Authors: Christina Jones
Tags: #General, #Fiction
'Jemima – it's me.'
She was overwrought. Imagining things. It sounded like Charlie's voice – but it couldn't possibly be Charlie, could it? Not unless he and Tina had belted all the way down from Liverpool to show her the engagement ring before she went to bed. The way the rest of the day had gone, she wouldn't be that surprised....
Bloody hell! It certainly
like Charlie ... But it still couldn't be. It was probably some sort of Gotcha Oscar stunt. Possibly Gillian's idea of a celebratory joke. She'd probably hired Rory Bremner. There was only one way to find out.
'The door's not locked ...'
With his dark red hair falling into his eyes, his trademark faded Levis, and his leather jacket pulled over his shirt, she thought that Charlie had simply never looked more devastating.
'What the hell are you doing here?' Jemima groaned silently. It was hardly the warmest greeting she could have issued. 'I mean –'
Charlie's witty repartee seemed to have abandoned him. So had his stock-in-trade grin. He looked anxious. 'I saw the light.'
God, she loved him. She really wanted to hurl herself into his arms. She had to clench her toes to keep herself rooted to the spot. She stared at him over the Fishnet pile. 'Did you think I was being burgled?'
Charlie grinned then. 'No. I saw you. I wanted to talk.'
Charlie seemed to be rapidly gaining his composure. She was equally as rapidly losing hers. Control yourself, you daft bat! She gritted her teeth. He'd probably just come to hand out the wedding invitations. Defensively Jemima hugged the pile of books. 'Why the hell aren't you still in Liverpool?'
'I was going to ask you the same question.'
'Oh, right – well, I came back because – um – well, because I did. After all, I was merely in the audience. The show was over, so I left. You?'
'Much the same.' He grinned again. She wished he wouldn't. 'Do you want a hand with those?'
She shook her head, clutching the Fishnets. 'Charlie – why aren't you still in Liverpool?'
'Because I'm here.'
'I suppose I asked for that. I keep forgetting your paradoxical side.'
'Paradoxical? Isn't that a disinfectant? Try to remember we don't all belong to MENSA.' Charlie grinned again. She really wished he'd stop. 'Have you got anything to drink?'
'Only coffee. I seem to be fresh out of champagne. Still, no doubt you and Tina are saving the Krug assault for later.' Bugger – she hadn't been intending to mention Ms Maloret.
Charlie shook his head. 'Drew and I had a hasty glass of Pol Roger after the presentation. I don't think Tina had a hell of a lot to celebrate.'
'Well, no, not about the outcome of the race, I suppose. Oh, and congratulations, by the way.'
God, he was so gorgeous. No, she mustn't think along those lines. No point. No point at all. She stared at the ceiling instead. She couldn't bear the temptation of the athletic body so close physically and yet as far out of reach as it was possible to get.
'Drew told me that you left Aintree straight after they'd announced the stewards' enquiry. Was that because you hoped I'd lose the race. Hoped that Matt would win.'
'No, I didn't. Of course I didn't ...' She took a deep breath. 'Charlie ... today ... this afternoon ... when you won ... It was utterly incredible. Really. Then I thought you might lose the race – and I couldn't just hang around and watch. I was being a coward, that's all. And I suppose I thought – well, that I was probably the last person you'd want to see. But watching you win, it was brilliant.' She stopped. Had she already told him that? There were superlatives practically punching each other to escape from her mouth. She clenched her teeth. 'You were brilliant ...'
The Somerset crooked grin was instant. Charlie tried to look modest. 'I wasn't. Not really. Bonnie was the brilliant one. I just sat on and steered. And I – um – actually was dead pleased that you were there.'
'So was I. Why aren't you whooping it up in the Adelphi then? Why aren't you supporting Tina's wrist while she displays the Koh-i-noor to the world?'
Charlie shrugged. 'I wanted to talk to you. I needed to tell you something. Before you heard it on the jungle drums ...'
'You could have phoned.'
'I couldn't tell you this on the phone. It wouldn't be fair.'
Jesus! Jemima closed her eyes. He was already married! He and Tina had got a special licence and had a quickie wedding in some Liverpool registry office! Or maybe the Adelphi was able to provide civil ceremonies for its guests?
