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Scones and clotted cream are the devil's work," Sophie said out loud as she inspected herself in her latest pair of jeans. Technically she was still a size ten, but if she was honest, the almost daily trips to Carmen Velasquez's Ye Olde Tea Shoppe had pushed her hips to the size's upper limit, something she'd have to sort out eventually, particularly if she really was going to wear quite so much denim.
Once, before Bella, Izzy, and their father had come into her life, Sophie had owned only one pair of jeans, which she hardly ever wore. She had been an occasion dresser, with a fondness for silk blouses on workdays and a rule that a heel should never dwindle below three inches. But since she'd come to stay in St. Ives, not only had she not bought a single pair of high heels, she'd collected four pairs of jeans, two denim skirts, an assortment of casual tops, and an anorak. Sophie loved her double-zipped weatherproof red and navy blue anorak, but it was a love that dare not speak its name, at least not when she was on the phone talking to her erstwhile secretary and good friend Cal about her outlandish new life in Cornwall.
"Have you got any wellies yet?" Cal would ask her without fail during their weekly chats.
"Me, wellies, are you joking? I have some standards," Sophie would tell him breezily. And then, hoping to change the subject, she'd try to engage him in some work talk. "Tell me what's new, do you have new accounts are things as bad in the city as they say they are?"
Cal, who was never that fond of bad news, would ignore her. "Wellies mean you aren't coming back," Cal took pleasure in telling her. "Wellies are a sign of commitment to your new way of life. Wellington boots are the nearest that you, Sophie Mills, will ever get to an engagement ring."
"Thanks, Cal, thanks very much for boiling my entire romantic happiness down to rubber boots," Sophie would reply. "Besides, what would you, the king of commitment phobia, know anyway? I might get married one day anyway, I was thinking that if the big corporations are cutting back on parties to show how sorry they are, why don't you target smaller firms? I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that if the big guys haven't got any money, then the little guys certainly don't, but bear with me smaller events at discounted rates mean less work and less outlay more accounts and only marginally reduced revenue. You should run that by Eve you can tell her it's your idea if you like."
"Sophie, have you forgotten that you traded in the life of a corporate junkie to breathe in sea air and be fulfilled? I don't need your ideas, I have ideas. I'm going after the pink pound. I'm much more interested in the idea of you getting married you!"
Trying not to feel hurt that Cal had rejected her idea so entirely, Sophie gazed out her bedroom window at the gray and stormy sea beyond the harbor below. Before she'd left London to come here, she had never once daydreamed about getting married or being a bride. But during the last six months she'd spent with Louis, she felt like a different person, no, a different version of herself, the self she might be if she were living in a novel or a film. The happy-ending self. And if you were the sort of person who believed in happy endings, then you knew they always came about with a wedding.
"To Louis?" Cal persisted.
"Potentially." Sophie's mouth curled into a smile meant only for herself. "One day, you know...when the time is right."
"Wellies first." Cal was adamant. "Once you've bought the wellies, then he'll finally know you're committed and he'll ask you. That's what he's waiting for."
But as of yet there were no Wellington boots in the wardrobe in Sophie's room at the Avalon B & B, and at six months she was the second-longest-staying guest, second only to Mrs. Tregowan, who had been there for nearly a year since her husband died and she had decided she couldn't bear to go back to her bungalow without him.
Sophie had arrived in the Cornish town of St. Ives in the spring. Fully experiencing the burgeoning season and embracing the renewal of life, she'd felt herself awaken to the unknown possibilities that the future might hold. On weekend mornings she and Louis had waded in the freezing waters of the harbor with the girls until her soft city toes turned blue, collecting interesting shells and bits of pottery. Sophie had let the cool, crisp sea breeze ruddy her cheeks and whip her fine blond hair into a tangle. As they climbed over the rocks and stones to the harbor wall, Louis would hold her hand in his, reviving her numb fingers with his body heat until she felt the blood tingle and throb in the tips.
She had stayed for the whole fickle summer, which had been a stretch of warm, rainy days occasionally studded with jewel-like ones bathed in sunshine. During the summer holidays, when Louis was working on building up his fledgling photography business, the girls gave her their own personal tour of the town they'd grown up in. Picnicking among the clover and daisies in the meadow above the whitewashed town that seemed to be perched so haphazardly on the rocky cliffs that tumbled to the sea, dodging the tourists for the roller disco that took place at midday in the guildhall, which Sophie found both exhilarating and humiliating in turn. They took her to the Tate Gallery and showed her the paintings that had been their mother's favorites, Bella lecturing her confidently about light and perspective. They led her in and out of the maze of tiny cobbled streets, showing her their favorite houses, their window boxes laden with geraniums. And in the evenings before bed, after Louis had got home from that day's assignment, they'd walk along the harbor wall until they found the family of seals that was always there, lounging on the rocks just out to sea as if they rather enjoyed their celebrity. Izzy would give the seals a new name every day and Bella would tell Izzy stories about them.
