The One Saving Grace | Chapter 13 of 42

Author: Julie Houston | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1038 Views | Add a Review

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8

‘Hi, Harriet… Alex Hamilton. I was here earlier in the week when you’d just had your accident, but I suppose the last thing you wanted to do then was be sociable. How is your face now? It certainly looks a lot better than it did. You know, we did meet in Manchester in Harvey Nicks in the summer, but Nick says you don’t remember.’ Alex grinned down at me – those incredibly blue, Cillian Murphy eyes holding mine, daring me to deny all knowledge that we’d met before.

Oh, shit. Those eyes. What an unfair advantage for any man. He wasn’t as tall as Nick, who was over six foot, but he had the same taut, muscular frame. He had very dark, thick, almost black hair which – I guessed – might have curled had it not been cut fashionably short, and clear, almost translucent skin. He was probably my age, maybe a couple of years younger. He continued to smile at me – enjoying, I was sure, the effect it was having.

In all reality, we probably stood there for only two seconds before I managed to connect brain with mouth and actually speak, but it felt like when you are falling or in a car crash – not that I ever have been in one – and everything around seems to slow down to such an extent that the moment goes on forever. A whole gamut of emotion – lust, excitement, regret, fear – seemed to explode and fracture in my head, but my one overriding thought was danger. This man standing in front of me was dangerous.

‘Hi, Alex, good to see you again. Amazing coincidence that the man who came to my rescue should end up working for Nick.’ I knew I was gabbling, but couldn’t seem to slow down – I’d gone from slow motion fall to someone on speed.

‘Actually, it wasn’t a coincidence. Nick texted me in a panic when he knew you were stranded in Harvey Nicks. Hoped I might be around, which I was. I have an apartment a stone’s throw away, in the Northern Quarter.’ He paused, ‘And I’m not really working for Nick, more with him. I’ve lived and worked in Milan for the last couple of years and David approached me with an offer I couldn’t refuse.’ He laughed. ‘You don’t turn down David Henderson if he comes knocking on your door.’

‘Nor his wife,’ I muttered.

‘Ah, the lovely Mandy? No… I would imagine she’d be very hard to refuse.’ Alex picked up both our glasses of wine and made to go back to the sitting room, but then turned and said softly, ‘And you, Harriet?’

‘Me?’

‘Are you very hard to refuse?’

‘I think we’re ready to eat,’ I said, unable to tear my eyes away from his. Holy Mary, (and I wasn’t even Catholic, so I don’t know where that came from) I was ready to eat him.

In the sitting room the party seemed to have warmed up nicely. While Nick, Anasim, Seb – and now Alex, were all part of the new company, L’uomo, they thankfully didn’t appear to be talking shop. Nuts and other nibbly bits had been devoured and I reckoned some of the guests – Anasim, Rebecca and Philip Kerr in particular – were at that stage of drinking where, if I didn’t get some food down them, the whole evening would end up turning into a booze-up rather than the sophisticated dinner party it was supposed to be. Maybe I should have sorted out where everyone was going to sit, because it did end up as a bit of a race to get the best seats. No one wants to be at the end of the table with the boring ones, and everyone wants to sit in the middle in order to join in all the good conversations. There’s nothing worse than being down one end of a table with the ones who have either nothing interesting to say or only talk about themselves while there’s a riotous time going on at the other end. Rebecca and Call-me-Gabs made a dash for centre stage, but kept an eye out for where Alex, Seb and Nick were going to sit.

Grace, who’d apparently gone to ring Amanda to check on Jonty, came last to the table and ended up with Sandra and Anasim. Nick, mindful of his job as host as well as his recent vodka hangover, was seemingly drinking sparingly but making sure everyone else was topped up, and I was pleased that I had Sebastian on my left. I wanted to talk to him about Grace.

I didn’t want to be anywhere near Alex Hamilton. Didn’t want to feel flustered, and give away – by word, deed or too much SB – that he was having a huge effect on me. What I did want was to have him up at the other end of the table but opposite me, so that I could study him from a distance.

‘Jolly good pâté, this,’ Philip Kerr said, chewing rather noisily on my right. ‘What is it?’

