Authors: Caroline Anderson
âWhat's an ex?'
âA has-been,' she said to Rory without looking at him.
âWhat's a has-been?'
âSomeone who was a friend a long time ago,' James said, modifying the truth just a little and watching Kate out of the corner of his eye. âSomebody who's not a friend any more.'
âWhy? Did you do something wrong so he doesn't like you?'
âRory, stop asking questions and eat your apple pie,' he said, watching Kate carefully, then, before he had time to think about it too much, he said very softly, âWould it help if you weren't alone?'
Her eyes flew to his, and her lips parted in surprise, then soft colour warmed her cheeks and she looked away, pressing her lips together.
âYou don't need to do that.'
âWould you like me to?'
âIt's an imposition.'
âKate, yes or no?'
She looked across at her mother. âAre you free to babysit?'
Sue didn't hesitate. In fact, if anything she looked quite enthusiastic. âOf course,' she said.
âThenâyes, please. If you really don't mind, I'd be very grateful.'
âOf course I don't mind.'
âIt's black tieâis that a problem?'
He shook his head. âNo. No problem.' Or he didn't think it was. He just had to find his suit.
âAnd that'll make us quits.'
âOn the favour front.'
She must be mad if she thought that taking her out for the evening could in any way be counted as a favour, but he let it go. For now.
When he finally got the children away from the table, he took them back to the house and dug out a few more changes of clothes for them, then took out his DJ and dress shirt. Goodness knows if it needed a clean. He couldn't even remember the last time he'd worn it. Two years ago? The Christmas ball, when Rory had been two and a half and Beth hadn't even realised she was pregnant.
He chucked it in the car, remembered his black dress shoes at the last minute and went and found them, too, then loaded up the children, locked the house and headed back. She was there outside the barn, tidying up a tub of pansies by her front door, and as they drove in she straightened up, lifting her hair back out of her eyes and smiling at them all, and he felt a tug of something long forgotten and probably totally inappropriate deep in his gut.
âGot everything you need?'
âEven the shoes,' he said wryly. âWhat time's kick-off?'
âSeven for seven-thirty. We need to leave about a quarter to. Is that all right?'
âSure. Knock on the door when you're ready.'
He took the children inside, found an iron in the kitchen and pressed his shirt, checked his suit and cleaned his shoes. Thankfully, there was some universal shoe cream stashed under the sink. He bathed the children, gave them scrambled eggs on toast and sat them down in front of the television while he showered.
Then at six-thirty, after he'd tucked the children up in bed and read them a story, he put the suit on. It was a lot looser on him, to his surprise, and he had to tighten the tabs on the waistband of the trousers, but he decided on balance it fitted better. He checked the pockets and found a handkerchief and a pair of tickets. Tickets for the hospital Christmas ball, his last Christmas with Beth.
He sat down on the edge of the bed and stared at the tickets for a moment. He could remember the event, but he could hardly remember Beth. What had she been wearing? Black, probably. She always wore black. He couldn't remember.
With a sigh he stood up and dropped the tickets into the waste-paper basket, and before he had time to think about it any more, he slipped off his wedding ring and put it in the bedside table drawer.
It was time to move on. Time to start living again, not only for him, but for Kate, too.
âSmart people,' she said flatly. âI never really fitted.'
âSo why are you here?'
Her laugh felt a little hollow. âMy brother's brother-in-law Adam is a lovely guy. And I got on really well with Jenny, my sister-in-law. And it's not really her fault her brother's a cold-hearted, self-centred bastard.'
âOh, ignore me, I'm just bitter. But he's not a nice man. Pity I didn't work that out before I married him.'
âSo why didn't you?'
She shrugged. âI don't really know. He can be very charming, but he didn't want me to be a doctor, and I think he always imagined I'd give it all up to have his babies and settle down. He was a bit shocked when I refused, but I really wasn't ready. There were things I needed to do first.'
âI'm surprised,' he said quietly. âI would have thought you'd have jumped at the chance of having children. You're wonderful with them, and they adore you. Well, mine do, anyway. They're wearing your name out talking about you.'
She gave a guilty little laugh. âI'm sorry about that. They're lovely. I have to admit I adore them, too.'
âSo how come you didn't want children when you were married?' he asked, and she shrugged.
âI did, in a way, but apart from the fact that I didn't think he'd make much of a father, like I said, I had things to do first.'
âAnd have you done them yet?'
âSome of them. Not all.' And not all of them mattered, of course. Some were just things to fill the future she could see stretching out ahead of her like a long, empty road.
âSo what's his name?'
She dragged herself back to the present. âJonâshort for Jonathan.'
