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'Only eight weeks till Christmas. Have you decided when you're going to come up and join us all? I thought it might be nice if you tried to make it on Christmas Eve and then stayed over for the New Year.'
Her mother's voice held the sort of briskness that said she wasn't going to take no for an answer. Miriam knew she meant well but the thought of spending several days with her mother and other well-meaning relatives and old friends verged on nightmarish. Everyone would be thinking about what happened at Christmas last year and being intensely careful not to mention it. Or ask any personal questions. Or behave naturally.
Miriam took a deep breath. 'I'm sorry but I shan't be around this Christmas.'
'Won't be around?' Anne Brown's voice sharpened. 'What does that mean? You're not going to sit and mope in that awful little bedsit, are you?'
'It's not an awful little bedsit and no, I'm not going to sit and mope. I'm going to Switzerland, as it happens. Skiing.'
'Skiing?' Her mother's voice was so shrill Miriam winced and held the phone away from her ear. 'You can't ski.'
'I'm going to learn,' Miriam said patiently.
'When was this decided?'
'Clara and I got our tickets yesterday.'
'Clara? I might have known she'd be at the bottom of this.' Now her mother's voice was overtly hostile.
Enough was enough. 'Actually it was me who mentioned to Clara at the weekend what I was going to do, and she asked if she could come along. I think it was because she feels like you and doesn't want me to be without company at Christmas.' Miriam's voice had an edge to it. Her mother had only met Clara once on the day Miriam had moved into the bedsit in Kensington, but the other girl's mauve spiky hair, panda eye make-up and Gothic clothes, not to mention her numerous piercings, had labelled her a bad influence as far as Anne was concerned. In truth Clara was one of the funniest, most sweet-natured and generous people Miriam had ever met, and she didn't know how she would have got through the past ten months without her.
Her mother sniffed. Eloquently. 'Well, you would say that, wouldn't you? Does Jay know you're thinking of spending Christmas in Switzerland?'
Don't lose your temper. She loves you and she's concerned, besides which you don't want her to do the wobbly-voiced long-suffering-mother routine. Forcing a calmness she didn't feel into her voice, Miriam said measuredly, 'Why would Jay know what I'm doing or not doing, Mother?'
'Because he's your husband, of course.'
'In name only.' She took a deep breath. And you might as well know I'm going to ask him for a divorce soon.' She didn't know why she hadn't done it before except she hadn't wanted to contact him and face all the hoo-ha that would result. It had been easier to pretend he didn't exist while she licked her wounds and attempted to regain her equilibrium. Which she had done now. She was much, much better, she assured herself silently. Back to normal really.
'So you're still determined not to believe him?'
How many times had they had this conversation since the day she had walked out of her beautiful marital home and into the bedsit? Too many. Miriam's voice reflected this when she said, 'This conversation's going nowhere and I'm late for an appointment. I'll ring you at the weekend, OK? Love you.'
She turned off her mobile. Her mother wouldn't like it, of course, but it would be her poor stepfather who would have to put up with the martyr attitude that would invariably follow. The 'I've got the most ungrateful and stubborn daughter in the world' scenario.
Miriam shut her eyes tightly for a moment. She didn't understand—and would never understand—how her mother could still continue to regard Jay as the best thing since sliced bread after what he'd done. But then after one glance from his tawny-brown eyes most women were putty in Jay's hands. As she had been. Once.
Her mouth firming, Miriam picked up her keys and exited the bedsit after one glance round the bright, uncluttered room. It might, in all honesty, have been termed awful when she had first seen it on a bleak wintry day at the beginning of the year, she acknowledged, descending the steep stairs to Clara's bedsit on the bottom floor of the three-storeyed Victorian terrace. But plenty of elbow grease, several tins of paint, new laminate flooring and her own furniture had transformed the place.
It was her tiny sanctuary, she told herself, pausing outside Clara's room. Her cream sofa converted to a bed at night, and her bistro table and chairs set by the large window afforded a panoramic view over London rooftops and the wide expanse of sky above that never ceased to thrill her, night and day. The minute kitchen area in one corner served culinary needs fairly adequately, and the built-in wardrobe and cupboards along one wall—now painted barley-white—meant the room was always spick and span without stuff lying about. She'd learnt very quickly that even a jumper or jacket draped over a chair made the compact space appear untidy.
