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Authors: Patricia Fawcett

Tags: #Chick-Lit, #Family Life, #Fiction, #Marriage, #Relationships, #Sagas, #Women's Fiction

A Close Connection (15 page)

BOOK: A Close Connection
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‘It would give you so much more independence if you can drive yourself around.’

‘Yes it would. I might start lessons, not with Alan, though. You’re right about that. It would be a mistake. This is delicious, by the way.’

‘Yes, it is a good attempt, although it doesn’t compare of course with the real thing. Do you remember our lunch in that restaurant in Venice? They were proper lasagnes, weren’t they, not cheap imitations.’

Paula glanced round hurriedly, for it was hardly the thing to say within hearing distance of the waiting staff, but fortunately for once Eleanor’s ringing tones seemed not to have been overheard.

Paula did remember the restaurant in a side street off St Mark’s Square, remembered too, how Eleanor had taken charge, fluttering away in Italian as usual, remembered too the glance Henry shot her, the glance that said more than a thousand words, the glance that told her what she already knew, that he was willing if she was. It was a very popular restaurant, not the usual tourist haunt but one that the locals enjoyed, so that for once Eleanor’s knowledge of the language was most helpful. It was crammed to capacity, so much so that they were squeezed together on a table that was barely adequate for two.

Somehow she and Henry had ended up side by side on the bench with the other two opposite and she was very aware of his leg against hers – and surely an additional pressure as she
caught the sideways glance that was nothing to do with the lack of space. It made her blush but it was so damned hot in the very middle of the restaurant that she hoped her pink cheeks would be put down to that. She was wearing a sundress in palest blue with tiny shoestring straps and she was realizing a little too late that it was not providing enough bust support, so she had to hitch up the straps from time to time.

Sitting there on the bench in that crowded restaurant, at first she thought it was a mistake, that it was not intentional, but when Henry dropped his hand down to her thigh and stroked it, that was quite different. It took a huge effort to remain seated for she was very effectively trapped there. She knew full well that Henry was aware that she would stay silent rather than cause a scene and mortify both Alan and Eleanor. She could not believe it. How dare he? She was happily married, had been for years, and she had never in all her married life looked at another man, not in that way. Why should she when Alan satisfied her very nicely when it came to all that?

She very nearly blurted it out to Alan that evening but she did not want to ruin the rest of the holiday and she was not sure how he would react. Good heavens, the four of them were in this relationship for the long haul with their children married to each other, so perhaps a discreet stepping-back might be the best option. Certainly when the holiday was over, she would make damned sure that she never found herself alone with him. Poor Eleanor. For a moment she felt quite sorry for her living with a slimeball such as Henry Nightingale, who wasn’t half the man her husband was.

‘What are you thinking about, sweetheart?’ Alan asked when they were back in the hotel after the Venice trip, as she had been sitting at the mirror in their room for a long time staring at her reflection.

‘Nothing.’ She managed a smile. ‘Nothing at all.’

*

Eleanor smiled a little wearily at the woman opposite. The restaurant was busy now and it was hardly an atmosphere conducive to discussing such a delicate matter as her daughter’s concerns. If she were so much as to offer a crumb of criticism directed at Matthew, Paula would round on her. She felt sure of that for there was something of the tiger and the tiger cub about Paula.

‘Paula …’ she began hesitantly. ‘I’m not sure how to say this but Nicola’s not very happy just now. She feels that Matthew is being a bit distant with her.’

‘He’s busy at work.’

‘That’s what I said. I said it would be work-related but she thinks not. She thinks it’s something else.’

‘It’s not that Chrissie thing, is it? It’s a while ago now. He told me all about that, about how they met accidentally and about how she rang Nicola to complain about him harassing her. The thing is, Eleanor, it doesn’t surprise me in the least. I always knew that there was something a bit odd about Chrissie but I never let on. Why would I? You have to let these things run their course and nobody was more relieved than I was when she left. I could see what was coming.’ She leaned forward, lowering her voice. ‘I believe she was going to trap him, get pregnant and get him to marry her. I was worried sick that he would do the decent thing and that would have meant him giving up his place at university. I think he would have done it for her. But when she left, he took it hard. First love, that sort of thing …’ She looked towards Eleanor for some sort of understanding and Eleanor nodded. ‘He’s a deep thinker, is Matthew, and meeting her again just got to him, that’s all. I thought it might. He’s probably thinking about what might have happened if she hadn’t moved away. Things like that don’t last. They were still children and as soon as they go off to different universities to study that’s it, isn’t it? They meet
other people and move on. Chrissie’s gone now, married with children, so there’s no need to worry and there’s been no more contact so they should put it behind them now.’

