What She Wantsby Cathy Kelly
Ireland’s #1 bestselling author Cathy Kelly weaves a heartwarming tale about a group of friends who discover that when life gets comfortable, unexpected surprises are just around the corner.
Do you know what you’ll be doing next year? Three friends—Hope, Sam, and Virginia—all thought they did. Hope would still be slogging it out/b>… See more details below
Ireland’s #1 bestselling author Cathy Kelly weaves a heartwarming tale about a group of friends who discover that when life gets comfortable, unexpected surprises are just around the corner.
Do you know what you’ll be doing next year? Three friends—Hope, Sam, and Virginia—all thought they did. Hope would still be slogging it out as a working mom, snatching quality time with husband Marc and her two small children. Her sister Sam was going to be the acclaimed boss of a record label, turning heads as the toughest, most brilliant music mogul around. Virginia would be planning her dream retirement home with her beloved husband Bill and doting on their little granddaughter. But destiny had other plans for them.
Suddenly everything drastically changes for each of the three women, and they have to look deep within themselves to find out what they really want from life. And in surviving the turmoil ahead, they will discover that a loving family and good friends make all the difference....
- Gallery Books
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- 5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.50(d)
Read an Excerpt
Hope Parker let the shopping bags sit in a heap at her feet as she stood in front of the cookery books section. Her eyes flicked past Perfect Cakes, The Definitive Chinese Cookbook, Catering for Parties, and Easy Meals. A recipe book full of easy meals was not what she was looking for. They were all she ever cooked in the first place. No, she wanted a comprehensive and simple cooking book, something big, fat, and informative, full of explanations of what a bain-marie really was and precisely what you did with yeast and how you made it rise. That was all she wanted: a book that would finally explain how to cook something that didn't involve chicken pieces and a can of ready-made tomato sauce.
Her gaze moved past a massive advanced French cooking manual and she leaned closer to the shelves, trying to ignore the bookshop's lunchtime rush. Then she spotted it, a fat tome with bright gold writing on the spine: Cooking for Cowards: Become the Queen of Your Kitchen.
Queen of her kitchen? Yes, that was exactly what Hope wanted. No more ready-made lasagna and frozen-solid stuffed chicken dinners in tinfoil, but lots of home-cooked meals that would have Matt beaming from ear to ear, no longer able to tease that he never put on weight because she couldn't cook.
Hope pulled it free from the other books and stared at the cover, hoping there was no mention of the word advanced. There wasn't. Instead, there was a picture of an ordinary-looking woman standing smiling behind a veritable feast of glistening, delicious food.
Hope flicked inside and found an introduction that was funny and easy to understand, and made no mention of buying complicated utensils before you started. She couldn't afford lots of new pots and pans and strange things for chopping up herbs.
"Cooking really is easy," cooed the introduction. "If you're one of those people who've never had the chance to learn, then let me show you how, the easy way."
There was no implication that you had to be a twentysomething newlywed to be buying this book, no implication that thirty-seven-year-old women should be ashamed of themselves to be purchasing a cookery bible that included a section on how to buy meat.
Hope never bought meat from the butcher's. She never knew what to ask for or even what you'd do with rack of lamb if you got it. She bought her meat ready-packed from the supermarket where nobody could look down on you for not knowing what a gigot was.
"There's no need to be scared of buying meat," continued the introduction, as if the writer had read Hope's mind. "It's easy once you know how."
Sold. Hope collected her shopping, paid for the book, and hurried up to Jolly's department store, already lost in the fantasy of being a superb cook. Imagine the dinner parties they could have: Matt wouldn't have to entertain important advertising clients on his expense account in Bath's elegant restaurants anymore. Instead, he could bring them home, and she, dressed in something elegant but sexy, would waft out of the kitchen with the scent of crème brûlée clinging to her while jaded businessmen gobbled up melt-in-the-mouth things in delicately flavored gravy, asking her why she'd decided to work in a building society instead of starting up her own restaurant.
And Toby and Millie would love it. Well, when they were older, they would. They'd think that homemade chutney and made-from-scratch mayonnaise were the norm and would smugly tell their schoolmates that their mother was "the best cook in the world, so there!" Hope remembered this type of culinary boasting from her own school days. But she and her sister, Sam, had always stayed out of the "whose mother is the best cook" arguments, knowing that whatever things could be said about their aunt Ruth, that she was an excellent cook wasn't one of them. Hope wondered, as she often did, whether her mother had been any good at cooking. Aunt Ruth had never talked about things like that. Maybe Mum had been a wonderful cook. It might even be genetic: All Hope had to do was move beyond instant chicken sauces to discover that she was the next Escoffier.
In Jolly's, she got sidetracked in the women's department. She couldn't resist stopping a moment to finger a pretty floral skirt, running her fingers wistfully over the soft cotton with the delicate sprigged pattern of roses. In the middle of all the new season's dark wintry clothes, the rail of prettily patterned skirts stood out like a wildflower meadow in a landscape of muddy plowed fields.
Feeling the plastic grocery bags threatening to cut off the circulation to her left hand, Hope unhooked them from her wrist before indulging in a proper examination of the garment. The background color was the pale blue of delicate Wedgwood with tiny lilac flowers mingling with tiny raspberry pink ones. Hope sighed. This wasn't a skirt, it was a lifestyle. A lifestyle in which the wearer lived in a pretty cottage with lovely, well-behaved children, cats, maybe a rabbit or two, and an adoring husband who appreciated her. This woman sewed her own cushion covers, knew how to dry lavender, and could can fruits and vegetables instead of buying them from the supermarket. She didn't need a safety pin to hold the top of her skirt together and she never raised her voice at the children in the morning when an entire carton of milk was spilled all over said children's clothes, necessitating a complete change. No. This woman wore floral perfumes that came in old-fashioned bottles, never got angry with her children, and wafted around with a basket as she bought organic vegetables that still had bits of earth clinging to them. People would say things like, "Isn't she lovely? Wonderful mother, fantastic cook, have you tried her apple crumble? And she still manages to work..."
Yeah, right. And pigs might fly. Hope patted the skirt one last time and picked up her shopping. She wasn't Mrs. Floral Skirt and she never would be. She was Mrs. Tracksuit Bottom, whose two children were quite accustomed to her roaring, "Stop that right now or I'll kill you!" She never wafted anywhere difficult when you had a spare tire and stocky legs and she never talked to the neighbors long enough for them to have an opinion of her. Apart from the woman two doors up who let her dog do its business in Hope's garden, resulting in an unneighborly standoff one morning. And as for sewing cushion covers, she still hadn't managed to sew the button back on her work skirt and it had been held up with a safety pin for months. Although the good part of that was that the safety pin was of the big diaper variety and was more comfy than the constricting button had been. Thinking of work, she'd be terribly late getting back if she didn't get a move on.
She shook her head as if to rid it of the remnants of the idyllic floral-skirt fantasy and, collecting her shopping, hurried into the men's department and over to the ties. It took ages to find one she thought Matt would like: an expensive buttermilk yellow silk with a discreet pattern. Hope held the tie up against every shirt on the display; it looked lovely against the blue shirts and went particularly well with an azure striped one. She groaned in indecision.
Matt didn't go in for blue shirts much. The gray tie was more versatile, definitely, and cheaper, but Matt loved expensive things. He'd adored that ugly key ring his boss had given him one Christmas, purely because of the designer logo stamped into the leather. She held both ties up and squinted at them, dithering as usual.
Okay, the yellow it had to be. So it cost more than the coat she was wearing, but what the hell.
The woman behind the counter daintily placed the tie in a box. Perfectly coifed, she had lovely cared-for nails, Hope noticed, and her lipstick looked faultlessly applied, as if she'd just that minute rushed out from primping in the ladies'. Hope was conscious that her own windswept fair hair was dragged back in a ponytail and her morning lipstick a thing of distant memory.
Sales assistants invariably made her feel like an unkempt road warrior. She remembered a time when she herself was always beautifully groomed, those far-off days before the children, when giving herself a French manicure had been a prerequisite on Sunday evenings. These days, she spent Sunday evenings sweating over the ironing board, worrying about the week ahead, and trying to match socks from the enormous laundry pile.
"Is it a present?" inquired the saleswoman, her tone implying that there was no way someone like Hope would be coughing up for such an expensive tie otherwise.
"Yes," said Hope, stifling a wicked urge to say no, it was for her, she dressed up in men's clothes at the weekends and, actually, was looking for a partner to go with her on a Harley-Davidson Lesbian Day Out on Sunday.
