazy. When I got to the shop this morning, she was waiting outside."
"Sounds serious," Sara said.
"She's bonkers." Rob slumped down on his seat, spilling more foam pieces from the cushion onto the carpet.
"Will you be careful? We're done in here." I tutted and smacked his leg.
"So how long until you guys go to Spain and Rob can get an injunction against Gilly?" Sara giggled as Rob grabbed a handful of foam and tried to shove it down the back of my top.
"Next weekend. Apart from Gilly being there, I'm looking forward to it. A spot of sunshine and sangria will be lovely." Rob answered her as he pinned me against he cushions while I tried to pick the foam from under my sweater.
"And senoritas?" Sara added with a grin.
Rob grimaced. "After Gilly, I'm sworn off women for a while."
I wriggled free. "I thought originally there was supposed to be a romantic dinner out as well as time on the yacht?" Glaring at Rob, I tried to smooth my hair down and refasten my hairclips.
"There is. The Foundation has booked a top place in Marbella." He picked up his coffee and scowled into the cup.
"At least it'll all be over soon plus you'll have Emma and Fi for company," Sara soothed. She didn't mention Marco and I didn't correct her. After all, knowing Marco, if Everton asked him not to go, then he wouldn't. So it could just be me and Fiona anyway. Oh, and Paul of course.
I wished Sara could come too, but there was no way she'd be prepared to leave Jessie. I had hinted at it but she'd ignored any suggestion that a break might do her good.
"I'd better get back to the shop before Greenback notices how long I've been gone." Rob stood up with a yawn and gave a lazy stretch. "If I sit here much longer I'll go to sleep. All the Gilly dodging is making me tired."
I followed him to the door. "Do I need to smuggle you out under a blanket?"
Rob laughed, but he still glanced around nervously as if he expected her to pop up at any moment. "Are you okay, Penfold?"
I knew he meant more than the burglary. Marco was conspicuously absent and Rob, being Rob, had noticed. "Yeah, Dangermouse," I said. "I'm fine."
He bent and kissed my cheek. "Take care. I'll catch you later."
I watched him walk out to his beloved wreck with a funny feeling in my tummy. This was crazy. I was not about to fall for Rob. I'd been there and done that and was so not going there again. Besides which, I was a married woman now and wasn't going to get sidetracked. Even if the man I'd married was a gangster.
"Come on, Em, we still have the bathroom and your bedroom to do!" Sara called over the sound of the vacuum cleaner.
I closed the communal front door and caught a glimpse of a familiar pink VW Beetle driving past. Gilly was still in full stalker mode. Poor Rob.
Two hours later, Sara and I collapsed on the chairs in the lounge with the flat finally looking presentable, but still no sign of the insurance assessor.
The phone rang and I picked it up, hoping it wasn't the assessor calling to cancel. Mr. G had given me one day off, but anything more would probably be stretching it.
"Hey, babe, how's it going?" Marco's familiar lazy drawl.
"Where are you and why aren't you here helping us?" I was not a happy bunny.
"Chill, babe, I've been busy. I found a really nice apartment I think you should take a look at." He didn't sound phased by my grumpiness.
"Marco, I really don't feel like looking for a new flat right now."
"Honey, a place like the one I've found won't stay empty for long. Everton's already got two or three other people who are interested." Marco sounded hurt.
"What's Everton got to do with it?" I forced the words out through gritted teeth.
"He has a few apartments which he lets out in his property portfolio. He's given us first refusal on this one. It's in the same block as his."
Terrific. Why didn't we just move in with bloody Everton and have done with it? "No, Marco." I put the phone down with a bang.
Sara raised her eyebrows. "What's up?"
"Marco wants us to move into a flat in Everton's block. Owned by Everton."
A silent "o" formed on Sara's lips. "I take it you're not too thrilled."
"Would you be?"
The phone rang again and I ignored it, letting the machine take the message.
"Emma, pick the phone up, babe." Marco tried pleading for a few more minutes before giving up.
A loud rap on the front door made me and Sara leap out of our skin. I'd been so busy being annoyed with Marco I'd forgotten about the assessor.