‘Are you sure there’s been no more contact?’

‘Yes, I am.’

‘Nicola is suspicious. He’s acting funny.’

‘She’s probably just imagining it, but that’s between the two of them, isn’t it? They are grown-ups, Eleanor, and we mustn’t interfere.’

‘Oh, come on, we can’t just stand by and do nothing.’

‘That’s exactly what we must do.’ Paula put her fork down. ‘I wouldn’t have liked it if my mother-in-law had butted in if something was up between me and Alan. Not that there ever was. We’ve been happy together. Alan’s always been very loyal to me.’

The look was knowing and a little smug and Eleanor resented it. Did Paula know about Henry and his little dalliances over the years? Or did Paula imagine for one minute that her husband might be interested in her? She had caught a few glances between them during the holiday but that was just Henry playing at it. He couldn’t help it. He would be trying to charm the ladies on his deathbed.

‘We will see how things go,’ Eleanor said. ‘Whatever the problem is, it might blow over.’

‘We will see and if there’s any talking to be done to Matthew then I will do it,’ Paula said, determination etched in her face. It left Eleanor feeling that it was Paula who was leading this conversation and that somehow during the course of this lunch there had been a distinct shift in their relationship. She had not anticipated any problems, for Paula was usually such a meek woman, anxious to please, maybe a little scared of her; but she was changed, her whole demeanour altered, and Eleanor did not care for it. It wrong-footed her and she had no idea how to deal with it. Should she tell
her that Nicola was trying for a baby? She very nearly succumbed to that idea but Nicola had told her in confidence and all would be revealed in due course once she was pregnant. Although that might turn out to be a very bad idea if there was a problem with the marriage.

‘We must keep in touch.’ Eleanor knew she was not forgiven about the wretched dinner and determined that, should another invitation be forthcoming, she and Henry would be there like a shot.

‘Yes we must and you and Henry must come along to dinner another time,’ Paula said, giving in a little but refusing to look at the dessert menu as it was presented to them. ‘I’m sorry but I’ll have to cut this short because I have a meeting.’

‘With whom?’ She regretted the sharpness of the question for it was none of her business but Paula, who would previously have blushed at so direct a question, merely smiled.

‘If you must know I’m meeting up with the agent who manages our rental properties. I have some ideas I want to discuss with him. I’ve had a look round them and they need considerable updating if we are to rent to a higher-end market.’

Eleanor stared at her. Where had she picked up that business-speak phrase? ‘Oh, so you inherited properties as well? Isn’t that lucky?’

‘It’s not lucky at all. It’s family. And it’s not just a few, it’s practically a terrace. Alan’s father was quite the entrepreneur.’ Paula smiled at her and beyond the smile, Eleanor saw in her face that look of triumph. Paula Walker had blossomed and loved it. ‘I hope that whatever happens in future you and I can keep in touch,’ she went on. ‘Although I’m sure that they will be just fine. Matthew adores her, you know. I don’t know about Nicola. I never really know what she’s thinking.’

‘Trust me, she loves him very much too.’

‘Well, then, we have nothing to worry about, do we?’

Out of habit Eleanor was just about to ask for the bill but Paula beat her to it, slipping her hand into the leather bag, an expensive number, and bringing out a credit card and adding a substantial cash tip.

My, my.

She was learning fast.

I
T WAS NOT
part of Nicola’s brief to check through the rooms at the hotel although, if a couple had booked the honeymoon suite, she did like to make sure that all was well there. She unlocked the door and went inside, nodding with satisfaction because the first impression was that it looked good. She smoothed down the quilt on the four-poster bed, fluffed up one of the cushions, reflecting that she had never slept in a bed as grand as this. She and Matthew had not come here for their wedding reception, choosing another venue and also choosing to forego the ubiquitous disco evening, opting to spend their wedding night in an airport hotel prior to jetting off.

This room most certainly had that elusive wow factor, managing to be restful and romantic, with the curtains drawn back to reveal the beauty of the gardens that were today bathed in an autumnal low-lying mist, making them almost ethereal.

She was just checking the bathroom when the door opened and one of the housekeeping staff came in. It was the girl with the nose-stud and she looked startled as she saw Nicola.

‘The room’s been done,’ Nicola said, nodding at her. ‘Did you do it?’

‘Me and Connie.’ The girl looked worried, chewing on her lip.

‘It looks good. Well done.’