Instead, she arranged her face into a polite expression. To be honest, there was no way she'd pay that much money for a tie otherwise. Even as a fortieth birthday present, it was still ridiculously expensive. The only consolation was that Matt would love it. It would go with the very sophisticated new suit he'd just bought and with his image, also highly sophisticated. The only unsophisticated part of the Matt Parker experience was Hope herself. Was that the problem? she thought with a pang of unease.
Matt hadn't been himself lately. Usually he was one of life's optimists, happy, upbeat. But for the past few months, he'd been listless and moody around the house, only content if they were doing something, filling their time off with endless activities. He didn't seem happy to sit and blob around on those rare occasions when the children weren't murdering each other. Edgy, that was it. Matt was edgy, and in her dark, terrified moments, Hope was scared that it was something to do with their marriage. Or her.
"Shall I gift-wrap it?"
"No, I like wrapping things myself," Hope confessed. Anyway, getting the shop to wrap things was a waste of time, she'd discovered, as she could never resist trying to open an edge of the wrapping paper when she got home so she could admire the gift. Invariably, the paper got ripped when she was trying to shove whatever it was back in, so why bother?
She added the tie to her selection of plastic bags and left the shop hurriedly.
Hope rounded the corner at Union Street and collided with a gaggle of tourists oohing and aahing over the city's elegant sandstone Georgian buildings. It was a beautiful place to live, but after five years there, Hope was guiltily aware that she took Bath's beauty rather for granted. For the first six months, she'd walked around with her neck craned, but now she raced along like all the other residents, almost immune to the city and constantly cursing the tourists who straggled across the streets like wayward schoolchildren. She pushed open the glass door into Witherspoon's Building Society, conscious that it was now twenty to three and she should have been back at half past two.
Mr. Campbell, manager and assiduous timekeeper, was also conscious of the time.
"You're ten minutes late, Mrs. Parker," he said mildly.
Hope gave him a flustered look, which wasn't hard after her dash down Union Street. "I'm so sorry, Mr. Campbell," she said breathily. "It's my husband's fortieth birthday and I was buying him a present "
"Never mind," Mr. Campbell said soothingly. "Don't let it happen in the future."
She rushed into the staff room, stowed her shopping in her locker, wriggled out of her navy woolen coat, and hurried back to her counter.
"How can you get away with being late and not get the face eaten off you by that tyrant?" demanded Yvonne. Yvonne had worked at Witherspoon's for five years, the same length of time as Hope, and complained she was still treated like a delinquent probationary by the manager.
"Because I have an innocent face," replied Hope, managing to smile all the while at Mr. Campbell, "and you look like a minx."
Yvonne was placated, as Hope knew she would be. Yvonne liked the idea of looking minxy. And she was so good-humored that she never took offense; not like Betsey, Hope's other good friend. Betsey took offense at everything and would have demanded to know what Hope had meant by calling her a minx.
Hope knew that she'd never look like a minx in a million years. Minxes did not have light brown curly hair with lots of wispy tendrils that you could do absolutely nothing with, nor did they have rounded comforting faces with large, almost surprised hazel eyes, or small delicate mouths like shy girls from eighteenthcentury French paintings.
Matt had once told her that he'd fallen in love with her "otherworldliness." "As if you've got lost from a historical miniseries and have stepped out of your gown to appear in the twenty-first century," he'd said lovingly. Matt was given to saying wildly romantic, unusual things. He was wasted in advertising, she thought fondly.
All five counters were frantically busy for the next half hour, with huge groups of time-pressed tourists arriving to change their traveler's checks into hard currency, all frantic to get some cash so they could buy vast quantities of Bath Abbey tea towels, T-shirts with the abbey printed on them, and decorated mugs before they were due back on the bus.
Finally, there was a brief lull in business. Hope sat back in her chair, feeling drained, and wondered how she'd last till her four o'clock tea break.
"What did you buy for Matt?" asked Yvonne, sneaking a forbidden packet of toffees across to Hope. Eating was forbidden behind the counter, but Hope reckoned her blood sugar needed a top-up.
"A tie, a bottle of that wine he likes, and some aftershave," she said as she surreptitiously unwrapped a toffee.
"That's nice," mumbled Yvonne, her mouth full.
They chewed in silence for a while, and Hope began to plan her evening, the highlight of which was to be Matt's special birthday dinner. Just the two of them, assuming that Millie didn't kick up a fuss and refuse to go to bed. She was only four but she already ruled the Parker household with a chubby little iron hand in a velvet glove. Two-year-old Toby was such a contrast to his older sister. He was so quiet that Hope worried about him being at the day nursery every day. She knew Millie was well able to stand up to anyone who'd look sideways at her, but would she stand up for Toby? You heard so much about children bullying other kids, and Hope would kill any child who'd hurt her beloved Toby. With his pale, sweet face and watchful eyes, he reminded her of herself as a child. She prayed he'd grow up to be stronger and more forceful, like his father.
"Presents for men are so difficult," sighed Yvonne. "I love the idea of those women who say things like, 'I'm wearing your present.' You know she's wearing some bustier or garters and stockings and that's his present. I might try that with Freddie."
"Lovely," said Hope automatically, a bit embarrassed to be getting so much detail about Yvonne's sex life. Yvonne was twentynine, Welsh, and very open about everything, in direct contrast to Hope. Hope liked to keep her personal life personal, although it was difficult when you worked with someone as inquisitive as Yvonne, who was quite capable of asking questions like what would Hope do if Matt ever had an affair, or had Hope ever used a cervical cap.
"Er, no," Hope had said, going pink, on that particular occasion. Aunt Ruth had not brought her up to be chatty about sex and things like that. When she'd had her first period, Aunt Ruth had said nothing but had given her a book on girls growing up. Well, she'd actually shoved it into Hope's hand and gone off abruptly to her bridge class. The subject had never been referred to again. Hope was fascinated when she read those "how to keep your sex life alive" articles in women's magazines, although she'd never have dreamed of trying any of it with Matt.
"You should give Matt that sort of present tonight." Yvonne nudged her.
"What sort of present?"
Yvonne lowered her voice because Mr. Campbell had come out of his office and was standing near the photocopier. "Wear something sexy and tell Matt it's the final bit of his present."
"Honestly, Yvonne," whispered Hope, "you've a one-track mind."
"Yeah, one track and it's a dirt track." Yvonne giggled, flicking back a bit of jet black poker-straight hair.
Three customers arrived all at once, and Hope managed to put Yvonne's suggestion out of her mind. It wasn't that she was contemplating wearing sexy underwear and surprising Matt. She was uncomfortably aware that Matt would probably be much happier with a new tie and a decent bottle of wine.
Two hours later, she'd braved the traffic going out of the city toward Bristol and was turning into Maltings Lane. One of the more modern streets in Bath, it was a winding road of pretty houses built in the fifties with honey-colored Cotswold stone. Because the houses were small and reasonably priced, the street was full of young, professional couples with small children, two cars, and no time for doing their handkerchief-size gardens.
Marta would be furious if she picked up the kids after six fifteen. Marta ran Your Little Treasures, the nursery where Toby and Millie spent every weekday. The nursery was so well run and well staffed that Hope couldn't afford to voice the opinion that Marta herself was a bad-tempered bitch when it came to dealing with her charges' parents. There was such fierce competition for places in YLT that she daren't risk antagonizing her. If Hope's children left the nursery, there would be thirty families queuing up to fill their places. "Marta is definitely short for martinet," joked Matt every time Hope came home on the verge of tears because of a dressing-down from Marta for being late. Matt didn't understand how Hope hated those confrontations.
The nursery closed at six fifteen, and any parent who arrived a second later was treated to a lecture of the "If you think I'm going to be taken advantage of, you've got another think coming" variety.
Hope couldn't imagine a single person who'd dare take advantage of Marta. Pity.
She unpacked the shopping from the Metro's boot. Next door's cat sat plaintively on Hope's doorstep, sheltering from the icy late September wind and generally giving the impression that he was a candidate for an animal shelter despite being so fat that he no longer fitted through his cat flap and had to be let in through the windows. Hope dragged the shopping to the door, hoping that a few hours in the locker at work hadn't made the milk go off.
"You can't come in, Fatso," Hope told the cat, trying to open the door and insinuate herself inside without letting him in. She managed it, dumped the shopping on the kitchen floor, and looked at her watch.