‘Duck,’ I said. ‘Nick made it. It’s a secret family recipe of his. Been handed down through the generations, apparently. I’ve no idea what goes into it except… well, duck, I assume, and a huge amount of brandy.’

‘Duck?’ Call-me looked at her plate suspiciously. ‘They weren’t force fed, were they?’

I laughed. ‘That’s goose, isn’t it? Don’t worry, Gabs as far as I know, Nick hasn’t been out round the back forcing stuff down ducks’ throats. I’m sure he bought the duck from Morrisons.’

‘I’ve got ducks,’ Sandra said suddenly, from the other end of the table. She hadn’t said much at all since coming to the table and we all stopped our individual conversations and turned as one.

‘Blimey, hope it’s not catching,’ Rebecca chortled.

‘Really?’ Nick asked. ‘How many? Where do you keep them?’

Sandra kept on eating, solidly chewing even though we were all now looking at her, even Anasim (I wasn’t sure how much of our conversations he was able to follow).

‘Well, I’d got a couple of hens – Molly and Maisie – just kept ’em in t’garden, like. And then some ducklings followed me home one night as I walked through t’village.’

‘What, like muggers?’ Rebecca giggled again.

Sandra ignored her. ‘I reckon t’fox had had their mother.’

I glanced across at Grace, sitting opposite Sandra. Her face was stricken, and I was terrified she was going to cry again. ‘So,’ I said quickly, ‘you’re their mother now? And have you got names for them as well as for the hens?’

‘Yes,’ she said proudly. ‘David, Deborah and Douglas.’

Rebecca caught my eye and we both ended up giggling. Even more so when Sandra continued to tuck into her duck pâté, obviously not bothered that she was eating one of Douglas’s mates.

Sandra finished her pâté and said, ‘I’ve just been given another one today. It’s got a broken wing and someone found it up near t’rec and asked if I could look after it.’

‘So what’s this one called?’ Nick asked, smiling.

‘Can’t mek me mind up,’ Sandra said seriously. ‘I’ve been thinking on it all day.’

‘Duck Berry?’ Rebecca leaned across Anasim to Sandra.

‘Dick Van Duck?’ This from Seb.

‘Duck Turpin?’ from Rebecca.

‘Duck Rogers?’ Nick laughed.

‘Duck Rogers?’ Rebecca asked. ‘Who’s Duck Rogers?’

Nick tutted. ‘As in Duck Rogers in the 25th Century.’

‘Duck Bogarde?’ said Anasim, joining in with this mad English dinner party game.

‘Who?’ Seb pulled a face. ‘I’m lost. Who on earth is Duck Bogarde?’

But of course. Why would he know? Seb was a different generation from the rest of us round the table.

‘Ve vere vairy fond of Duck Bogarde – Dirk Bogarde – in Russia, many years ago. He vas, erm, a gay icon. Is that vat you say?’

Ah ha. Definitely a trannie. I stole a glance at the blue eyed one, who was convulsed. Oh, good, he had a sense of humour as well.

‘Ant and Duck,’ cried Philip Kerr, knocking over his glass of water in his excitement at his contribution.

We were thankfully saved from ‘Duck the Halls with Boughs of Holly,’ – the only thing I could come up with, and any more fowl language – by Lilian and India coming in to help clear the plates.

‘Ah, the lofflee leetle Eendea,’ Anasim beamed. ‘And where is your offer lofflee girl?’ He looked round the table. Of course, he’d met them all on Thursday evening at the pizza restaurant.

‘Liberty’s extremely busy working for A levels and not to be disturbed this evening, I’m afraid. She’s got a big maths test on Monday so she won’t be down.’ I followed Nick, Lilian and India out into the kitchen.

When I returned, fifteen minutes later, having checked the twins, patted a sleepy Sam who was again firmly ensconced in Bones’s place by the Aga, suggested it was India’s bedtime and helped Lilian and Nick bring in the main course, the girl who wasn’t to be disturbed was sitting in my place, glass of wine in hand and deep in conversation with Anasim.