‘I couldn’t remember if I’d done the end of the toilet roll, Mrs Walker,’ the girl went on, flushed and flustered suddenly, tucking a blonde curl behind her ear. ‘So I thought I would just check.’

‘Thank you, it has been done and done very nicely. Tiffany, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, Mrs Walker.’

‘How are you settling in?’ She softened her voice.

 

It had come to her notice lately that her brusque attitude to lowlier members of staff had not escaped Gerry Gilbert’s eagle eyes. He had spoken to her about it, at least she thought that was what he was referring to for he was the master of not quite saying what he was thinking. At any rate, he had called her into his office just after Val had been appointed to events manager, presumably to explain why she had not got the job. She was furious and had come very close to handing in her notice, but Matthew had told her not to do anything hastily and to stay cool and she was trying her damnedest to do that. She had even managed to offer smiling congratulations to Val when inside she was seething with indignation and jealousy. So the summons to Gerry Gilbert’s office came as no surprise, for he had some explaining to do.

‘You sent for me, Mr Gilbert?’

‘Ah. Nicola. There you are. Take a pew. What do you think of Val?’

‘She’s very nice.’ It was a pitiful response but the best she could come up with.

‘Yes and she will fit in very well. She’s a team player. She works well with everybody. She can adapt to both senior management and junior staff. It is important to remember that we are all part of the team. We are all in this together and often it’s how the lowliest member of the team performs that matters.
Guests notice when the room maid smiles at them.’

Sitting opposite him at his desk, she listened as he then went off at a tangent, rambling on about running a tight ship but a happy ship and steering it through muddy waters into the calm of the harbour. In other words, one of his especially incomprehensible chats, but it made her think and as she watched the newcomer Val smiling her way through the corridors, dispensing happiness in her wake, she began to understand.

So there had to be a bit of a rethink about her own attitude and she was starting that right now with Tiffany.

‘I’m doing all right.’ Tiffany stood there awkwardly, duster in hand. ‘Thanks for asking.’

Leaving her to her work, Nicola locked up the room and pocketed the key before taking the lift down to reception. She couldn’t help smiling a little at the astonishment on the girl’s face, for she may have expected a bollocking because, once the room was signed off, she should not be going back into it; toilet-roll end-pleating or no toilet-roll end-pleating. Being nice to minions was no bad thing. In fact, it made her feel rather good.

Now that Val was starting to make her mark on the way things were run, Nicola had to acknowledge, belatedly, that all in all she was doing a good job and that the changes she had made were beneficial. Also, to her surprise, she was finding that they were getting on rather well, which she would never have anticipated at the start.

Perhaps Gerry Gilbert knew what he was doing after all in appointing Val, whose CV did in fact read like a dream. Divorced, she was building a new life for herself and her teenage son here in the West Country and all credit to her for that. She was a chatty sort and had taken Nicola under her wing in more ways than one, a thing that a few months ago would have irritated the hell out of her.

Now she was a little more relaxed and simply taking it in her stride and yes, perhaps she did need a few more years’ experience under her belt before she took on something more demanding.

The important thing now was to get her marriage back to where it had once been after the last few tricky months. That Chrissie business had made more of a mark on her than it should have and she struggled for a while believing her husband’s account of it. Why had he gone to the station that day? There was still something a bit off about it all and she almost wished she could meet this woman and get it sorted out once and for all.

Suspicion and mistrust was an ugly thing and if she wasn’t careful it would start to eat away at her and eventually destroy any trust she might have in Matthew. Her mother, despite the mess she had made of her own love life, was right about that. She had to let go of it. She had to trust Matthew as he trusted her.

But sometimes she did catch him staring into space with an expression she could not quite fathom and that was disturbing because on those occasions she always imagined that he was thinking about Chrissie. She recalled the woman’s voice, pleasant-sounding even when she was not saying particularly nice things, and how she wished she had been more on the ball that day, but she was taken by surprise and when you are taken by surprise you can never think of the right things to say.

She might have a chat to Paula after all. She knew she had told her mother that they didn’t get on, but she needed to know more about this Chrissie and Paula was the person who could tell her.

It was Paula’s birthday soon, wasn’t it, and that would be the perfect excuse for her to drop by the house and give her a present. She knew just the thing. And then, once she was
inside and Paula had made them a cup of tea, she could weave the conversation round in a subtle way to the subject of Chrissie.