Six o'clock on the nail. She wasn't going to be late. Relieved, she shoved the milk into the fridge and raced out of the house.
She hurried around the corner to the nursery, which was, as usual, surrounded by double-parked cars, weary parents, and cross toddlers. Hope had found it was easier to walk there instead of spending ten minutes trying to park.
"Hello," she said with false cheeriness to Marta, who stood at the door like a rottweiler grimly working out whom to bite and whom to suck up to. "Cool, isn't it?"
"It is nearly October," Marta snapped, gypsy earrings rattling furiously.
Hope grinned inanely and then hated herself for it. If only she had the guts to tell Marta where she could stuff her sarcastic remarks. Not for the first time, Hope indulged in her favorite daydream, where she and Matt had won the lottery, allowing her to give up work and devote herself to the children full time. In her fantasy world, being a full-time mum included help from a cleaning lady, an ironing lady, and someone to trail around the supermarket doing the grocery shopping. It also meant being able to tell Marta to take a running jump because Hope wouldn't need the nursery anymore. She'd look after her children herself, thank you very much. She'd be able to spend hours every day with them, doing finger painting, making up stories, and doing things with cooking chocolate and Rice Krispies when the children could help stir the mixture without her shuddering at the thought of cleaning bits of cereal and slivers of chocolate off the kitchen floor for hours afterward. She'd get to serve wonderful homecooked food instead of making do with convenience stuff, she'd learn needlecraft, and the garden would be a riot of beautifully tended plants. Bliss.
In the main section of the nursery, a bright, cheery room decorated in warm colors and with plenty of toddler-size furniture, Millie and Toby were waiting for her, clad in their padded coats and looking like baby Eskimos. Dark-haired Millie, as impatient as her father, had an outraged expression on her rosy-cheeked face. Her brown eyes flashed at the indignity of being made to wait in a restricting coat when she could have been in the play corner wreaking havoc with the blocks. Toby, pale like his mother, stood quietly with his hat in his hand. When he spotted Hope, a great smile opened up his chubby little face.
"Mummy, got a star," he said delightedly.
"No, you didn't," said Millie indignantly. Even at four, she had a perfect command of the English language. "I got a star."
Toby's face fell.
"Millie," said her mother reprovingly. "Be nice to your little brother."
"He's a baby," sniffed Millie, wrinkling up her snub nose.
"He's your brother," Hope said. "You have to look after him, not be unkind to him."
Millie took Toby's fat little hand in hers and looked up at her mother, expecting praise.
Despite herself, Hope grinned. Millie was as bright as a button.
She said good-bye to Marta, who was hovering with intent outside the door, jangling her keys like a warder.
Holding hands, the family walked slowly home: Millie chattering away happily, Toby silent. It was the same every evening. Toby was very quiet for about half an hour; then, as if he'd been frozen and finally thawed out in the warmth of his own safe home, he began to talk and laugh, playing with his favorite toy, currently a violently purple plastic train with endless cars that were always getting lost under the furniture. It worried Hope. She was afraid that he hated the nursery, yet she was just as afraid of asking him in case he clung to her and begged her not to send him every morning.
One of the women at work had gone through two horrific months of her small daughter doing just that, sobbing her little heart out every day, begging her mother to "stay, Mummy, stay, please!" until she was hiccuping with anguish.
The mothers with young children had all sat in silent guilt when they heard that story in the canteen.
"I hate leaving my son," a single mother from accounting had said tonelessly.
"Men just don't feel it the same way," added an investment adviser who was also a mother of three.
They had all nodded miserably, united in agreement.
After that, Hope had spent weeks anxiously scanning Toby's face every morning for signs that he was about to cry. If he did, she knew she'd have told the building society to stuff their job and told Matt they'd have to manage the mortgage some other way, because she couldn't bear to go out to work when her darling little boy was sobbing his heart out for her. But Toby never cried. He went off every morning, snug in his anorak, big eyes wide when Hope gave him a tight hug good-bye with Marta watching over them.
"He's just a quiet little boy," Clare, one of the teachers, had reassured her when Hope had voiced her fears, "but he enjoys himself, honestly, Hope, he does. He loves playing with the clay and he loves story time. We all know he's a shy little fellow, so we really look after him, don't worry. Millie is totally different, isn't she?"
Yes, Hope had agreed, Millie was totally different. Boisterous and confident compared to her little brother. They reminded Hope of herself and Sam when they'd been kids: Hope had been the quiet, placating sister, while Sam, three years older, had been strong, opinionated, and sure of herself.
Tonight, Millie was barely through the hall door before she was off into the playroom to collect her dolls, bossing them around, telling them to drink their milk and no being naughty or there'd be trouble. She sounded a lot like Marta bossing the parents around. Hope got down on her knees to undo Toby's coat.
"Did you have a nice day, sweetie?" she asked softly, helping him wriggle out before pulling him close for a big cuddle. Toby nodded. Hope planted a kiss on his soft, fair head, breathing in the lovely toddler scent of him. He smelled of classroom, baby shampoo, and fabric conditioner.
"Mummy loves you, Toby, do you know that? Loads and loads of love. Bigger than the sea."
He smiled at her and patted her cheek with one fat little hand.
"Mummy has to make a special birthday dinner for Daddy, but I think we have to play first, don't you?"
Toby nodded again.
"Shall we have a story? What one would you like me to read? You pick."
After twenty minutes during which she knew she should have been starting Matt's birthday dinner, Hope read a story and began to make dinner for the kids. They were fed tea at the nursery at around half past four, but Hope never considered a few sandwiches enough for them. Children needed hot food, in her book. As the children played, Hope prepared chicken breasts and vegetables, thinking that if she were Mrs. Floral Skirt, she'd be giving them organic carrot purée made from her own carrots with delicious homemade lasagna, or something equally made-fromscratch.
Mind you, Millie hated homemade food and was passionate about fish fingers and tinned spaghetti shaped like cartoon characters, so there wouldn't have been any hope of her eating anything organic.
Hope thought proudly of her new cookbook still in its plastic bag in the hall. Soon she'd be making fabulous meals that every-one would love. She undid the cling film covering the steaks. The instructions looked simple enough, but steak was so difficult, so easy to ruin and cook until it tasted like old leather. She'd have loved it if they were going out to dinner instead, but Matt's colleague and best friend, Dan, was organizing a birthday dinner on Thursday, in three days' time, and that was going to be his party. The agency had netted a huge new account, and it was going to be a joint celebration. Hope knew it would be childish to say that she'd prefer a private birthday dinner with just the two of them. After all, Matt was a much more social animal than she was and he loved the idea of a big bash where he could charm them all and get told he was the cleverest adman ever. Hope always felt a bit left out at these fabulous advertising parties. Even though, as a working mother with two small children, she was the Holy Grail for advertisers, they weren't nearly as interested in her when she was physically present as they were when she was represented as the target market on a graph in the office.
She'd better buy a dress for the party, she reminded herself. Adam, Matt's boss, had a glamorous new wife, Jasmine (Matt had, in an unguarded moment, described her as "better than any of the women on Baywatch"), so Hope planned to doll herself up to the nines for the occasion.
Thinking of the party to come, she dished up dinner for the children and brought it and a cup of tea for herself to the table.
"Dinner! Toby and Millie," she called.
The dinner routine involved Toby and Millie sitting opposite each other at the small kitchen table so that Millie couldn't reach Toby's mug of milk and spill it. Their mother sat at the end, refereeing. Millie, as usual, played with her food and demanded fish fingers in between sending bits of carrot skidding across the table. Toby loved his food and ate quickly, his Winnie the Pooh plastic fork scooping up bits of cut-up chicken rapidly. He drank his milk and ate his entire dinner while Millie bounced Barbie backward and forward in front of her plate, singing tunelessly and ignoring her meal.
"Millie!" remonstrated Hope as Barbie kicked a bit of chicken onto the floor. "Eat up or I'm going to have to feed you."
She whisked Barbie from Millie's hand, and the little girl immediately started to roar. More bits of chicken hit the deck.
"Millie! That's so naughty," said Hope, trying to rein in her temper and wishing she didn't feel so tired and cross. So much for quality time with the kids.
At this point, Millie wriggled off her chair and pushed herself away from the table, jerking it and spilling her mother's cup of tea.
"Millie!" shouted Hope as scalding tea landed on her uniform skirt, which she knew she should have changed as soon as she got home.
"I always know I'm in the right house when I hear screaming as soon as I get home," said Matt caustically, appearing at the kitchen door looking immaculate and out of place in the small kitchen, which was always untidy.