For most of that time, Sophie hadn't thought about the career she'd left behind. It was as if she had finally put her foot on the brake of her life, which had been careering recklessly toward a final goal that she had never been sure of, and taken a moment to look around and feel what it meant to be alive in the world. And then in the last couple of months she'd started to feel restless and irritable. For a while she'd worried that she wasn't madly in love with Louis after all, and that the whole escapade had been a terrible mistake. But then one evening as they'd strolled along the seafront, the girls bounding along ahead of them, Louis had turned to her and said, "You're not happy, Soph, and I know why."
"I am so happy," Sophie had replied, panicking. "Look at me. I'm delirious!"
"You're bored," Louis said, smiling while squeezing her fingers.
"Bored? How could I be bored with this, with you and those two?" She nodded at the girls, who were screaming in delight as the seagulls dive-bombed them, trying to steal their chips.
"Look, it's okay, you know. I mean I know that I am endlessly fascinating and deeply sexually satisfying and that holding a conversation with either of my daughters is just as intellectually rewarding as reading Shakespeare but if you need something more in your life, that's cool. Something just for you. It doesn't mean you don't love us or want to be here. It just means you want to be you, and as it's you I love, I'm all for it."
"Something just for me," Sophie mused. "You mean something apart from cakes."
"Sophie, you're a doer a woman with ideas who makes things happen. And I don't think that includes making beans on toast for the girls' tea. Look, there's no high-finance or six-figure jobs around here but you should look for something to get your teeth into, like Carmen did with the tea shop. Think about it. I guarantee there is something in this town that needs Sophie Mills's magic touch. And I'm not just talking about my "
"You're right!" Sophie had exclaimed in relief. "That's what's missing. I need a thing. A thing to do, that's it! Oh, but what?"
"I can't answer that, but I'm sure you'll figure something out," Louis told her.
"You really know me, don't you?" Sophie turned to him, tugging at his fingers to bring him a little closer. "I think you might be the first person ever to really get me."
Louis had smiled at her and kissed the tip of her nose.
"Well, someone's got to," he'd said.
Now it was late September and things had stayed more or less the same since the week she'd arrived, a charming mixture of novelty and routine combined with the kind of happiness she had never felt before and the sense that this wasn't really her life she was living after all. It couldn't be. She felt as if she were walking through the pages of a romance novel or had suddenly been given the lead role in a movie, because real life was never this easy.
She saw Louis and the girls every day. Since the new term had started, she'd been taking the children to school now that Izzy had turned four and joined the kindergarten at Bella's school. And every other afternoon she would pick Izzy up at 1:00 p.m. and they would go to Carmen Velasquez's Ye Olde Tea Shoppe for a snack before returning to school to fetch Bella at 3:15. Then they'd go for a walk on the beach, making sand castles and chasing each other with lumps of slimy seaweed if it was sunny enough, or hang out making things from dried pasta at Louis's house if it was rainy. And just occasionally they'd partake of a second snack at Ye Olde Tea Shoppe, as it didn't seem fair that Bella had missed out.
In the evenings, after the girls were in bed, Sophie and Louis would sit in front of the electric fire he kept swearing he was going to replace with a period fireplace to match the house's Victorian exterior and laugh and talk and share news and hold hands and do a great deal of kissing. And most nights the kissing would lead to touching and the touching would lead to the most wonderful and dazzling sex Sophie Mills had ever known. Louis's sofa had seen a lot of action over the last six months, and his rug had seen a great deal more. But to date, Sophie had never stayed the night.
"I am fairly sure you could sleep over if you wanted to," Louis had said one night as the two of them lay sprawled in front of the fire, which they had switched on for old times' sake even though it was August and one of those rare swelteringly hot nights. He traced a finger along the curve of her breast, which shimmered in the firelight. "I'd love to go to sleep with you, Sophie," he murmured. "And wake up with you. I'd like to see you in the morning with your hair all tangled and sleep creases in your cheeks. I'd like to have sex with you in the morning, while you're still half dreaming and biddable."
"Well, you'd be unlucky," Sophie told him as she stretched, wriggling because the rug was a nylon mix and a bit itchy on her skin. "Because I sleep like a princess and I never get tousled or creased. Besides, I am only ever biddable when I want to be, which might be right now if you play your cards right."
"Stay over," Louis asked her gently, kissing her shoulder. "Please."
"I can't, Louis. What would they think?" Sophie said, pointing at the ceiling. Bella and Izzy were fast asleep upstairs.
"They'd think you stayed the night and then, seeing Daddy in such a good mood, they'd wonder if they could score Coco Pops for breakfast two days in a row even though they're only supposed to have them twice a week," Louis said. "They wouldn't care, Sophie, I think they'd be happy about it."