'Look, Jemima. I don't know how much of a shock this will be to you, but Tina and Matt are ... well, together.'
Her eyes snapped open. 'Matt? With Tina? He can't be. Matt doesn't even like her.'
'I think he might, actually. His little trip at Christmas ... he didn't go alone ...'
'He went with
Jemima blinked. 'Oh, Charlie, you poor thing ...'
'I'm fine about it. I was just worried about how you'd feel.'
'Me? Matt and I have hardly spoken since Christmas. I'm just glad he's found someone else – even if Tina was the last person on earth who I'd have thought ...' she looked at him. 'Seriously – what about you? I know you're a callous sod where women are concerned, but even so, this is just a bit too cool.'
'That's not fair. I've never been callous.'
'Slightly better.' Charlie leaned against the counter. 'But I've never deliberately hurt anyone. I've always made it clear that my relationships were not going to be of the lasting variety.'
'But, you and Tina, you were getting engaged this evening, weren't you?'
He blinked. 'Who the hell told you that?'
As she wanted to leap on him, Jemima gripped the Fishnets even more tightly. 'Gillian did, actually.'
'Gillian? And you believed her?' He laughed. 'Jemima, Gillian has never grasped the right end of a piece of gossip ever since I've known her. Tina and I never were – and never will be – plighting our troths.'
She restrained herself – just – from executing a victory jig.
One problem solved immediately. Only three million left to go. Charlie leaned further back against the counter. There were shadows of exhaustion under his eyes and a trace of dried blood on his lips. He looked like a valiant and wounded warrior. She had never felt so much love for anyone ever.
Still, what was the point in loving him? He'd just spelled out that he played relationships strictly as a fun game. Irritating thing, love. It tended not to stick to the rules.
'Okay, then.' Jemima studied the shop's uneven ceiling again; anything rather than look at him. She'd never be able to disguise the longing in her eyes. 'So, if you haven't come here to announce your engagement, why exactly have you come? Surely not just to tell me about Matt? Not tonight of all nights. I thought the Grand National winner was supposed to be feted with Krug and laurel wreaths and lead the dancing at the ball, or is that Wimbledon?'
'No idea. I've never won Wimbledon. Anyway I couldn't lead the dancing without a partner, could I?'
There! He was upset about Tina. 'No, sorry. Insensitive of me under the circumstances.'
'Anyway, I've told you – I wanted to talk to you.'
'You're priceless,' she grinned. 'This is the biggest day of your life – the day you and Drew and half the village have been rattling on about ever since I arrived – and you're here, talking to me about Matt and Tina. For God's sake –'
'Do you know everything about Matt?'
She blinked again. 'Heavens – Tina's not pregnant, is she?'
'Not as far as I know ...' He couldn't meet her eyes. 'Look, I don't want to sound like I'm telling tales, but there's something else. Matt has – um – come out of the closet.'
'What closet?' Jemima giggled. 'Oh, the block and tackle one? I know about
About Matt's preferences. Dad told me all about it. I think he tried to score points off it, you know? My addiction's not as bad as yours, so there.'
'Sounds like Vincent.' Charlie pushed his hair away from his eyes and looked extremely relieved. 'And as Tina seems to be more happy to accept Matt's activities than mine, then it's probably a match made in heaven. Didn't you have any idea? About him being a –'
'I'd like to think he wasn't a real one,' she said quickly, smiling. 'More sort of helped out if they were busy. No, I didn't have a clue. Actually, it cheered me up quite a bit. Knowing. I thought he just didn't fancy me.'
Charlie's eyes widened. 'You mean – he didn't – you didn't -?'
'No, we didn't. And I don't want to talk about it.' Jemima shifted the Fishnets. Her arms were killing her. 'But I
you see, about what Matt was planning to do in the National. Dad told me all about it just before the race started – and I tried to get to you to warn you but there wasn't time. It was awful. I'm so very sorry that they were involved in what happened to you this afternoon. I just didn't know why until later. I was bloody terrified. You could have been killed.'
'Yeah, but I wasn't so it's no problem. It was pretty hairy at the time, but it's all over –' There was a small silence, then Charlie scuffed at the lino with his boot. 'Look, I know you're probably still not all that keen on racing, or jockeys – but I wondered if you'd – um – come out with me?'