Hope ground her teeth. This wasn't the homecoming she had planned for his birthday. Candlelight, the scent of a succulent dinner, and herself perfumed and in grape velvet had been the plan. Instead, the scene was chaos and herself a frazzled, frizzled mess scented only with perspiration from running around the shops at lunchtime. Children and romantic, grown-up dinners were mutually exclusive, there was no doubt about it.
Millie stopped wailing instantly and ran to her father, throwing her rounded baby arms around his knees and burying her face in his gray wool trousers.
"Daddy," she cooed delightedly, as if she hadn't just been flinging her dinner around the room like a mischievous elf moments before.
He picked her up and cuddled her, the two dark heads close together, one clustered with long curls, the other a short crop with spreading gray at the sides. Matt was tall, rangy, and lean, with the sort of dark, deep-set eyes that set female pulses racing and a solid, firm jaw that had stubborn written all over it. The scattering of discreet gray in his new, very short haircut suited him, transforming his handsome good looks into something more mature and sexier. Even after seven years together, the sight of him all dressed up with his eyes crinkling into a smile and that strong mouth slowly curving upward could set Hope's heart racing. The terrible thing was, she didn't think that his pulse still raced when he saw her.
"Are you in trouble with Mummy?" Matt asked.
Millie managed a strangled sob. "Yes," she said sadly.
"She wouldn't eat her dinner, she was throwing it everywhere, and she's just spilled my tea," Hope said, knowing she sounded shrewish but unable to help it.
"Never mind," Matt said easily without even looking at his wife. "It's only a bit of tea, you can wash it."
Still cuddling Millie, he ruffled Toby's hair and walked into the living room, his big body cradling Millie easily. Toby clambered off his seat and ran after him. In seconds, the sounds of giggling and laughter could be heard.
Hope looked glumly down at her cream uniform blouse, which was now stained with splashes of tea. One corner had escaped from her skirt and hung out untidily. Very chic. Ignoring the dinner things, she went upstairs and stripped off her uniform. She'd have to sponge the skirt because she only had two and the hem was down on the other one. In her part of the wardrobe, she found the grape velvet two-piece and pulled it on. She brushed her hair, put on her pearl earrings, and spritzed herself with eau de cologne, all without looking in the mirror. It was only to apply her lipstick that she sat at the small dressing table and adjusted the oval mirror so she could see herself.
She was old-fashioned-looking, she knew. Not the showily beautiful and spirited leading lady of romantic novels; instead, she was the quiet, sober Austen heroine with expressive, anxious gray eyes. Empire-line dresses would have suited her perfectly because she could have shown off her generous bosom and hidden the slightly thick waist and sturdy legs. She looked her best in soft, muted colors that complemented her thick-lashed, eloquent eyes. Her grape outfit fitted the bill, while the dark navy and maroon of her uniform clothes made her look dull and middle-aged.
Now she put lipstick on and pinned her hair up. Piled up, it showed off her slender neck. Finished, she touched the small silver and enamel pillbox on the dressing table for luck. It had been her mother's, and touching it for luck was as much a part of Hope's day as brushing her teeth after meals. She didn't remember her mother, so the box with its orchid illustration was special, the only thing she had left, really. Sam had a matching box, only hers had a picture of a pansy on it.
The pillboxes were among the only things they had of their mother's. She and their father had been killed when the girls were small, when they'd been driving home from a night out and their car had been hit by a drunk driver. Their father had been killed outright, but their mother had lived long enough to be taken to the hospital and died soon after. Not that Sam or Hope remembered much about it, and Aunt Ruth, left to bring them up in her austere house in Windsor, had been very keen on "not dwelling on things" and had disposed of most of their parents' personal belongings. Consequently, they had very few mementos of Camille and Sandy Smith. Except that Millie was named for her grandmother. Dear, naughty little Millie.
Hope smiled and wondered what she'd leave her children to remember her by if she died suddenly a dirty dishcloth or a basketful of ironing, probably. to Downstairs, Matt was watching CNN with the children sitting on either side of him, both utterly content. Hope stood behind the sofa and planted a kiss on his head.
"Sorry I was a grump when you came in," she said softly. "Let's get this pair to bed and I'll make you a lovely birthday dinner."
"Daddy, you have to read me a story," said Millie querulously, knowing that the treat being discussed didn't involve her.
"I will, honey," Matt said absentmindedly, still watching the news.
"A long story," Millie said, satisfied. "Really long, about trolls and fairies..." She shuddered deliciously.
"No trolls," Hope said automatically. "You'll have nightmares." "I won't," insisted Millie.
"No trolls," said her mother firmly.
Matt did his bedtime story duty, and when he came downstairs, the steaks were sizzling deliciously under the grill and Hope was wrestling with a recipe for herb and garlic butter she'd found in a women's magazine. Fresh herbs, honestly. Who could be bothering with fresh herbs when they cost so much in the shops and went limp and tasteless after two days?
"Smells good," Matt said, returning to his seat in the sitting room. He flicked around with the remote and found the sports channel. Through the double doors between the sitting room and the kitchen, Hope could see him put his feet up on the coffee table. He'd changed from his suit into his oldest jeans and a faded sweatshirt she could have sworn she'd thrown out. She shrugged. It was his birthday, he could wear what he wanted to.
She took in the bottle of special birthday wine, eager for praise. "Will you open it?" she asked, producing the madly expensive corkscrew that Matt had seen in a restaurant and had insisted on sending off for.
"Yeah," he said absently, still watching the TV. He opened the bottle and handed it back to her. When she'd poured two glasses and assured herself that the steak was getting along fine without her, she returned, gave Matt his glass, and curled up beside him on the sofa.
"Nice day?" she asked.
Matt grunted in return.
Hope tried again. She was absolutely determined they were going to have a lovely coupley evening in for his birthday. She adored nights like this. She and Matt having a companionable dinner together and their beloved children asleep upstairs that was what happy families were all about. She knew it, she insisted on it.
But Matt was having none of it. He watched the television intently, his lean body sunk back against the sofa cushions, his handsome face in profile with his eyes hooded as he concentrated.
After a few more of Hope's attempts at conversation, he sighed and asked when dinner was.
"Now, soon," Hope said, jumping off the sofa and heading back into the kitchen.
She lit the candles on the kitchen table, repositioned the burgundy linen napkins someone had given them when they'd got married, and dished up the second dinner of the day.
Instinctively, Matt appeared as soon as his plate landed on the matching burgundy linen mat. He dug in hungrily.
"This is lovely, isn't it?" Hope said.
"Mm," grunted Matt, one eye still on the television, which was visible from his seat at the table. News had been replaced by the monotonous roar of motor racing. He cut his steak into small pieces so he could fork it up without missing a bit of the action.
"Is everything all right?" Hope asked.
"Yeah, it's lovely. Nice bit of steak," he replied.
"I didn't mean the steak."
Matt sighed and took his eye off the TV for a brief moment. "Hope, do we have to have one of these 'Is everything okay?' conversations tonight? I'm tired, I've had a hard day, and I'd like to relax, if that's not too much to ask."
Her eyes brimmed. "Sure, fine."
The commentator's voice droned on, and Hope ate her meal mechanically, not tasting anything, worrying.
There was something wrong, she knew it. Had known it for weeks. Matt wasn't happy, and she was sure it was nothing to do with his job. It had to be personal, something about him and her, something terrible.
He'd been depressed since his favorite uncle had died in Ireland two months ago, and at first, Hope had thought Matt was feeling guilty because he hadn't seen Gearóid for years. Matt's family was terrible at keeping in touch, and when they'd first been married, Hope, who'd expected to be welcomed into the bosom of a real family at long last, had been astonished to find that the Parkers had only one trait in common: apathy about family get-togethers. His parents were remarkably self-sufficient people who'd had Matt, their only child, late in life and clearly weren't pleased at the intrusion of a small child into their busy lives. Now that he was an adult with a wife, they appeared to think they'd done their bit. Hope found it impossible to understand this, but was grateful that, despite his upbringing, Matt was so passionate about her and the children.
Sam wisely said it was clear that Matt was determined to live his life very differently from the way his austere and cold family lived. "He's insecure about people loving him, and he needs you. That's why he's so controlling," Sam had added, with a rare touch of harshness.
Hope just wished she were sure her husband needed her. If she were sure of that, she wouldn't be so nervous about asking him what was wrong. Was it Gearóid's death? He'd been incredibly fond of the eccentric uncle he used to spend summers with as a child.