"I can't," Sophie replied uncertainly. "It wouldn't be right. They aren't ready for that."
"They do know we're going out together, you know," Louis said wryly. "All the hand holding and 'I love yous' have given it away. I think you're the one who's not ready."
Sophie dropped her gaze momentarily. Perhaps Louis was right. Everything seemed so perfect, so wonderful now, that she sometimes felt as if her happiness was balanced on a high wire. She was afraid of changing anything lest the perfect peace she'd found here teetered and crashed. And staying the night, living here, meant letting real life creep in and she wasn't ready for that quite yet. Sophie eyed Louis from beneath her lashes. It was odd that she could lie here, naked, with him but wasn't sure she could tell him her fears about moving ahead with their relationship. She wasn't sure he'd understand.
"So we are going out together then?" Sophie teased him instead. "Only you've never formally asked me, so I did wonder. Look, it's just that the children are only seven and four. I can't possibly stay over not when we're not..."
"What?" Louis had propped himself up on one elbow and looked at Sophie, his gaze traveling slowly up from the tops of her thighs, over her breasts, and finally meeting her eyes with the kind of look that made her blood fizz.
"We're not, you know...," Sophie said, her mouth curling into a smile as she wound her arms around Louis's neck and drew him down to kiss her. But his lips stopped short of hers by a hairsbreadth.
"Marry me then," Louis had whispered.
Instead of answering, Sophie kissed him hard, pushing him onto his back on the carpet and climbing on top of him with the kind of unbridled abandon that, had she stopped to think about it, she would have found rather embarrassing. But she didn't stop to think, because one of the best things about being in love with Louis Gregory was that when she made love to him, she didn't think about anything apart from how very wonderful it made her feel.
Still, as delightful a distraction as that had been, Sophie had not answered or even acknowledged Louis's question. And while it had not gone unnoticed, neither of them mentioned it because Sophie and Louis did not talk about much besides the children and that day's events. Sometimes the thought would creep into Sophie's mind that all she and Louis knew about each other, apart from the history they had shared through Carrie and her children, was how to make each other laugh and their bodies sing, but Sophie didn't dwell on it.
Then, as on most evenings, after spending a few minutes talking to her cat, Artemis, who had moved in with Louis on the very first day they arrived from London and lorded it over the resident ginger cat, Tango, with the ferocity and splendor of a feline Boadicea, Sophie would get in her car if she hadn't been drinking, or take the local taxi if she had, and go back to the B & B to sleep alone.
It wasn't that she didn't long to wake up with Louis's arms around her, because she did. It was just that before she moved any further along that precarious high wire, she wanted to be absolutely sure that what she was doing was the right thing and that she wasn't making a terrible, terrible mistake.
Sometimes she worried about how her relationship with Louis looked to people on the outside. She and Louis, essentially strangers to each other, had been thrown together by circumstance. People might think that, as fond as he was of her, Sophie was little more to Louis than a rather convenient replacement for his children's lost mother, one who'd come ready-made with his children's trust and love already assured. And because she was a person who had always been desperate for other people's approval, it was hard for her to throw caution to the wind and decide that she didn't care two hoots about what other people might think.
Although the general feeling of contentment and joy that had pervaded her daily life since she had come down to Cornwall supported a favorable outcome, Sophie was waiting for something, some tiny, indefinable piece of information to fall into place before she could know for sure she was meant to be here permanently. The problem was, Sophie wasn't sure exactly what it was she was waiting for.
A knock at the door interrupted her thoughts and she ran to hide in the closet.
"Aunty Sophie?" Bella called out as she pushed open the bedroom door. "We're coming to get you!"
"You is going to get got!" Izzy giggled as she galloped into the room with Bella, the two of them sounding like a herd of small elephants.
Sophie remained silent in the wardrobe, secreted between business suits and party dresses that hadn't seen the light of day since she'd arrived in St. Ives. Her job on the days Louis picked the children up from school and brought them round was to wait to be found. And even though she knew the girls knew exactly where she was hiding, she had to wait nevertheless. Sometimes Izzy wouldn't be able to stand the excitement and she'd open the closet door in less than a minute. On other days though, the game could take quite a long time and by the time she had been discovered, Sophie would have quite a crick in her neck and pins and needles in her calves.
"Is she...under the bed?" Bella's muffled voice suggested that she had crawled under there to check.
"Is she in the toilet?" Izzy's giggle bounced off the walls in the tiny bathroom and Sophie smiled to herself. Izzy had changed a lot in the last six months, but her devotion to toilet humor had never wavered.
"Is she up the chimney?" Bella called out.
"Or on the lamp shade?" Izzy suggested.
"Of course she's not on the lamp shade, Iz," Bella said matter-of-factly. "The lamp shade is tiny and small and made of paper and Aunty Sophie is huge!"