 

‘Happy birthday! I know it is two days early but I was in town so I thought …’ Nicola stopped as Paula hugged her. It was a dutiful mother/daughter-in-law hug but it was less embarrassing than the formal greeting of a kiss on the cheek that could become so complicated with acquaintances. She had no idea what the form was these days. Was it one kiss on one cheek, a kiss on both cheeks or even three fleeting cheek kisses from one of her friends? When would it end? It was simpler when you shook hands or, in the old days, did a quick bob. She liked that idea, a quick bobbing up and down as in Jane Austen’s day.

‘It’s lovely to see you, Nicola. What a surprise! It’s all a bit messy. Come on in.’

If this was her idea of messy then God help her if she came to the cottage. She was increasingly aware that she was letting standards slip and the other day for some reason she had a blitz on it; got the Dyson out and cleaned it from top to bottom so that even Matthew noticed.

She handed over some flowers and the present, telling Paula that she wasn’t to open it before her birthday so that there would be at least one surprise.

‘Thank you. How exciting.’ Paula took the present, a beautiful pashmina expertly wrapped by the lady in the shop, and put it aside. ‘Alan always gets me perfume, which is very nice of course but hardly a surprise although, as you get older, you start to dread birthdays.’

She bustled off, searching for a vase for the flowers whilst Nicola waited in the lounge. There was some new furniture, she noticed, a new three-piece suite in cream leather – not to her taste – and a new television, one of those flat-screen things
that just managed to stay the right side of good taste by not being too enormous.

She had worked it out on the way here what she was going to say, how she was going to gently get her to open up about Chrissie but in the event, as often happens, when confronted by the question in Paula’s eyes that asked clearly why was she here, she just blurted it out.

‘I thought that was all done and dusted,’ Paula said, looking just a touch put-out. ‘Matthew hasn’t seen her again and he’s not going to so it’s best to forget it. Keep dragging it up will only cause a problem.’

‘I know that but I’m just curious. Have you any other pictures of her other than the one I saw in your album?’

‘I don’t think so. That one just slipped through because, to be honest, I didn’t like her. She was his first proper girlfriend and you know how intense it can get. I remember my first boyfriend. He was called Jack and—’

‘I remember mine too,’ Nicola put in swiftly before Paula got started. ‘When you think back you wonder what the hell you saw in them, don’t you?’

‘Yes, I suppose you do. Anyway, Alan and I didn’t want him to have a girlfriend because we were worried that it was going to affect his schoolwork because he was doing so well and on target for that Oxford place. It hadn’t happened at that school before and he was under a lot of pressure to succeed. And we didn’t want him to be too distracted with a girl, but it’s very difficult to get the right balance between work and letting him have some fun and we didn’t want to come over as heavy-handed because that never works.’

Nicola nodded, understanding completely and rather surprised that Paula had put it quite so succinctly.

‘Why didn’t you like her?’

‘She was too clingy. She had not had a happy childhood and she was looking for another family. She pushed in. She
was too sweet. She overdid it and it was creepy. Lucy didn’t like her either and she was always a good judge of a person. She was not good for Matthew and I was concerned that she would not let him go, so it was a real relief when she moved away. Although he took it badly, he did buckle down to the work and he ended up getting that place. Lucy talked to him. He took a lot of notice of what his sister said.’

How would she have fared in the Lucy test? Would she have liked her? It was a sobering thought for she was not entirely convinced that Paula liked her either.

They changed the subject then, talking about shopping, and Paula took her upstairs to see the things she had bought. ‘I had to have a personal shopper helping me,’ she said a little shamefaced. ‘So that I didn’t keep making the same mistakes.’

‘We all make mistakes. I would have helped you choose some new clothes,’ Nicola told her, thinking that the personal shopper, whoever she might be, had come up with some surprising choices for such a tiny lady. ‘We’ll go shopping together some time.’

‘I feel guilty at spending money,’ Paula said when they were back downstairs. ‘I can’t get used to it. We’ve talked about it and we would like to give you and Matthew a little something if that’s all right with you.’

‘That would be lovely,’ she said, thinking that a few hundred pounds would not come amiss to spend on the cottage or maybe put towards the holiday that they never seemed to get around to. And, if she did become pregnant, then it could go towards furnishing the nursery. She came close to telling Paula at that point that she was hoping to become pregnant soon, but what was the point until she actually was?

The rest of the visit was a touch forced as they ran out of things to say and there was no warmth in the goodbye hug accompanied with a murmured thank-you from Paula for the birthday present.

And for the first time, that coolness bothered her a good deal.

They had got off to a bad start and she realized only now how wrong she had been. But was it too late to make amends? Would the two of them ever be friends?

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