But when she'd tried to comfort him about Gearóid, Matt had snapped at her, so perhaps it wasn't that. What was it, then?
She knew she should be quiet, that it was fatal to probe at this unknown awfulness, because once she'd probed, she'd know and she wouldn't be able to bury her head in the sand and pretend everything was okay. But she had to probe.
"Don't tell me it's nothing," she said quickly. "I know you're not happy, Matt."
"Okay, you're right, you're right," he snapped, slamming down his fork. "I'm not happy. You win first prize for noticing."
"I just want to help," Hope said in a small voice.
"I'm just...oh" he threw his hands in the air "I don't know. I'm a bit down, that's all. Unfulfilled, pissed off, depressed, I don't know what you call it."
She stared at him mutely, not knowing what was coming next.
"Don't say it's a midlife crisis," he added harshly. "That's what bloody Dan said. Said I'd be running off with a seventeen-year-old soon."
"He was only joking," Matt said, seeing her face. "Who'd want me?" he added in a voice resonant with bitterness. "I mean, I'm forty, and what have I done? Nothing. Worked my butt off for years, for what? A decent car and the chance of a good pension. I haven't done anything, not anything I'm proud of."
"You've got Millie and Toby," Hope said weakly, not wanting to add, "...and me," in case Matt didn't feel as if she was much of an asset.
"I know, I know, it's a...male thing." Matt seemed at a loss for words, possibly for the first time in his life. He couldn't appear to say what he meant. Or perhaps he knew exactly what he wanted to say but wanted her to figure it out. He was leaving, that had to be it.
Hope waited, guts clenching in a painful spasm. This was it: Matt was leaving. People left all the time. Her mother and father had left before she'd had a chance to know them, just when she needed them. All right, they'd died, so that was different. But Hope had been expecting Matt to leave almost from the moment she'd fallen in love with him. History repeating itself. There had to be a price for winning such a handsome man you could never be sure of him, never keep him. All the fears Hope had successfully kept to herself over the years were coming to the surface.
Matt was watching her across the table. He knew her background, knew her horror of being abandoned. "It's all right," he said sharply, almost harshly. "I'm not going to leave."
The tears Hope had been successfully holding off now flowed unchecked. She knew he was lying; it was obvious. There was someone else, he wanted to leave her, and it was just a matter of time. He'd merely decided not to dump her on his birthday.
"I'm going through a bad time and I'm trying to deal with it," Matt said. "I'm better if you leave me to it."
"But I can't," whispered Hope. "I love you so much, and I can't bear it if you feel upset. I mean..." She pushed aside her plate, her appetite gone. "I'd do anything to make it all right." She was too scared to ask him if there was someone else. Too afraid that he'd tell her the truth.
"You can't make it all right," Matt said bluntly. "I'm the one suffering the midlife crisis, not you. You can't magic it away so we can play happy families. Life isn't like that. Now, can we just have our dinner and try to have a relaxed evening? Please," he added more gently. "I don't feel up to talking about it."
Hope nodded. She poked her steak around the plate, trying to pretend she was hungry. Matt went back to eating and watching the television.
She watched him surreptitiously, her nerves in tatters, wishing she weren't so needy and pathetically hungry for love that she'd take any excuse. She didn't believe a word of it. Matt was lying. If only she were stronger, she'd demand the truth. Someone like Sam would have sent the entire dinner flying and demanded an explanation. She'd have yelled that he wasn't moving from his seat until he told her exactly what was wrong and cut all the crap about how he was better off dealing with it on his own. Hope knew how Sam would handle this situation, because Sam's responses were programmed into her brain. You didn't grow up practically joined at the hip to your older sister without knowing everything about her. But that didn't mean you could apply her no-holds-barred type of reaction to your own life. Sadly, no.
Hope, hating confrontation and loving Matt almost obsessively, was content to know nothing if that was what Matt wanted.
Matt finished his meal and smiled at his wife. "That was lovely," he said kindly. "Let's forget about everything and watch a video. I stopped at the shop on the way home."
"I can give you your presents," Hope said, eager to leave the desolate place she was currently in. If they had a nice evening after all, it meant their marriage was okay. Didn't it?
Matt was up early the next morning. An early meeting, he said as he threw back the duvet at half past six instead of the usual seven. Hope, head heavy after a practically sleepless night of worrying, couldn't move. She was exhausted; her head throbbed with tiredness and her eyes felt piggy, as if someone had injected them with some type of swelling agent. She knew she should get up and talk to Matt anything to convince herself that it was all okay but she was too tired.
The speediest dresser in the world, Matt was showered, shaved, and ready in twenty minutes. Wearing the black Armani suit with a white shirt and his new tie, an outfit that made him look like he was auditioning for an Italian James Bond role, he stopped by the bed to pick up his watch from the bedside table. Hope sat up against the pillow and rubbed frantically at her sleep-filled eyes.
"Bye, darling," she bleated. "Love you." She hoped he'd kiss her good-bye, but instead he smiled briefly and busied himself with his watch strap.
"Bye, I'll see you this evening," he said, and he was gone, without kissing her.
Hope remembered a time when they'd been so in love that some mornings Matt had ripped off his suit and got back into bed with her to make mad passionate love, not caring that he'd be late for work. She bit her lip miserably. The seven-year itch wasn't just an itch: It was a damn outbreak of eczema.
Her only consolation was that he had looked tired too and clearly hadn't slept well. Whether it was because he longed to make it up, or because he'd been mentally going over the various ways of informing her their marriage was over, she couldn't tell.
As usual, Millie was at her naughtiest because she sensed that Hope was tired and cross. Millie might look like an angelic child model from the Pears soap ads, but there was definitely a vein of sheer mischief running through her body that belied her sweet face. Hope knew from experience that whenever Millie was looking particularly innocent, with her full bottom lip jutting out and her dark eyes round with naïveté, she'd undoubtedly done something very naughty. Like the time she put the plug in the upstairs bathroom sink and set the taps running full blast until water poured down the stairs. The carpet had been ruined.
This morning, she belted downstairs and started to make cakes out of tomato ketchup, mayonnaise, broken-up biscuits, and breakfast cereal, squelching out an entire bottle of ketchup with the subsequent splodges getting all over the kitchen floor, while Hope was upstairs getting Toby ready.
"Millie," was all Hope could say when she got downstairs with Toby to find an ocean of Millie's ketchup cake covering the table, a good deal of the floor, and most of Millie's lime green fluffy sweater, clean half an hour ago. Even worse, it was a sweater that had to be hand-washed and spent much of its life at the bottom of the laundry basket with the other hand-wash items until Hope had the time to tackle them.
"You're a very naughty girl; you're all messy and I'll have to clean this up. Go upstairs immediately and take off that sweater. We're going to be late."
"Shit," said Millie mutinously.
Hope's jaw clanged so low she could hear the joint creak. "What?" she gasped, appalled. Where could Millie have learned that?
Even Millie seemed to realize that this was a very, very bad thing to say. She scampered upstairs like a greyhound.
Hope stepped over the ketchup cake blindly and switched on the kettle. Very strong coffee was the only answer. She had a husband who wanted to leave her and a delinquent four-year-old daughter who had apparently picked up the worst swear words in the world at the nursery that Hope had to shell out most of her salary to pay for. Wonderful.
Hi, Sam, how's the new job? Is everyone friendly?
Stupid question, Hope decided, deleting the second sentence. People were friendly to newcomers in offices but not to new bosses.
We're all great and looking forward to Matt's birthday dinner. I did plan to buy a dress but decided against it. If only I could fit into your designer outfits. Next time you have a wardrobe clear-out, send a plastic trash bag of stuff down to me and I'll diet!
By the Thursday night of Matt's birthday dinner, Hope had lost two pounds with the stress of it all. Normally, that would have thrilled her, but when her weight loss was connected with the fact that Matt had been almost monosyllabic since his birthday, it wasn't a cause for celebration.
Over the last couple of days, Matt had been very quiet and had stayed very late at the office both evenings, ostensibly to get some work done on an important campaign they were presenting on Monday.
Hope was convinced he was going to see her, and had resisted the temptation to follow him in the Metro. It was impossible to play private detective with two small children in tow. Hope could just picture Millie announcing loudly over breakfast the next day: "Daddy, we saw you and a strange lady, and Mummy cried and said a rude word."