Sophie pursed her lips and silently swore off clotted cream and scones for about the seventh time that week.
"I think...," Bella said in the tone of voice that meant Sophie had to prepare to be discovered, "that she might be...in...the...closet!"
In the second that Bella flung open the door, Sophie leaped out yelling, "BOO!" at the top of her voice, an event that never failed to make both girls scream and giggle, and jump on Sophie and propel her in one very girlish heap onto one of the room's twin beds.
"You got me," Sophie said when she had got her breath back. "Where's Daddy?"
"Downstairs talking to Mrs. Alexander about sandwiches," Bella said, sitting up, pushing her bangs out of her eyes. Sophie brushed the child's dark hair off her forehead and, sitting up, kissed her on the cheek.
"You need a haircut again," she said. "Your hair grows faster than anything else I know."
"What about me, do I need a haircut?" Izzy wound her arms around Sophie's neck and rested her cheek against Sophie's.
Sophie wound one of Izzy's caramel curls around her finger. "You have hair just like your mother's," she told the younger girl, knowing how much Izzy liked to talk about Carrie. "You can cut it and brush it and wash it all you like but it will do exactly what it wants to do...which reminds me of the little person it's attached to!"
"I'm not little anymore," Izzy protested. "I go to school now, and anyway, are you coming for a cream tea?"
"Of course she is," Bella said. "Aunty Sophie always comes for cream teas."
"I can't deny it," Sophie said. "But today is absolutely my last one."
"You said that yesterday," Bella reminded her.
"I know something," Izzy said with big, round eyes and in a typically dramatic tone of voice. "A really, really specially secret thing that Daddy says I'm not to tell you!"
"Do you?" Sophie said, mildly anxious. The last major secret Izzy had had involved Artemis and an entire packet of smoked salmon that she had fed the cat under her bed in a bid to make Artemis love her more than Bella. What Izzy had failed to understand was that Artemis would never turn down food, not even from her worst enemy, and it was a miracle that she actively liked any human at all. Artemis had lived with Sophie for years in her flat in London and had barely ever spoken two words to her, so to speak. For some reason Bella was the only human Artemis loved, whether it was because the once mistreated cat saw something in Bella she recognized or because Bella was the only person on the planet who knew how to tickle Artemis behind her ears the way she liked it, Sophie didn't know. But she did know that all copious amounts of smoked salmon would achieve was piles of orange fishy vomit deposited all around the house.
"Have you been trying to make friends with Artemis again?" Sophie asked.
"No, it's even better than that!" Izzy said, giggling gleefully. " It's not really," Bella said firmly. "It's not anything at all. It's really best forgotten about."
"Yes, we are not to tell because Daddy says he has something very important to ask you but we mustn't say what it is," Izzy said, wiping her nose on the back of her hand and then her hand on Sophie's fuchsia candlewick bedspread.
"Izzy!" Bella hissed, digging her little sister in the ribs. "Shush."
She smiled at Sophie, a wide, toothy grin that Sophie had seen once before, when Bella denied using Sophie's steak knives as tent pegs to make a den out of her best and, for that matter, only leather coat.
"Oh come on, girls, what are you two hiding? Is your dad finally going to strip that hideous wallpaper in the living room?"
"It's much more exciting than that," Izzy told her. "It's the excitingest, biggest thing ever!"
"No it is not!" Bella tried to urge her little sister into discretion by waggling her eyebrows, which might have worked if her bangs hadn't been so long that they obscured them. "Daddy has nothing to say to you whatsoever." She pronounced the new, unfamiliar word with great care. "I expect he won't want to talk to you about anything of consequence at all."
"Except that don't forget he's going to ask her to...," Izzy began.
"Pay for the cake because he's lost his...money," Bella interrupted her.
"Or at least he hasn't got any monies left because he's spent them on this most beautifulest "
"Hat," Bella finished for Izzy. "He's bought a completely enormous hat."
Sophie looked from girl to girl. It could never be said that she was the world's most intuitive woman. It had taken her a rather long time to realize, for example, that Louis loved her back and that the feelings she had for him weren't just an unrequited, slightly psychotic, and rather ill-advised crush. Yet here was Izzy seething with secrets, talking about something exciting and big that Louis wanted to ask her, and there was Bella gamely trying to cover up with a tale of lost money and an enormous hat. A few months ago Sophie would have been wondering what on earth Louis wanted with an enormous hat, but she had changed from that blunt black-and-white woman, and these children had helped her do it. That and the fact that they were dreadful at keeping secrets led her to believe that unless she was very much mistaken, what the girls were trying not to tell her was that their father was going to ask her to marry him. Again.
Only this time she wouldn't be able to pretend she hadn't heard him, and there would be no opportunity for distraction sex right in the middle of Ye Olde Tea Shoppe.
Copyright © 2009 by Rowan Coleman