The insurance man looked about sixteen and didn't seem very sure of himself. We presented him with the list of damaged items and showed him around the flat. He offered to send in a team of cleaners, which pissed Sara off royally considering how hard we'd worked to tidy up.
Eventually he tucked our list into his briefcase and, after a flurry of phone calls with his office, agreed to us getting prices to replace most of my stuff.
Shay arrived with Jessie as the insurance man left, so I got a chance to cuddle the baby while Sara collected her things.
"Do you want a lift back to your mum's?" Sara buttoned her coat and lifted Jessie from my arms.
"No, it's okay. Fiona said she'd stop by on her way home and we'd go back together." I didn't fancy squashing into Shay's van. It was always full of bits of musical equipment and baby gear. Plus, I felt uncomfortable around Shay, knowing what Sara had told me.
"Well, if you're sure." Sara hoisted Jessie further up her hip and handed Shay her bag and bucket.
"I'll give you a call, and thanks for everything." I waved them off. Shay fussed over Jessie, making sure her little pink woolly hat was on straight. They looked the picture of a perfect little family.
I shut the communal door and hoped Fiona wouldn't be too long. The locksmith had replaced the lock on the communal door as well as the one on my own front door. Whoever had been responsible for the break-in must have been really determined to have forced their way through two locked doors.
The phone rang again as I got back into the lounge. I let the machine take it as I guessed it would be Marco again. I was right.
"Emma, pick up the phone. We need to talk about this, babe. It's not every day you get a chance like this. Come on, Em, pick up."
I was certainly not going to, and I'd already turned my mobile off. If I listened to him, I knew I'd end up with Everton as my landlord and Einstein and Stick Insect as my neighbors. Welcome to Gangsterville.
The telly drowned the answering machine out and I concentrated on the late afternoon news bulletin. The shooting outside Toscini's had remained topical. The newsreader described it as a drive-by gangland shooting. A police chief came on and spoke about a flourishing underworld culture ensnaring young people. I was glad when they changed the subject to redundancies in Scotland, not that I wanted anybody Scottish to be out of work.
Fiona was late, as usual. It was one of the few things we had in common, a genetic inability, inherited from Daddy that prevents us arriving anywhere on time. It's something that always infuriates Mummy, who has a thing about punctuality. Knowing Fiona, I guessed she was probably out shopping or avoiding Niall and Glenda.
I turned the television off and played Marco's message again. He sounded as if he was more concerned about upsetting Everton than about me and what I might want.
Fiona arrived three quarters of an hour late, which was quite good for her. I felt glad to see her. It had started to get dark and every time I heard a noise, I jumped, even though I knew Toby and Steven had come home and were only a shout away upstairs.
"I had to call in at Harvey Nick's and get some more face cream. There's a really good offer on perfumes. Oh, and I got that lipstick, the one I showed you this morning." Fiona's arms were loaded with carriers. "I thought I'd better bring these in as you live in a high-crime area."
"I thought you'd spent out on Niall's credit cards the other week? You're never buying more stuff." I didn't think there could possibly be anything left in the shops that Fiona hadn't already got. I ignored the jibe about the high-crime area.
Fiona whipped out a bottle of perfume and sprayed her wrist. "You can never have too much perfume. Here, smell this--it's lovely. I got the body lotion, too." She held out her arm for me to sniff.
"Nice," I agreed. "But what are you going to do about Niall?"
Fi tucked the perfume back inside the carrier bag. "You worry too much. I told you already, I'm not going to do anything. As far as I'm concerned, he owed me and if he wants his money back, he can sue." She flicked her hair with her hand and smiled. "And we both know he's not likely to do that."
I wished I had as much confidence in that belief as Fiona. I didn't think Niall would sue. He was too chicken to do anything on his own and he'd worry about his reputation, but Glenda would have no hesitation.
"We'd better go or Mummy will have a search party out for us," I said, as Fiona gathered her bags together and I turned out the light.
"Dunno about a full-blown search party. Probably just Ian Grebe in his Volvo." Fiona laughed and gave me a nudge.
"Ha-de-ha-ha, very funny." I locked the front door and ignored the sound of the phone beginning to ring yet again inside my flat.
* * * *
Marco's car had gone when we arrived home. He'd probably gone off somewhere to sulk. Mummy bustled around the kitchen and a lovely smell of garlic and tomato filled the air.