âRight. Is there anything else I need to know about him?'
âApart from the fact that the last time I saw him I was recovering from surgery? Not really.'
She didn't look at him, but she heard his indrawn breath, and after a moment he moved on.
âSoâwill there be anyone from work here?'
âGood grief, no,' she said, laughter bubbling up at the very thought. âTwo totally different worlds.'
âAnd ne'er the twain shall meet?'
She flashed him a smile. âSomething like that. Right, shall we?'
âI'm ready when you are.'
âI'm ready as I'll ever be.'
He was there by the time she'd worked out where the doorhandle was and picked the present up off the floor, and he extended her a firm, warm hand and helped her out, then closed the door and offered her his elbow.
âSuch a gentleman,' she teased, and he smiled.
âI can beâwhen my boss isn't giving me strain.'
âI'll have to bear that in mind,' she said. Straightening her shoulders and pulling her wrap a little tighter, she dredged up her most brilliant smile.
âBefore we go in,' he said, pausing on the steps, his hand over hers in the crook of his elbow, and she turned and looked up at him questioningly. âYou look beautiful tonight,' he said, his voice a little gruff, and she felt a warm glow sweep over her.
âThank you, James,' she said, a tiny tremor in her voice, and she ran her eyes over him and smiled. âI have to say you don't look so bad yourself.'
âIt's amazing what you can do with a bar of soap and a well-cut suit.' He grinned and inclined his head towards the doors. âShall we?'
She was fabulous.
Taut as a bowstring, but composed, dignified and very, very close to him.
He was introduced to her brother Michael, very like her, with the same warm brown eyes, and his pretty pregnant wife, Louise, who was the sister of the groom. They were lovely people, and very interested in him, he could tell, although they tried to be discreet.
âDon't get excited, he's a colleague and he's only here as a smokescreen,' she told them drily, but they didn't look any less interested or at all convinced, and he wondered what he was giving away, or if it was that Kate absolutely never went out with a man? And if so, why? Because it would get in the way of her achieving all her goals?
Something about that didn't fit, because she'd admitted she wanted children.
Which was a thought worthy of considerably more attention later, he decided, and filed it.
They chatted for a few minutes, but they were in demand and so he and Kate moved on. She introduced him to the blissfully happy bride and groom, Jenny and Adam, and a couple of other people, and all the time he was aware of the curious glances that followed them around the room.
Maybe she really never did go out with a manâin which case, thank goodness there was nobody from the hospital there, or the gossipmongers would be having a field day.
There was a finger buffet served by a diligent army of waiters, but he wasn't interested in food, or the free-flowing champagne that was circulating. The only thing that held his attention was Kate, and he was riveted.
Especially when she introduced him to Jon.
The dreaded ex.
She was brilliantâand James loathed him on sight.
âKatherineâhow nice to see you!' he said, hardly sparing James a glance. âYou're looking well.'
Better than she had when she was recovering from surgery? That was when Kate had said she'd last seen him, and James had to stifle the urge to knock the self-satisfied smile down his throat. He remembered the wicked scar around her ribs and his jaw clenched. Had this man been in any way responsible for that?
âThank you, Jon.' Nobody else would have realised how false her sparkling smile was, but he knew the effort it must have cost her, and his hand settled on the hollow of her back in support, and he felt her lean back into him.
âIt's lovely to see you, too,' she said brightly. âYou're looking well.' And then she added innocently, âThe extra weight suits you.'
He nearly choked at the man's expression, but managed to contain the laugh.
âEver the wit,' Jon said a little crisply, his smile slipping a little, and then assessing eyes swivelled James's way. âI hadn't realised you weren't alone tonight. Aren't you going to introduce me?'
âOf course. Jon, this is James McEwan. He'sâ'
âGood to put a face to a name,' James interrupted, cutting her off and taking charge of this one as he shook the man's hand. âI've heard a lot about you. Kate and I are veryâ¦' He paused. â
friends.' The emphasis wasn't lost, and Jon's eyebrows rose fractionally.
âWell, I hope she doesn't bore you to death,' he replied with a slightly mocking laugh. âShe's got a morbid obsession with cutting people up. Never could understand it. So what do you do?'
Oh, he was enjoying this. âI cut people up,' he said deadpan.
âOh, I might have known it, you're another bloody doctor,' Jon said with undisguised disgust, and then laughed again dismissively. âOh, well, Kate, you'll be all right with this one. He won't even notice when you work ludicrous hours.'
âActually, he does notice, and he works even more ludicrous hours than I do, so, as you were kind enough to point out, we're well suited.'
And sliding an arm round his waist, she leant up against James and smiled like the cat that had got the cream.