‘I thought you had lots of work to do,’ I said, surprised that she’d joined us. Maybe this, then, was what Sally Saxton was suggesting – that my daughter was working for the Russians. Didn’t they approach bright young things and persuade them to spy for them? Or was that MI5? Oh, get a grip, Harriet, I giggled to myself. How would Sally Saxton know that?

‘All done,’ she purred. ‘I’m starving. Does anyone object to me joining you all?’

As one, Seb, Anasim and Philip Kerr all shuffled to one side to make room – and Rebecca, who’d been at the loo, and was now squeezed out of her place, took the opportunity (a bit like Italy, post Mussolini,) to go over to the other side, strategically placing herself next to Alex. A squashed Call-me-Gabs, now almost on a delighted Philip Kerr’s knee, glared at Rebecca and then at the food on the plate in front of her.

‘Rebecca made this,’ I announced. ‘She’s been slaving over a hot stove all day. Thanks, Rebecca.’

‘What is it?’ As with the duck pâté earlier, Gabriella poked at the plate with her fork.

‘Balls,’ Rebecca said drily.

‘Well, yes, I can see that. I was just wondering whose? There are certain meats I don’t eat.’

‘You tell me which meat you don’t eat, and I’ll tell you if they are there.’

‘Well, I don’t really eat beef, pork, lamb or venison and certainly not veal.’ Gabriella shuddered.

‘Oh, you’re fine, then,’ Rebecca said shortly, reaching for her wine. ‘They’re chicken.’ She caught my eye and winked.

Call-me opened her mouth to reply, but Alex said, ‘Do shut up, Gabriella, and eat this fantastic food. Rebecca made it specially for Harriet as a goodbye meal.’

‘Oh, you’re going away?’ Gabriella asked, ignoring her food and turning to me.

‘Not me,’ I laughed. ‘Rebecca. She’s off to Chicago for nine months.’

‘Oh, really, Rebecca? How wonderful.’ Without another word, Gabriella picked up her knife and fork and began to eat, her appetite suddenly returning with the knowledge that Rebecca was soon to be safely out of the picture.

Several glasses of wine were making me mellow. What a good idea this had been of mine to invite these lovely people over. Everyone was chatting, the food was fabulous, and the gorgeous one was, well… gorgeous. I looked across at Nick. He was gorgeous too, of course, I thought, tipsily. I glanced back across at Alex. Short dark hair and blue eyes compared to Nick’s longer blonde hair and brown eyes. Ah, life was good. Lovely friends, lovely children, lovely food, gorgeous men.

Grace wasn’t at her seat. I’d been so absorbed in Rebecca and Gabriella’s little spat, I’d not seen her leave.

‘Where’s Grace, Seb?’ I asked, turning to where he was sitting quietly, not really joining in with the banter around him.

Seb had said very little all evening, and it hit me once again that all the people around the table were of a different generation from him. He wasn’t twenty-five and yet here he was, on a Saturday evening, sitting around a dinner party table with people almost his parents’ age. He rubbed the side of his face, carefully placed his glass of wine back on to the table, and sighed.

‘Harriet,’ he said quietly, so that only I could hear, ‘I don’t know what to do – don’t know how to help her. It’s like she’s a totally different person from the Grace of a year ago.’

‘Well, I suppose she is, really,’ I agreed. ‘Having a baby does change you somewhat, both physically and mentally. I’m sure, now that she’s out of that building site of a house, she will be a lot better.’ I didn’t like to add that I couldn’t see that living under Amanda’s roof would be totally conducive to a speedy recovery.

Seb ran his hair through his dark hair and I marvelled anew at how devastatingly handsome one young man could be. He was about to say something else when Grace reappeared.

‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘She’s here. Look.’

Grace stumbled back into her place, a large glass of something in her hand. I prayed she’d gone out to get more water, but was horribly afraid it was gin.

‘Are you OK?’ I mouthed across at her. ‘Do you want to come and sit here next to Seb?’

She’d been crying again, and her food was hardly touched. Grace tried to smile, shook her head and picked up her knife and fork.

‘Liberty,’ I whispered across. ‘Go and swap places with Auntie Grace.’

Libby sighed and tutted. ‘I’m sure she’s fine.’