"Marco's been trying to call you, dear." Mummy lifted the lid of a saucepan to peer in at the contents.
"Yes, I know. He wanted me to go and look at a new flat." I dumped my bag on the breakfast bar and sat down on a stool.
"He's had to go out, said to tell you he might be away for a couple of days. Something to do with that friend of his." Mummy glared at my handbag so I lifted it off the worktop and onto my lap.
"You know, Emma, I'm not sure this Everton is a good influence," she continued.
"Tell me about it." I wondered if Marco would bother to come back. More worrisome, I wasn't sure that I wanted him back. I waited for the old "marry-in-haste-repent-at-leisure" comment from my mother, but it didn't come.
"Marco isn't in some kind of trouble is he, Emma?"
"No. At least, not as far as I know." Answering Mummy's question made me realize I didn't know very much at all. I'd guessed at a lot of things. "Everton is an old childhood friend of Marco's, and he's been very generous to Marco since he arrived here." I might as well stick to the party line as I hadn't any proof to the contrary.
"I see." Mummy stirred the contents of the saucepan.
Fiona strolled into the kitchen. "Mmm, smells nice. I'm starving." She picked up an apple from the fruit bowl and took a bite.
Mummy frowned at her. "Fiona, your supper is nearly ready!"
"Sorry." Fi walked off into the lounge and after a few seconds we heard the sound of the shopping channel.
"I'm glad she's gone." Mummy closed the door. "I wanted to talk to you about your sister. I'm very worried about her. Since she and Niall broke up, she's seemed very depressed. I'd like you to keep an eye on her, see if you can get her to talk. I thought while you were together in Spain it might be a good time." She looked at me hopefully.
"Mum, I'm sure she's fine. I think she might even have met someone new." I felt a bit of a snitch dobbing Fi in to Mummy but I figured I needn't give her all the details. Just a few vague hints might be enough.
"Who is he?"
Uh-oh. "I think it's someone she's met through the Foundation. I don't think it's serious but it shows she's not depressed." I'm not good at lying to Mummy.
"Mmm." Hawk-like eyes watched me as I fiddled with my handbag and tried to slide off the stool to escape. "So, what's he like?"
I sidled along the breakfast bar. "Um, he seemed nice, very polite." Almost at the door.
"What's his name?"
"Paul." I slipped out of the door and up the stairs to my room before she could wheedle any more information out of me. I guess I'd been right. MI5 wouldn't have been a good career move. I'd never have been able to withstand enemy interrogation.
Marco had left the top of the dressing table in a mess: socks, aftershave and tubes of hair gel were scattered everywhere. None of the containers had their lids on. Exasperated, I began to tidy up the mess before Mummy could see it.
Under a bag containing brand new toiletries, I found an old envelope with writing on the back. I picked it up ready to put it in the bin.
It looked like a list. I smiled, thinking about my own lists.
Marco's writing was hard to read. It looked like a spider had fallen into a jar of ink and scuttled over the paper. The words I could make out looked like, passport, money, yacht, holiday, Emma.
Maybe it was for the holiday. Typical Marco, he hadn't included clothes anywhere on the list. Still, if my name was there, perhaps it meant he planned to buy me a present. Either that, or to remember to take me, and although that wasn't flattering, the way things were between us, it was a strong possibility.
I stacked the envelope up with his things and went to take a bath. All the cleaning with Sara earlier had made me feel grubby as well as hungry. I pinched some more of Fi's Chanel bath stuff and had a nice soak in the tub, though not for as long as I'd intended as Fiona banged on the door.
"How long are you going to be? I want a bath, too."
"Can't you use the shower in Mummy's bathroom?" My toes had begun to turn shrivelled and pink in the warm water.
"No. I want a bath. I've got a date with Paul. You're not using my Chanel are you?"
I sat up quickly with a guilty splash. "No. Look, I'll be out in a minute. Is supper ready?" I dried myself off and hoped Fi wouldn't notice that the bathroom smelt of Chanel.
"Yes, Mummy's done spag bog. Hurry up! You know the steam makes your hair frizzy if you stay in there too long." Fi thumped on the door again.