She knocked on Clara's door. They cooked each other dinner now and again and tonight was Clara's turn, but she didn't think her mother would have appreciated knowing what her 'appointment' entailed.
The door opened immediately. 'You're bang on time as always,' Clara said with a note of amazement. Punctuality wasn't Clara's strong point. Nor was tidiness, Miriam reflected, picking her way over the floor, which was strewn with clothes, magazines, shoes and umpteen other things, to the kitchen area.
'Something smells fantastic' It was one of Clara's quirks that she could take a load of ingredients and seemingly fling them together and they always came out utterly delicious. 'What are we having?'
Clara wrinkled her snub nose. 'I'd got nothing in so it's onion and mustard mash with sausages; nothing special. Help yourself to a glass of wine,' she added, inclining her head at the opened bottle on the tiny breakfast bar which separated the kitchen from the rest of the room. 'It's a good one. Dave brought it the other night.'
Since Miriam had known the other girl Clara had had a number of boyfriends, none of whom lasted for more than a month on average. As soon as Clara had got them interested she got bored and yet another hopeful beau was shown the door. The fact that they all fell madly in love with her seemed to be the death knell as far as Miriam could make out. It wasn't that Clara was shallow exactly, but once the challenge was gone, so was Clara. Dave was two weeks strong at the moment but already a note of disinterest had crept into Clara's voice.
Miriam eyed her friend. 'You're going off him, aren't you?' she accused mildly. 'Don't tell me he's talking about for ever already?'
Clara giggled. 'He wants me to meet his mother,' she admitted. 'I mean, can you imagine me meeting anyone's mother? They'd die of shock.'
Miriam smiled as she was meant to but inside she found herself envying Clara's carefree approach to life and love. They were so different, she thought as she sipped at the wine—which was a very good one—but perhaps that was why they hit it off so well. Clara was the original free spirit, which was reflected in the way she looked and the clothes she wore; she, on the other hand, had aspired to be nothing more than a wife and mother since she was a little girl playing with her dolls. Clara was a television researcher, a job that was as varied as it was hard work, and she was brilliant at it. She was secretary to a successful lawyer and loved the fact her job was nine-to-five with no hidden panics or surprises. Clara was quicksilver, she was quiescent, which was probably why Jay had strayed so early in their marriage, she told herself broodingly. She was too dull, too uninteresting to hold a man like Jay Carter.
'You're thinking of him again, aren't you?' Clara said suddenly. 'I can always tell. You get this haunted look. Has he phoned again?'
Miriam shook her head.
'No, we haven't been in contact since the spring.'
'Was that the time you told him you loathed even the thought of him and wished you'd never set eyes on him?'
Clara's memory was too good sometimes. She hadn't felt proud of that last conversation when she had said far too much. 'Uh-huh,' she mumbled, taking a big gulp of wine.
'Then what's prompted the face?'
'I can't help my face,' Miriam said reasonably. And when Clara just raised one pierced eyebrow and waited, she added reluctantly, 'My mother phoned and I told her about Christmas.'
'Ah…' Clara dished up two platefuls of fragrant, steaming mash and added three fat, done-to-a-turn sausages per plate. 'And she asked if you had told Jay you were spending Christmas with the wild witch of the west, and you told her it was none of Jay's business.'
It was moments like this that revealed why Clara was so highly regarded in the career she'd chosen, despite her outward nonconformity. Under the mauve hair was an acutely intelligent and discerning mind. 'Something like that,' Miriam murmured.
'Right. We're going to finish this bottle and open another and forget all about men. OK?' Clara's blue eyes held Miriam's soft brown ones. And then we're going to talk about Switzerland and what clothes we need to buy for the evenings with all those gorgeous men about.'
'I thought we were going to forget about men.'
'Only the ones in the past and present. The future is something else. Oh, no, I've just thought of something. I can't go to Switzerland.'