‘She’s not. Now do as you’re told and swap places.’

‘Problem is,’ she whispered back across to me, ‘pouring gin into Grace these days is a bit like pouring diesel into a petrol tank – at some stage in the evening you know it’s going to break down.’

I could think of no appropriate response at that point apart from the sort of teacher glare I used to regularly give to recalcitrant kids in my class. Liberty really wasn’t being at all pleasant. Was she doing drugs? Or was it alcohol? She seemed to be knocking quite a bit back herself.

‘You’re leefing us, loffely Leeberty?’ Anasim rose and kissed both her cheeks.

Liberty smiled, somewhat disdainfully ‘Yes, ’fraid so. I have actually still got a lot of work to do. I’ll leave you… oldies… to your fun.’

What was the matter with her? I glared at her once more, made a mental note that a showdown was on the cards the following morning and pulled Liberty’s now vacant chair back so that Grace could join Seb and me. Seb stroked her arm, but she appeared to take no notice.

Grace was definitely quite drunk and I mentally berated myself for letting her to get into this state. The rest of the party were having a heated, but laughter fuelled discussion about a woman’s need for handbags:

‘A woman’s big handbag is the equivalent of a man flaunting a big penis.’

‘What rubbish. A man doesn’t carry lipstick, pens and money in his penis.’

‘No, we women end up carrying the man’s keys, phone and money in our big bags. That’s why we have big bags.’

‘A big designer bag signals wealth like a Ferrari. Shows that a woman has the money to splash out on a bit of luxury.’

‘No, I reckon women carry big designer bags to say “back off” to any rival who is after her man.’

‘What, so she can hit her round the head with it?’

‘Oh, like a man does weeve a beeg penis?’

‘I’ve never known any woman be hit around the head by a big penis.’

‘Or any sort of penis.’

‘You ’aven’t leeved.’

‘How come we’re on to penises when the subject is women’s bags?’

‘Everything always comes back to a man and his dick.’

We were at the cheese and coffee stage of the evening, but I reckoned Grace had had enough. Enough alcohol – that was obvious – and enough of the company.

‘Do you want to go home, Grace?’ I turned from the laughter and towards her so that she had to look at me.

‘Home? Where’s home?’ Grace gave a sad little laugh.

‘Well, the farm. The farm will be, eventually. But no… obviously, back to Amanda and David’s at the moment.’

‘Can you imagine, when we were at school, last year even, if we’d ever have thought I’d end up as Amanda’s daughter-in-law…’

‘You’re not her daughter-in-law,’ I said gently.

‘Or that I’d end up living with her.’

‘It won’t be for long. You’ll soon have the farm done now that you’re not in it. Or could you find somewhere to rent for the time being?’

‘Hat, I actually don’t give a damn where I live. It’s the actual living I’m finding hard work.’

‘OK, listen to me, Grace. You and Seb need to get a taxi home now. You need to see that Jonty is all right and have a good night’s sleep. Then, on Monday, make an appointment to see your GP. And I’m coming with you.’

‘I need to get home, Harriet.’ Grace’s face was flushed and her eyes, like those of a cornered animal, had an almost wild look about them – and she’d spilled drink down her sweater, staining the apricot to a dark orange. ‘Seb, let’s go. I’m worried about Jonty. What if he’s on his tummy instead of his back? I should never have left him for so long. I am such a bad mother.’

These last two words were said in a loud enough voice, and with such vehemence, for everyone at the table to suddenly stop their conversation and turn to look in surprise at Grace… apart from Philip Kerr who, thoroughly overexcited from sitting so close to Gabriella’s rather prominent bosom, as well as the somewhat lewd content of the chat, carried on talking.

Grace got up quickly, pushing back the chair which fell with a crash on to the wooden floor behind her. ‘I’m so sorry, so sorry. I just need to get home. I need to see that my baby is all right. You see he’s very little. He’s only two months old. I really shouldn’t have left him.’ She made for the door, cannoning off a side table on which I’d earlier put the cheeseboard and fruit as well as cups, saucers and spoons for coffee.

Seb, Nick and I hurried out after Grace, who was in the kitchen desperately hunting for her coat.