With the water drained out of the bath, I opened the door to let her in. She pushed past me, re-inserted the plug and started to run the taps.
"Bloody hell, Emma! You have been using my Chanel!" Fi peered at the jar trying to gauge how much had gone since she'd last used it.
"I only used a bit. Anyway, Sara says it goes off if you keep it too long." I crossed my fingers behind my back to off-set the fib, though I supposed it might be true.
"What did you tell Mummy about Paul for?" Fiona demanded. She straightened up and began to examine her complexion in the bathroom mirror while the tub filled up.
"I didn't say much. She thought you were depressed. I think she had visions of me keeping a suicide watch on you when we were in Spain."
Fiona looked exasperated. "Oh, for Heaven's sake! I'll be glad to go out tonight to get some sane conversation. Between Mummy thinking I'm about to top myself and you twittering on like blooming Jiminy Cricket, it's like being trapped with the cast of Eastenders." She dipped an elbow in the bathwater then turned off the taps.
"We're concerned about you," I said.
She slipped off her robe and stepped into the bath. "Well, don't be. And close the door on the way out, it's drafty in here."
I left her to it. When Fiona was in one of her Prima Donna moods there was no talking to her. The smell of Mummy's spaghetti bolognaise wafted its way upstairs so I hurried up and changed for supper.
I wasn't too surprised to find Mr. G already at the table and tucking in when I got back downstairs.
"Ah, Emma. Your mother tells me the tidying up has gone well?" He looked up from stuffing himself full of spag bog.
"Yes, Sara gave me a hand. The insurance people have agreed to replace most of the damaged stuff so I'll need to go shopping soon." I hoped he'd take the hint and tell me to have the rest of the week off.
"Plenty of time for that when you and your friends come back from Spain." He beamed at me, sauce moustache and all.
Mummy bustled in with two plates of spaghetti. "Yes, you don't want to be too hasty, Emma. I don't mind you and Marco staying here for a while longer. It's like old times having you and Fiona at home again." She slid the plates onto the tablemats and flapped an oven glove at me to indicate I should sit down.
"That's nice of you, Mummy, but I want to get back into the flat as soon as I can." I remembered only too well what it was like before living under the same roof as Mummy and Fiona.
Mummy looked hurt. "But you won't move back until after your holiday, surely? It'll take time to get your furniture replaced."
I knew she was probably right, but I had already decided to call into Ikea and pick up the latest catalogue after work tomorrow. I'd seen a really nice sofa the last time I'd gone there with Sara.
Fiona appeared at the door in her satin dressing gown. "Mummy, have you seen my green top?"
"I ironed it yesterday. Look in the utility room."
Fiona vanished and we heard her stomping about. I suppose living back at home had some advantages: cooked meals and laundry service for one thing. I know that's really two things, but there would be a price to pay--dealing with Mummy every day--so it evened out.
"Where are you going tonight, Fiona?" Mummy called.
"Not sure, just out." Fiona's voice was muffled.
"Is this with your new man?"
What sounded like an expletive came from the direction of the utility room. Fi arrived back in the dining room clutching her green top and looking cross.
"He's just a friend, Mummy."
Mummy patted her lips with her napkin. "If he's just a friend, why do you want your best top?"
Fiona glared at me. "This is all your fault!" she flounced out.
I carried on eating my spaghetti. I had got to get that catalogue tomorrow.
Marco called after I'd gone to bed. Admittedly I'd gone upstairs early; concentrating on the telly had proved far too hard with Mr. G and Mummy acting like a pair of lovesick teenagers on the settee.
Oh, and Greenback prefers less lightweight programmes, so we watched some really dull thing on politics in the developing world before Mummy insisted she watch something about cleaning your house instead.
Marco and I didn't talk for long. He was his usual evasive self when I tried to find out where he was and what he was doing. He insisted he'd be back in time for our holiday to Spain and that he loved me.
I wished he wouldn't do that. I know he's up to no good and I should cut loose, but every time I build myself up to talk to him about our marriage he plays the "I love you" card and I fall apart all over again.
Things to Do:
Apply fake tan
Get a straight answer from Marco
That's another problem with living back at Mummy's--a chocolate shortage. It's not that there isn't any, it's just that she hides hers and it's more than my life's worth to touch the box of Guylian seashell chocolates belonging to Fiona.