Even more telling, he'd been looking over some papers in their bedroom and had quickly stuffed them back in his briefcase when Hope walked in unexpectedly. Distraught, Hope had walked out again. They had to have been divorce papers. What else would he want to hide?
She longed to confide in someone, but whom? Sam had never approved of Matt and would probably arrive in fury from London with a top lawyer in tow and order Hope to screw everything she could out of Matt in the divorce settlement. Betsey, her closest friend, was married to Matt's friend and colleague Dan, so there was no way she could tell Betsey of her fears. In fact, she was scared that if she said anything to Betsey, the other woman would take her hand pityingly and say, yes, she'd been dying to tell Hope that Matt had someone else. Hope had other friends, but they were mainly couples she and Matt went out with friends of both of them, in other words, and therefore unsuitable for spilling the beans to.
How could she phone Angelica and Simon and say that, no, the Parkers wouldn't be coming for dinner in three weeks' time, and had they heard anything about Matt and some bimbo?
So Hope did what she'd been doing all her life: She bottled it up inside herself and lay wide-eyed in bed at night, listening to Matt's even breathing beside her and wondering what the hell she was going to do with the rest of her lonely life without him.
The restaurant was buzzing with a glam Thursday-night crowd, but even so, other diners looked up when the Judd's Advertising crew were escorted to their table. Most of the eyes were on Jasmine Judd, new wife to the boss, a radiant, satin-skinned blonde who was spilling out of a dusky pink sequined dress and made Hope feel more than a little inadequate in the safe jersey number that had looked sophisticated and modern at home but had been transformed into several-seasons-out-of-fashion in this elegant setting. She never got clothes right, she thought with a sigh. But then, Hope was beginning to feel as if she never got anything right.
If the male diners were all openmouthed at the sight of Jasmine swaying on her high heels, the female diners were able to east their eyes on Matt, who was particularly handsome in a fawn-colored suit that made him look even more matinee idol than ever. His hair suited him in the cropped style; it made his deep-set eyes look darker than usual and showed up the firm, he man jaw that made lots of the women in Maltings Lane wave at him too energetically when he was out cutting the grass in his shorts and T-shirt.
He certainly looked after himself, fitting in three nights a week in the gym, come what might. Hope now knew he wasn't keeping himself fit for her. But at least he was wearing his birthday tie.
"George Clooney, eat your heart out," Yvonne had joked the first time she'd clapped eyes on Matt at the annual building society barbecue.
Hope knew this was high praise indeed, but hadn't liked to tell her that Matt considered gorgeous George to be common and modeled himself more on Cary Grant. If his temples weren't already graying in a distinguished manner à la Cary, Hope wondered if Matt might not start bleaching them himself.
Hope walked behind Matt to the table in the restaurant, miserably thinking that maybe she should announce that her delectable husband was back on the market. She'd be flattened in the rush, that was for sure. Matt was a nine on a one-to-ten scale of attractiveness, while she'd been maybe a five when they'd married. In her black dress with her hair refusing to behave and a premenstrual pimple emerging like a beacon on her chin despite all the concealer plastered on it, Hope currently felt as if she was a two. Compared to Jasmine, she was in minus figures.
She stared at Jasmine jealously. Was she the one? No, Hope decided. Matt was a career man first and foremost. Having an affair with the boss's wife was career suicide.
A long table against one wall was reserved for the party of ten. Dan had organized the dinner party and was now telling everyone where to sit. As the others obediently went to their seats, Hope's prospects of a red wine-fueled evening where her mind would be taken off her troubles vanished. Dan told her to sit in the center with her back to the wall, and she realized she was going to spend the evening hemmed in by people she didn't like.
Lucky Matt had Betsey, the flamboyant journalist who was married to Dan, on one side. Betsey was one of Hope's closest friends, although she was a teeny bit self-obsessed and tended to swing all conversations back to herself. Hope would have loved to sit beside Betsey and confide in her; she was almost desperate enough to do so.
On Matt's other side, he had Jasmine. Both women were chattering away happily to the birthday boy. Hope, on the other hand, was stuck with the art director's husband, an eternal student with a goatee and dirty fingernails, who could bore for Britain in the Olympics on the subject of the changing face of industrial architecture. Hope didn't give a damn about industrial architecture and could see nothing interesting in Victorian glassworks.
On her other side was Adam Judd, the agency boss, who never had anything to say to her and who was now avidly watching his luscious wife flirting with Matt.
Across the table, Dan smiled at Hope. She automatically smiled back, thinking, You pig, you've stuck me with the most difficult people at the table. Sam would have said something sarcastic to him; Hope knew she'd never dare.
Dan immediately turned to his neighbor, the agency's commercials director, a quiet woman named Elizabeth.
Soon, she was laughing too.
Hope sighed and took another big slug of wine. She wasn't a heavy drinker, but the thought flitted through her mind that perhaps tonight was the night to get plastered and confront Matt. She'd never have the nerve unless she was drunk....
Then again, Matt would go ballistic if she got drunk and made a fool of herself. These people were Matt's colleagues; she must make an effort. But it wasn't easy. Tortured by thoughts of Matt's infidelity and watching all the women at their table like a hawk, in case she was one of them, Hope was not enjoying herself. The silence on her side of the table was deafening, made all the more obvious by the machine-gun rattle of conversation on the other side. Adam ate like he was starving, only speaking when he wanted butter, pepper for his smoked salmon, or the bottle of wine passed down to his end. Hope gave up trying when her third stab at conversation ("Are you and Jasmine going anywhere nice on holiday?") was deflected with a grunted, "No." Adam looked grim at the notion, as if he wasn't letting Jasmine go anywhere she'd be able to stun passing men with the sight of her in a sliver of uplift bikini.
Peter, the student, was eager to discuss his thesis whenever Hope turned in his direction.
"I'd really like to develop the idea into a book," he was saying grandly in between hoovering up goat-cheese salad, "but, bizarrely, I can't get anyone interested."
Hope had tuned out by now, but nodded and said, "Really? How interesting." She wished she were more like Sam, who could invest the words "how interesting" with an iciness that would freeze the Pacific Ocean and immediately make the other person realize they were the exact opposite of interesting.
"Funding is the problem, control of funding," Peter said, tapping his bony nose mysteriously. "It's impossible to get funding for the really worthwhile projects like mine," he added pompously.
"It is outrageous that so many commercial books get published when worthy, unsalable books like yours don't," Hope said gravely.
Peter blinked at her, unsure whether she was serious or not. But Hope's face was the picture of earnestness.
"Well, yes," he driveled on, satisfied that Matt Parker's quiet little wife couldn't possibly have been mocking him. "You see, if you let me explain my theories..."
In desperation, Hope turned to find that Adam was now talking business to Sadie, the art director. Sadie's eyes caught Hope's briefly, but as Adam was talking, Hope couldn't interrupt. Adam ignored Hope completely. Just like Matt, she thought bitterly. He'd barely looked at her during the first course, concentrating on making everyone else laugh and have a great time.
"You can see the problem," Peter continued as she turned back to him.
"Of course," Hope said, wondering why the hell she'd been looking forward to an evening out when it was proving as thrilling as having her blackheads squeezed. She'd thought it might be more enjoyable than enduring another silent evening of tellywatching at home. But at least at home, her mind was taken off her problems thanks to prime-time viewing.
"More wine, Hope?" asked her husband from the other side of the table, seeing that no one else had bothered to refill her glass.
She nodded glumly.
Matt's long fingers reached across the table and touched hers. He winked at her and mouthed, "Thank you." Thank you for being bored senseless on my behalf, she hoped he meant. She smiled weakly back with relief. He did love her, he did. She knew Matt well enough to know he was trying to make up. Even if there was somebody else, she could weather it as long as Matt loved her. Hope gave his fingers a final squeeze.
It wasn't too much of an effort to be nice to Matt's colleagues and their spouses. It was the least she could do. She only had to put up with Peter once or twice a year.
Long fingers twirling the stem of his wineglass, Matt watched Hope doing her best to be charming to boring Peter Scott. She was great at that sort of thing, he thought fondly. You could always rely on Hope to do the polite, decent thing no matter what. Nobody else in their right mind would let Peter start on his mythesis saga, but Hope was too kind to stop him. That was her problem: She was too kind. She let people walk all over her.