‘Grace, I don’t think you had a coat with you,’ Seb said, trying to put his arms round her. ‘Just slow down a little. Nick’s ringing for a taxi now.’

Lilian and Sam had already left and Bones, waiting his chance, came slinking back through the cat flap. Actually, Bones is far too corpulent to ever slink. He crashed through, stopped for a second to survey his territory and then, with a disdainful look at me, took up his rightful place by the Aga. Miraculously, the kitchen, instead of bearing the usual hallmarks of an after-dinner party tip, was tidy: Lilian had stacked the dishwasher, which was just revving up, a bit like an overenthusiastic lover, to its climax, and had neatly piled any remaining dirty dishes on the granite. There were no greasy, meat encrusted trays soaking in the sink, no sticky work surfaces hiding beneath half full glasses of wine, handbags and jackets – and no bunches of flowers wilting, because no one had got round to putting them into water.

‘I’m sure I did… I’m sure I had my red jacket with me.’ Grace was frenziedly searching the room, her eyes darting from one possible hiding place to another.

I took her arm and smiled at her, attempting to quieten her. ‘Grace, calm down. You wouldn’t have had your red jacket, not with that apricot jumper, would you? Don’t worry about it. Look, this is your bag. The taxi will be here soon.’

Sebastian stood helplessly to one side. Every time he’d attempted to take Grace’s arm, she’d shaken him off, refusing to be reasoned with. He looked drawn, his olive skin pale, his eyes tired. As would most new fathers, I reasoned. And yet there was something else: the light seemed to have gone out of both Grace and Seb, a sense of despair wrapping itself around both of them like a grey cloak.

By the time she’d accepted that – in all probability – she’d come without a jacket, Grace clutched her handbag to herself before fiercely hugging Nick, and then me. ‘Really sorry, both of you,’ she muttered. ‘Shouldn’t have come. I’ve spoiled everyone’s evening. Really sorry.’

Seb looked at Nick and me, sighed and raised his eyebrows in a gesture almost of defeat. At the end of the day, he was only twenty-four. Before he met Grace, a year ago, he’d been travelling the world, having a couple of years to himself after leaving Oxford, and before embarking on further study in London to qualify as a solicitor and eventually a barrister. While he’d appeared more than happy to stay in Yorkshire, transferring his studies to Leeds University and taking up his father and Nick’s offer of joining L’uomo, he couldn’t, I was sure, have envisaged that his red hot affair with Grace would have come to this.

For once, Jack, sole owner and driver of Jack’s Track’s Taxis down in the village, was up pretty quickly. Maybe something in Nick’s tone on the phone had spurred him on because, more often than not, he’d have to finish his tea, supper, or a replay of Midsomer Murders before he’d deign to get in his cab and pick up his fare.

Once Seb and Grace had gone, Nick went back to the sitting room where Rebecca, remembering she was supposed to be co-hosting this dinner party, had done her bit and was organising the passing round of the cheeseboard. I filled the kettle for coffee, found the two cafetières and leaned against the Aga, rubbing Bones’s tummy with my foot, thinking of the best way to help Grace. No one else seemed to be doing anything. I needed to have a word with Amanda. I’d ring in the morning, maybe take the twins and India round to their house – India adored Amanda – and see what we could all do to help. Grace needed to know she wasn’t alone in all of this. For once Bones didn’t attack my foot but lay back, his yellow eyes closed, while loud growls of ecstasy filled the kitchen.

‘Lucky cat.’ Alex Hamilton had come quietly into the kitchen. He closed the door behind him and joined me at the Aga, where he quickly and efficiently poured boiling water on to the waiting coffee grounds in both cafetières.

I started. ‘Gosh, you made me jump. Are you OK? Can I get you another drink? I’m just making coffee…’ I could hear myself twittering like a damned canary, but I was unable to put the brakes on the adrenalin that was coursing through my body. ‘… Yes, he’s a very lucky cat, even though he’s not black. Well, obviously, I mean, he’s a tabby, not a black cat at all. But he has probably lost more than his allotted nine lives so yes, he is…’ I eventually had to stop to breathe or I’d have probably keeled over.