* * * *
Mr. G gave me a lift into work the next morning so for once I wasn't late. I even got there before Rob. It meant I had to listen to Classical Gold all the way to work, but it had to be better than taking the tube.
I spent most of the morning on the phone, ringing people to say their tickets were in or sorting out booking problems. By the time it got to half past eleven, my stomach thought my throat had been cut. I wondered if Rob had a Kit-Kat left in his desk drawer.
The phone rang again. I glanced around the shop, hoping someone else might pick it up but they were all busy with customers.
"Hello, Pack and Go. This is Emma." I hoped it wasn't another complaint; the last man who'd called seemed to feel it was entirely my fault that his flight home had been delayed for four hours.
"Oh, Emma, thank goodness it's you! I don't know what to do! I've called the police but they don't want to know and it's been two hours..."
"Gilly?" It was hard to be certain amongst the sobs.
"What should I do? Oh, Emma, my precious little Robbie's gone!"
I glanced across the shop to where Rob sat, hale and hearty, selling a holiday in Portugal to a woman with a moustache. I wondered if Gilly had finally flipped.
"What do you mean, gone?" I thought it best to humor her till I could find out what she was on about.
"He's been dog-napped!"
I moved the receiver a little way from my ear. Gilly can shatter glass when she's upset. Only she would name her dog after an ex-boyfriend. I wondered if Rob knew he had a doggy namesake.
"How do you know he's been dog-napped?" Perhaps he'd simply got fed up of being hauled about inside Gilly's handbag and made a break for it.
"He's missing, and my little snookums would never wander off and leave his Mummy!"
"So, you haven't had a ransom note or anything?"
Bad move. This sparked a fresh wail of despair from the other end of the line.
"My poor baby! He could be in the hands of terrorists. They'll mistreat him and he needs his special diet!"
"Gilly, will you calm down? You don't know anyone has taken him. When did you last see him?"
There was a pause and then some sniffing. "This morning, when I let him out into the garden." She dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "He needed to go, you know, outside."
I wanted to bang my head off the desk. "Then he could have escaped from the garden."
"He wouldn't do that. Oh Emma, can't you come and help me?"
Rob finished with his customer and made inquiring signs at me with his eyebrows. I mouthed back, "Gilly," and a terrified expression crossed his face before he made a dash for the back offices.
"Gilly, you know I'm at work."
"I came and helped you when you were burgled," she said reproachfully.
I'm not sure I would describe Gilly's presence at my flat in the aftermath of the robbery as being helpful, but she clearly felt it was. I looked at the clock. It was nearly twelve now and Gilly didn't live too far away.
"Listen, I'll try for an early lunch hour and come over." I didn't really want to spend my lunchtime with Gilly. I really wanted to go to Ikea, but I had a horrible feeling that if I didn't agree, then she might turn up at the shop.
"Is Rob there?"
Well, I couldn't see him, so I felt safe in saying, "Actually, Gilly, I think he's popped out."
"Oh. Well, will you tell him what's happened? I know he'll be worried. Rob is so fond of my little coochie-pie."
I think Gilly hoped Rob would drop everything and rush to her aid. I was second-best in the doggie squad stakes.
"I'll let him know."
"Thank you, Emma."
Rob reappeared by my desk the instant I put the phone down.
"What did she want?" He lowered his voice and leaned in toward me so no customers could hear.
"She says her pooch has been dog-napped."
There was an expression of complete bewilderment on Rob's face. "That ratty little thing that lives in her handbag?"
"Yep, that's the one. Robbie, he's called apparently." I bit back the urge to grin as Rob struggled to digest this latest bit of information.
"Well, has she called the police or somebody?"
"She says they aren't interested. I've promised to go over in my lunch break."
Rob's look of bewilderment was replaced by alarm. "You didn't say I'd go, did you?"
"No, but it'll cost you! Can I take a longer lunch?"
Rob's shoulders slumped with relief. "Okay, it's worth it. Greenback Grebe's gone out anyway, so I can cover for you."
Poor Rob. I stifled an urge to ruffle my fingers through his hair. After he'd gone back to his own desk, I wondered where that urge had come from.