He didn't know why she'd worn that clingy dress. Tight stuff didn't suit her. His wife had an otherworldly air that made her look nice in flowy stuff, long dresses, that type of thing. Not like Jasmine. You had to hand it to Adam, he knew how to pick them. There wasn't a man here who hadn't thought for one brief, erotic moment of what the new Mrs. Judd would look like without that sparkly dress. Probably cost more than all the dresses in Hope's wardrobe put together. Anyway, Hope would never wear such a thing. That dress was a statement: Look at me, it said. That wasn't Hope's scene at all. She was much more of a background person, happy to be out of the spotlight.
It was a pity she didn't realize how gorgeous she was. He was always telling her, but she just didn't get it. He'd seen scores of men eyeing her over the years, and Hope never, ever noticed them. When people looked at her, she checked to see if she had her skirt tucked up into her knickers or had gone out in her slippers.
"Great night, isn't it?" Dan said, leaning over and touching Matt on the shoulder.
"Yeah, fantastic night," Matt said automatically.
It was a great night. He had his colleagues here cheering him for his birthday, and his boss who'd just brought him into the boardroom that day to say he was giving Matt a raise. Two lovely kids, a nice wife...everything a man could want. Only he wanted more.
Matt stared into the middle distance and thought about how his perfect, wonderful life was choking him. He'd had a crazy and impulsive idea about how to fix it well, how to fix some of it but how did he break it to Hope? He didn't know where to start. Confiding in Jasmine had helped a bit.
She'd promised to put a good word in for him with Adam if he ever actually made the break. Telling Adam would be a breeze compared to telling Hope.
By the time people were staring happily into their liqueurs, Hope had finally managed to move seats and was now between Jasmine and Dan.
Jasmine was very nice, Hope decided, convinced now that there was nothing between her and Matt. She could see how other women would feel threatened by her: that amazing figure, tiny waist, and gravity-defying boobs, not to mention a sweet face with huge blue eyes. But she was funny, unaffected, and not at all the predatory bimbo that Betsey had initially dubbed her. Well, she wasn't predatory, anyway.
"Your husband's wonderful," Jasmine said in between sips of sambuca. "I was telling him how I wanted to write a book, and he said, 'Me too!' The last person I said it to told me not to bother my head with books when I could be on the cover of one." Jasmine looked vexed at this.
"Matt said what?" Hope asked, curious and hurt at the same time. How had Matt discussed this with Jasmine and not with her?
"I daresay it's a pipe dream," suggested Jasmine. "It is for me too. But Matt writes for his job, he's got a better chance than most. I'm thinking of doing a creative writing course, myself. I know it's tough. Like selling records. I went out with a musician once, and he was obsessed with record sales." She laughed ruefully. "Oh, speaking of music, Matt was telling me about your older sister and this great job she's just got at the record company. I love the sound of that. What's she like? Very clever and highpowered, I suppose?"
"The opposite of me, you mean," said Hope automatically. And it was true Sam was a human dynamo, all fire and energy. Now she was running a label at Titus Records. Hope still wasn't exactly sure what the new job entailed because Sam had only been there a week and their e-mails had been short, but it was demanding, that was for sure. Sam couldn't bear to be free of pressure. She'd worked herself into the ground for five years as marketing director of another huge record label, and now, when Hope thought her sister should be slowing down a bit and perhaps thinking about settling down, Sam had moved companies to another, bigger job.
Jasmine was back on the subject of writing: "Matt told me about his plan to take a year off and live in the country. I know it's only an idea and you've nothing settled yet, but I think you should go for it. It'll be easier for him to write with no distractions. Harder to see your sister, mind you, if you were to move abroad. Matt was telling me your parents died when you were kids and that you've only got one sister."
Hope's heart missed a beat. "What are you talking about?" she asked, feeling a queasy sensation in the pit of her stomach, a sensation that had nothing to do with drinking too much.
"It's fine, really," Jasmine assured her in a stage whisper. "You don't have to pretend you don't know. I won't say a word to Adam about it, I promised Matt I wouldn't. I'm sure that Adam will go ballistic when he discovers Matt wants to take a year's sabbatical, but you have to pursue your dreams, don't you?" She got mistyeyed. "I'd love to move somewhere remote to write, but I'd hate to be away from twenty-four-hour shops. Won't you mind?"
Hope recovered her composure. This was not the moment to say that the notion of Matt taking a year off was news to her. She tried to look resigned instead of astonished. "Who knows what'll happen?" She shrugged. "The whole idea is very much aspirational right now. We love Bath and " "Jasmine, time to go," announced Adam suddenly, looming behind his wife and putting proprietorial hands on her slim, golden shoulders.
With Jasmine and Adam gone, the party deflated. Betsey insisted to Dan that she was tired and had to go home.
"We should go, too," said Elizabeth, reaching under the table for her handbag.
With the wisdom born of being slightly drunk, Hope realized that her husband's colleagues weren't so close to him as he thought. Their eagerness to party lasted only as long as the boss's presence. When Adam was gone, so was the party spirit. But Matt didn't seem to mind and waved everyone off with great bonhomie.
In the taxi, Hope sat quietly as they drove out on the Bristol Road. Matt lay back against the seat with his eyes closed, his face expressionless now that they were alone. As houses sped by, Hope worked out what she was going to say when they got home. It went against the grain to start an argument in the back of a taxi with the driver listening to every word.
The pieces of the puzzle had fallen painfully into place, thanks to the artless Jasmine. Matt was dreaming up an enormous career change, and Hope and the kids didn't figure in his plans. Would she stay on in the house in Bath or move to London to be near Sam? Hope wondered in shock. She'd move, definitely; she couldn't stay in the house where they'd been so happy. Correction: where she'd been so happy. Matt obviously hadn't been happy or he wouldn't want to leave it and her.
The children had been little lambs and the chocolate biscuits had been great, Elaine, the babysitter, said when they got home. "Good," said Hope absently, getting out her purse. Her hands were shaking like an alcoholic's before the first drink of the day. "Matt will walk you home."
"It's only across the road," protested Elaine.
"Better safe than sorry," Hope said. "It's half past twelve, you know. Time for the deviants of the world to emerge."
"In Maltings Lane?" asked Elaine incredulously.
When Matt came back, Hope was sitting waiting for him at the kitchen table. Her hands were still shaking, so she put them on her lap and clasped them tightly together as if she were praying. Perhaps if she had prayed, none of this would have happened, she thought wildly.
"I thought you'd be on your way to bed by now," Matt remarked, pouring himself a glass of milk. It was the longest statement he'd made in days.
"Jasmine said a very strange thing to me tonight," Hope said evenly. "She said you were taking a sabbatical to live in the country to write a book not this country, was the implication. I just wondered when you were going to tell me of this plan and if I and the children were actually included."
"Ah." Matt sat down with her. "Too much red wine is a terrible thing."
"You mean Jasmine misunderstood?" Hope could barely get the words out.
"Not exactly," Matt said slowly. "I'm afraid I got a bit carried away and said too much."
"So it's true." Her legs began to shake too with fear.
"Hope..." Matt wasn't sure how to start, but he knew he had to. Telling Jasmine had been a decision fueled by too much wine, but it had been a relief to talk about it with someone other than Dan. It was time to tell Hope. "It's been a dream of mine for years, and you know me, respectable family man, I'd never do anything wild or out of the ordinary, anything that would jeopardize our future, but now I've got the chance and I thought, why not take a year off? I know that Adam would keep my job open for me he'd have to, I'm the best he's got," he added, proud of the fact.
"But what about me and the kids?" asked Hope, eyes wet and filled with terror. Was Matt drunk? Didn't he care about them at all?
"I mean all of us going away. You, me, and the kids, for a year. To Ireland Kerry, in fact. Uncle Gearóid's solicitor phoned me on Monday about the old house. I know it's sudden, but it's like the answer to my prayers. I've been so down, Hope, so depressed, and then he phones to say the house is officially mine. I haven't been able to think of anything else all week."
Hope's whole body was shaking now; she could barely take in what he was saying because her mind was so befuddled with fear and anxiety.
Gearóid had been a poet who, more than forty years before, had left his home in the U.K. for a small town named Redlion in Kerry, where he lived a bohemian life with gusto. Hope had never met him because he'd refused to leave his beloved adopted country to come to their wedding, but he'd always sounded like a mad old rogue who pickled his liver and wrote bad poetry that nobody had ever wanted to publish. He'd even changed his name from Gerald to the Irish and unpronounceable Gearóid, which Hope still found impossible to say, no matter how many times Matt said it phonetically: "Gar, like garage, and oid like hemorrhoid."