Alex started laughing, and once he started he couldn’t stop. ‘Are you always this funny?’ he chortled. ‘The first time I saw you in Harvey Nicks, you had the best part of Manchester’s constabulary attending to you. And then the next you’re looking like you’ve just had a fight and smelling like a brewery. The whole thing was so farcical…’

‘You might have thought it funny,’ I giggled, ‘but it was bloody painful, I can tell you.’

Alex smiled. He put his hand up to what remained of my fading black eye, moving a wisp of my hair over to one side so that he could see. ‘How is it now?’ he asked, gently. His fingers were cool against my warm face, and I felt myself leaning forward towards him.

‘Where’s the coffee, Hat? Oh, thanks, Alex. Has she got you helping?’ Nick grabbed the second cafetière – Alex had very smoothly picked up the first as Nick banged open the kitchen door – and the two men walked back to the dining room with me, heart thumping, bringing up the rear. Taking a deep breath, I decided I should nip upstairs to check on all my babies. The twins were spark out in their nursery, but I knew one or both might be awake very soon, wanting my attention. We were so lucky that they were actually very good sleepers already and, of late, had managed to get through the night until at least five or six in the morning. They were so beautiful. I stood, just looking at them, wondering what the hell I was doing letting a man like Alex Hamilton flirt with me. And that’s all it was, I told myself severely. A little drunken flirtation that would be forgotten by tomorrow. In fact, I decided, I’d tell Nick about it once we were in bed, and we’d laugh about it and he’d say, ‘You see, even with five children you’re still gorgeous.’ He’d be pleased that he had a wife who was attractive to other men – Nick had never been the jealous, possessive type – and then he’d tell me that Alex was a notorious womaniser who came on to every female and we’d laugh again at the idea of his coming on even to me, a mother of five children and the wife of a work colleague. Yes, that’s what I’d do.

I moved next door to India’s room. She was splayed horizontally across her bed, Boozy – her constant bed companion since she was tiny – looking almost cross-eyed as her arm cut across his squashed, teddy bear throat. I adjusted them both, pulled up her duvet and closed her bedroom door behind me as I left.

The pungent, penetrating smell of teenage boy – ripe socks, much used trainers, sweaty rugby gear and cheap aftershave – assailed my nostrils even as I opened Kit’s door. He was hunched over his computer, totally absorbed in the latest model of car, and grunted something unintelligible in boy speak as I went over to join him.

‘Sorry, darling?’

‘I said, “Is that pillock still here?”’

‘Which pillock?’ I wanted to laugh, such was his vehemence over his French teacher.

‘Old Juan.’ Kit never once took his eyes from the screen. ‘I can’t believe Dad invited him round.’

I’d forgotten the boys’ nickname for Mr Kerr, and I laughed out loud. Did he know, I wondered? How awful if I went back downstairs and said, ‘Cheese, Juan?’ or ‘More coffee, Juan?’

‘It’s after midnight, Kit. Come on. Bed.’ I kissed my big boy and wondered anew at how, every time I hugged him, he seemed to have grown another few inches. ‘And tidy your bedroom, put your dirty clothes in the laundry basket – and for heaven’s sake open a window before you suffocate.’

Just one more to go. I really did need to have a word with Liberty about her rudeness at the dinner table – but not now, I decided. Not at this time of night, and with people still downstairs. I popped my head around her door. She was sitting up in bed, plugged into her music and writing in her diary. She’d written one regularly since she was fourteen in the same way that I had at her age. So engrossed was she, both in her music and her scribbling, that she didn’t hear me enter the room. I went over to draw her curtains and she looked up, automatically pulling the diary up to her as she did so.

‘Night, darling.’

‘Night.’

And that was it. No other communication was forthcoming. I left her to it and made my way back downstairs.

I stopped once more at the hall mirror, painted on a layer of lippie and gave a pout. Alex Hamilton might be a bad boy, flirting with every woman he came across, but that didn’t stop me wanting to play along.

I made my way back down through the kitchen towards the dining room, when the phone rang. Someone’s taxi, I reckoned.

‘Harriet? It’s Sebastian. Grace has been arrested.’

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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