Was that what he'd wanted to ask her? Was that why he'd abandoned the celebrations and belted back to Berkshire? Was that what he couldn't say in a telephone call? Not just that Matt was into S and M on a part-time basis? He'd come all this way to ask her
? Oh, please God...
She bit her lip. 'No.'
'No? Christ. Why not?'
'Because it's dark and it's cold and I'm ever so busy stacking shelves.'
'Okay, then. We'll call a rain check on that one, shall we?' He moved towards her. 'Jemima – oh, shit ... no, I can't do this.' He pushed his fingers through his hair. He wasn't looking at her. 'You think I'm a serial adulterer, don't you?'
'I know you are.' She smiled at him. It was impossible not to. 'It doesn't matter.'
'Of course it bloody matters. It matters a lot to me. And it matters what you think.' He moved closer again and sighed at the Fishnets armour. 'Can't you put those bloody books down?'
Charlie's shoulders sagged. 'I'm actually very faithful – no, don't laugh. I want to be like Drew and Maddy. Like no one else exists. With no doubts, no fears, that the woman I love will leave me ...'
'Oh, everyone wants to be Drew and Maddy. All that love and friendship and laughter. All that wall-to-wall happiness even when they're facing major problems. They've got what everyone wants ...' She shrugged. 'If you – um – found – this perfect woman, how would she know that you wouldn't be unfaithful to her? How could she trust you?'
'Because she'd have my word. My love. Total.' He didn't smile. 'Does that sound really wet? I just think she'd know. I mean, I just think that there would be no doubts. Trust. Mutual trust and respect and love.'
He meant it. He was a hundred per cent serious. She tried not to smile.
'Don't laugh! You haven't heard the second reason.' His eyes were unblinking. 'What does marriage mean – to you – to any woman?'
For God's sake! This was hardly time to go into the Kinsey Report. She shrugged. 'Apart from two people loving each other, making a commitment, sharing, being friends – and lovers? Oh, I don't know!'
'Nor do I, and I'd like to find out. But – but there's a problem ...'
Jemima's mind ricocheted back to the television film. Was he ill? Was there some appalling hereditary Somerset malady that would snatch him from his bride's grasp before the ink had dried on the marriage certificate? Or insanity? Or inbreeding? The possibilities were endless....
Ah – she nodded slowly. So that was it. There were a string of Somerset bastards across the globe which he supported with Christmas cards and monthly maintenance payments. Well, that didn't surprise her. She could practically see them. A whole tribe of glorious looking children: miniature Somersets with trendy names like Seraphina and Spike.
'I haven't got any. I'll never have any. I can't He took a deep breath. 'That's my problem. That's why I've never stayed with anyone for very long. It's why I play the field. Apart from never finding the right woman, I'm irreversibly infertile. I was kicked by a horse when I was apprentice. That's why I can't expect anyone to want to marry me.'
'I'm sure – um – that the – er – right woman could manage –' Her voice was croaky. She cleared her throat. 'Um – manage very nicely with ponies and puppies and kittens and borrowing other people's children ...'
'Do you think so?' Charlie attempted to hug her but the books got in the way. He sighed heavily. 'Please, please put those bloody things down.'
She did. They slithered into an erotic pink pile round their feet. Charlie pulled her into his arms and kissed her gently.
Wow! He really was a killer kisser. The gentle touch was equally as arousing as the slam-dunker on New Year's Eve.
He grinned down at her. 'Grab your coat then. I think we might have some celebrating to do.'
'Your place or mine?'
'Hussy.' Charlie switched off the lights and closed the door behind them. 'Yours of course. I've never made love in a vicarage before. But first I think we ought to down a glass of champagne or two, don't you?'
'Absolutely.' She snuggled against his leather jacket. 'And get a couple of crates in for breakfast.'
They shoved their way into the Cat and Fiddle and stood, glued together, unseen for a moment at the back of the jam-packed bar. Charlie kissed the top of her head just as the karaoke machine exploded into 'Together Forever'.
'Oh, lovely,' Jemima grinned. 'I think they're playing our tune.