Matt had spent a few summers in Redlion as a child and still talked mistily about what a wonderful place Kerry was. But as Gearóid became more eccentric with age, he refused to travel to stay with Matt, who in turn never seemed to have the time to visit his aging uncle. When he died, he left Matt everything. "Probate's finally been sorted out," Matt explained. "The house is mine. And yours, of course. There's a bit of land, but only an acre or so. It all seemed much bigger when I was a kid. I thought he had loads of land. Anyway..." He paused. "This is my idea. I've told you about the writers' community there that Gearóid helped start up in the sixties?"
Hope nodded, still looking shell-shocked, although Matt didn't notice because he was fired up with the enthusiasm of telling her his plan.
"It's spooky because this is so coincidental," Matt went on eagerly, "but last week I read an interview with the novelist Stephen Dane you know the guy, he writes those literary thrillers. Anyway, he's just sold a book to Hollywood. We're talking millions, Hope. And in the middle of the interview, he mentioned that he wrote his first novel in Kerry, in Redlion, actually, at the writers' center. Don't you see, it's got to be a sign.
"We'd both take a year off and go and live in Gearóid's house. I'd write a novel. I've got one in me, I know it. Imagine it, Hope," Matt said, his eyes alight with enthusiasm, desperate to transmit his excitement to her and unaware of what she'd been thinking since his birthday. "We could be with the children all day. I could get some part-time copywriting work, and we'd live cheaply enough. We could rent out this place for a year and cover the mortgage. We wouldn't lose out. This is our big chance."
And it was, Matt was convinced of it. He'd slay the demons that lived in his head and told him he'd never amount to anything but a bitter old adman. And he'd get the chance to live another life, even if only for a brief time.
Hope stared at him, hardly daring to believe that it wasn't the death knell she'd been expecting. Matt wasn't leaving her; he wanted her and the children with him. She leaned her hands on the table. Her sleeve immediately stuck in the sticky patch left behind from Millie's morning yogurt.
"Why couldn't you tell me?" she said, her voice unsteady. "I didn't know you felt this way."
"I'm sorry I kept it to myself. It's embarrassing to talk about your dreams like that, Hope, but I want to write and I'm never going to do it here, not with a full-time job, not in this house. You need a creative atmosphere. It would be fantastic for us as a family. Having the house there in Redlion takes all the hassle out of it. It's perfect."
"Why didn't you tell me any of this on your birthday?" she said helplessly. "I knew there was something wrong, I asked you what it was then and you wouldn't tell me! I thought you were having an affair."
It was Matt's turn to look astonished. "An affair! Whatever gave you that idea?" he said incredulously.
"Everything," Hope said. "You told me there was something wrong but that I couldn't fix it. And you didn't kiss me or touch me, and I was just so sure "
Her voice broke, and Matt took her hands in his.
"Darling Hope, what a crazy idea. I was killing myself wondering whether I could do this to you. All I could think of was that you'd hate it, that it was such a huge step to go abroad for a year. I kept telling myself it was a stupid idea, that I shouldn't do it, but I've been talking to Dan about it and "
"Dan!" Hope felt a spark of fury that while she'd been dying inside at the thought of Matt leaving her, he could have saved her a lot of anguish if only he'd told her the truth. Meanwhile, he'd actually been asking other people's opinions on a move that affected her more than anyone else. "Is there anyone you haven't discussed this with, apart from me, of course?" She ripped a tissue from the box on the table and rubbed violently at the yogurt marks on the table.
"I need you to understand, Hope," Matt said quietly.
Hope thought she understood, all right: Matt had made another unilateral decision about their lives. There had been the time a mere month after their marriage when he told her he'd accepted a job with the ad agency in Bath, even though they'd decided together to travel around the world for a year. (Well, the trip around the world had been his idea initially, but she'd agreed to it, had bought the rucksack and got the typhoid injection.)
Or the time he'd agreed to rent a holiday cottage in France with Dan and Betsey, without even discussing it with Hope. And what had she said on each occasion? Had she roared, "It's my life, too, Matt. I don't agree with your plans, so you'll have to unmake them"? No. Anger and neediness had fought, and neediness had won. Too scared at starting a battle with the one she loved, Hope had smothered her upset and said, "Of course, that's a good idea. Let's do it."
"Penny for them?" Matt put an arm around her shoulders. She leaned her head against it. He was so demonstrative with her, which had thrilled her when they'd first met. Matt linked his arm through hers from the first date, squeezed her fingers affectionately just for the hell of it. Hope, brought up in austerity where hugs were for Christmas, had loved his touchy-feely-ness. After six years of marriage, he had been as affectionate as ever. They had slept spooned together, and on the odd occasions Matt was away working, Hope found it impossible to get any sleep without the sensation of his body next to hers. Until the past painful few months.
Hope remembered the sheer fear of thinking their marriage was over. She adored Matt; she couldn't live without him. Now, relief that he still loved her too was flooding through her limbs, filling her with the sweet sense of release that all her worst nightmares weren't coming true.
"I wish you wouldn't make decisions without consulting me," she said, head still resting against his arm.
As if sensing that the worst was over, Matt stroked her hair with his other hand. "I am consulting you," he said.
"Only after you've talked about it with other people, including Jasmine." She was still hurt that he'd talked about something so personal to a woman he barely knew. Jasmine had learned all the facts while Hope, whose life it involved, was still ignorant of them. Despite her relief, that still rankled. "We can't have a very good marriage if you never discuss the big issues with me, Matt. Why couldn't you tell me what you were thinking in the beginning? I couldn't begin to tell you how awful it's been for me, knowing there was something wrong but not what." She didn't want to mention her affair fears again. It sounded so stupid now that she knew the truth.
"It was only an idea then "
"That was when you should have talked it over with me, then. What am I? Your wife or your landlady?"
Matt moved his arm away. "I thought you'd jump at the idea. You're forever going on about how you never get to spend time with Toby and Millie, how they'll grow up thinking Your Little Treasures is their real home and we're the nighttime babysitters. And you hate your job."
"Sometimes I do, but that doesn't mean I want to stop doing it," Hope protested. "And I doubt very much if I could get a sabbatical; I'm hardly a topflight executive they can't do without. So you're asking me to dump a good job. And all our friends are here," she added, "not to mention the children's friends. Toby's only just settled properly into the nursery and I have to drag him out again."
"It's only for a year, not forever. Unless, of course, I get a good publishing deal..." Matt's face lit up at his daydream, but Hope was even more horrified. Perhaps the move would be forever...
"What if I don't agree to it?" she asked.
Feeling a bit guilty about blackmailing her, Matt launched his final, lethal weapon. "Don't be angry, love. Think of what it could mean to us. We could bring up the children as a real family, in a real community environment. Not with both of us working so hard that we're too tired to get involved with the outside world. Wouldn't you love to live in the country and be a part of the children's lives?"
Hope wavered. Family that was her Achilles' heel. Aunt Ruth had been the most unmaternal person on the planet, and Hope had longed for a family atmosphere like something out of a Disney movie. Picnics with homemade sandwiches, walks along the seashore, great excitement hanging up stockings over the fireplace at Christmas. She and Sam hadn't experienced any of that, which made her all the more keen to give it to her children.
"We could look after the kids ourselves, not work each other into the ground," Matt said fervently, warming to his theme. "Think of it, fresh air, no pollution, good food "
"Bath is hardly covered with industrial smog," she pointed out.
"I know, but this would be different."
"What about our families? We'd be so far away from everyone."
"I never see my lot anyway you know we're not close and Sam can fly over and see us in Ireland. Sam jets off all over the world for work," Matt added, "it'll be easy for her to hop on a plane and visit us. The trip would be an hour and a half, max."
Hope thought about it. Imagine being able to take care of the children, giving them quality time, learning tapestry, sitting in a rural garden with butterflies dipping in and out of the flowers, birds singing, and not a sound of cars roaring up and down the motorways.
Hope thought of the floral skirt she'd admired in Jolly's and her plans to become the queen of her kitchen.
And she and Matt would become closer than ever. After nearly a week of fear when she'd thought her marriage was over, she desperately wanted to work on it, to make sure they stayed together. She took a deep breath.
"Okay, let's investigate it. But stop making plans without asking me, will you?"
"I promise." Matt buried his face in her neck, the same way Toby did. And in a rush of warmth, she felt her objections melt away.
Copyright © 2001 by Cathy Kelly
Meet the Author
Cathy Kelly is the author of eight #1 bestselling novels in Ireland, which have all hit the Sunday Times’ top ten in London. She lives in Wicklow, Ireland.
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