Miriam sat up straighter at the note of alarm in Clara's voice. 'Why not?'
'How is Father Christmas going to fill my stocking if I'm in a different country?'
'You're a nut.' Miriam smiled, nudging Clara with her elbow. But a very nice nut.
It was gone ten o'clock when Miriam climbed the stairs to her bedsit and she was in a far better frame of mind than when she'd left it earlier. Clara was a tonic, she thought, smiling to herself as she let herself into the room and switched on the lights. She had left her mobile in the bedsit because she hadn't been able to face the thought of talking to her mother again that night, but as she passed it her conscience took over and she picked it up to check her messages.
There were two. The first one was from her mother, as she had expected, terse and to the point, saying of course Miriam must do as she wanted with regard to Christmas but everyone was going to be terribly disappointed not to see her, and with Great-Aunt Abigail's health being so poor it might be the old lady's last Christmas.
Miriam wrinkled her nose. Emotional blackmail. Her mother was a dab hand at it. But, considering she had never liked Great-Aunt Abigail and Great-Aunt Abigail had never liked her, she didn't think her absence would cause too many tears.
She pressed the button for the next call. 'Hello, Miriam.' Jay's deep, smoky voice was the same one that featured in her dreams far too often for her liking. 'I think we've got things to discuss, don't you? I'm not prepared for this state of affairs to continue any longer and, in spite of the fact that you don't want to be on the same planet as me, I suggest we tackle this as adults rather than petulant children. I'll call again if you don't call back. Just so you know. Goodbye for now.'
Miriam sat down very suddenly. Jay. For a moment all she could do was repeat his name in her head. Taking hold of her whirling emotions, she forced herself to listen to the message again, and this time the cold, businesslike tone to his voice registered.
He had turned up unexpectedly a couple of times since the day she had left him and phoned frequently until the day in the spring when she knew she had mortally offended him, but never in all their dealings had his voice carried such an icy chill to it. It seemed she wouldn't have to be the one to instigate divorce proceedings after all, she told herself sickly. It sounded as though he was ringing to set that particular ball in motion himself. Of course, she could be wrong. Bitter experience was proof she didn't have a clue what made Jay Carter tick.
Rising to her feet, she walked across the room and made herself a cup of hot chocolate. She needed something to combat the butterflies in her stomach. Then she dialled Jay's number.
The butterflies ignored the soothing effects of the hot chocolate and instead went for gold in the fluttering stakes. Swallowing hard, Miriam said, 'Hello, Jay. You wanted to talk to me?'
He knew jolly well it was her. 'Yes,' she said, her voice clipped now. 'I've been out.'
'Does that mean you didn't take your phone with you or you were too… busy to answer it when it rang?'
It was nothing to do with him either way. Ignoring the question, she repeated stonily, 'You wanted to talk to me?'
'I think we need to talk,' he corrected silkily.
Miriam blinked. The snub had been delivered with a smooth flatness but was a snub none the less. Recovering immediately, she said coolly, 'So talk.'
'Oh, no, Miriam. This time we do it my way. Civilised, over a meal and a drink. That's what grown-up people do.'
Her temper was slowly chasing away the last of the butterflies. 'Really? I take it this is in the same realm as adultery being an accepted social pastime for "grown-up" men and women?'
There was a pregnant pause before he said, 'I'll ignore that. Tomorrow night. Are you free?'
She was but not for the world would she have admitted it. 'Sorry, already booked.'
'OK, we could go on like this for hours. When are you able to have dinner with me?'
Ridiculous, because he was only talking about dinner, but his dark, smoky voice was having an unwelcome effect on her equilibrium. Or perhaps it wasn't so much her mental or emotional equanimity, she admitted with hot shame, as a throbbing warmth spread throughout her lower stomach. How she could still physically want him after what he had done she didn't know, but it appeared her body was working independently to the rest of her. 'Let me see…' She allowed a moment or two to pass, more to gain control over her voice than anything else. A breathless stammer just wasn't an option.
Today was Tuesday. 'Friday?' she said as steadily as she could, considering her whole body was quivering with something she labelled lust.