âPompous ass. I hope he never needs my attention,' James growled as Jon walked away to more interesting pastures, and she chuckled.
âNot a chance. He only goes private. That should have told me something. I still haven't worked out if I'm a lousy judge of character or if he's got worse as he's got older.'
âBoth, probably. You're a bit inclined to see the good in people. Well, except me.'
âI see the good in you!' she protested, turning to face him, and his lips twitched.
âNot on my first day.'
âYou were late because you'd been incompetent!'
He grinned. âFair cop. Fancy a dance?'
âDo you know, I think I do?'
She smiled at him, relaxing now the dreaded meeting was over, and he led her to the dance floor, just as the song finished and the music slowed, so he slid his arms round her and eased her up against him.
Oh, hell. Big mistake. Huge, massive mistake, because the feel of her body, soft and warm and very feminine against him, was enough to send him into meltdown.
He moved away a fraction, and the moment the beat speeded up he let her go and created a little space between them. Not too much. Just enough, so that he didn't have to feel her thighs brushing against his, her breasts pressing into his chest, her hands warm and light against his waist.
But he could still smell that intoxicating fragrance and in many ways it was worse because now he could watch her, and the sight of her body moving sinuously in time to the music was going to do his head in.
âI need a drink,' he said a trifle desperately, and led her away from the dance floor before he disgraced himself completely.
âDo you really need a drink? Or do you need to get out of here?'
âCan we? Before the bride and groom leave?'
âI'm sure we can. Knowing them, they'll be partying until three o'clock.' And then she added with a little grin, âI've got a nice bottle of Merlot in my kitchen.'
Was he dreaming, or was that a very definite invitation in her eyes? He wasn't taking any chances.
âGive me a minute,' he said. Diving into the gents', he raided the conveniently full dispensing machine in the corner next to the hand-dryer. He could hardly get the coins into it his hands were shaking so badly. It was ridiculous. She probably didn't intend anything of the sort, but there was no way he was going back there unprepared.
Finally he managed the simple task, pulled open the drawer, slid the packet into his trouser pocket and turned round, just as Jon walked in.
âAh, McEwan. Wondered where you were. Kate was looking lost. I think she suspects you've slipped off without her.'
âI doubt it,' he said drily. âShe knows I wouldn't do that. I keep my promises. You knowâin sickness and in health, and all thatâ¦'
And without another word, he brushed past him and went out into the foyer.
âDid you see Jon?'
âI did. He said you were looking lost.'
âLiar. I was saying goodbye to my brother. Are you all set?'
âYes. Let's go before we run into him again and I feel obliged to feed him his teeth.'
She gave a surprised little chuckle, and the sound of it warmed him to the soles of his shoes.
âMum? We're back.'
âOh, hello, darling, you're early,' her mother said, turning off the television and getting to her feet. âHello, James. So did you both have a good time?'
Kate just laughed. âHardly. Well, the party was fine, but Jon was as obnoxious as usual.'
âI think you got your own back,' James replied, and her mother raised a questioning eyebrow. âShe told him the extra weight suited him.'
Her mother's eyes widened and filled with laughter. âOh, Kate, you are naughty.'
âI know. It was great. He had the nerve to tell me I was looking better!'
âOh, stupid man. Still, you got through it.'
âShe more than got through it, she was fabulous, and we did have a good time,' James said beside her, and her mother looked from him to Kate and back again, and a tiny, knowing smile flickered around the corners of her mouth.
âGood. Well, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I haven't heard a sound out of the children, by the way. They must have worn themselves out this morning on your walk.'
âProbably. Thank you so much for looking after them.'
âAny time. It's good to see Kate getting out. She should do it more.'
Just go, Mum, she thought, wondering what she was going to say next, but she just kissed her on the cheek and went out. âDon't forget Dan's coming for lunch tomorrow. You're all invited, if you'd like to come. It's open house.'
âIt's always open house,' she said ruefully as her mother closed the door. âI've never known it be anything else. It's a wonder she doesn't drag the postman in and give him breakfast.'
âShe's wonderful,' James said, and she smiled.
âI know, and I love her to bits. She's a brilliant mother. Right, I'm going to get out of this dress.'
âThat's a shame. You look lovely in it.'
She hesitated. It itched, and the bra was too tight over her ribs, but the look in his eyesâ¦
âOK, then. Just give me a minute.'
And she went through into her half of the barn, ran upstairs and wriggled out of the hard, uncomfortable strapless bra that pressed on her ribs, and went back down, hoping that the boning in the dress was adequate and that she wouldn't fall out of it and embarrass herself to bits.