Never Kiss a Man in a Christmas Jumper
Never Kiss a Man in a Christmas Jumper
Never Kiss a Man in a Christmas Jumper
A division of HarperCollinsPublishers
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First published in Great Britain by HarperImpulse 2015
Copyright © Debbie Johnson 2015
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Cover layout design © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2015
Cover design by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd
Debbie Johnson asserts the moral right
to be identified as the author of this work.
A catalogue record for this book is
available from the British Library
This novel is entirely a work of fiction.
The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are
the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to
actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is
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Ebook Edition © September 2015 ISBN: 9780008150228
'A sheer delight'
'Has all the best ingredients for a holiday read: the beautiful West Country, a family-run farm, and a mystery man with Poldark-style charms'
‘The perfect summer story – a funny and moving read set in glorious modern-day Poldark country’
Bestselling author Jane Costello
‘A summer romance with an abundance of country charm, Pippa’s Cornish Dream by Debbie Johnson is a standout title for this season’
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Lisa Talks About
The third time she encountered the man she now knew as Marco Cavelli, Maggie gave him a Christmas present to remember. A broken leg and two fractured ribs. Gift wrapped with a few facial abrasions and a very festive black eye.
Of course, it was all his fault. He was cycling on the wrong side of the road, in heavy snow, listening to loud music that drowned out her warning cries as the two of them veered towards each other. Two unstoppable forces, both covered in fluffy white stuff, both bundled up in hats, gloves and scarves. Only one of them looking where they were going.
Sadly, he took the ear buds out just in time to hear her cries of ‘you complete arsehole’, ‘what the hell do you think you were doing?’ and ‘oh shit…hold on, I’m just calling an ambulance.’ Ever the lady, she thought, adding a few even worse words in her own mind.
As she crawled across the ice to reach him, her jean-clad knees soaked through with icy snow, teeth chattering and fingers trembling as she dug her phone from her pocket, she decided that Sod’s Law had well and truly shafted them.
It was her first day off in over a month. The first day she’d had entirely free from sequins and bows and velveteen loops and concealed zips and hooks and eyes and taffeta and lace. The first entire day free of pin-pricked fingers and nervous brides and half-cut mother-in-laws and last minute nervous breakdowns.
And what a day it had promised to be. Gloriously cold and frosty, the sky stretching overhead, a clear shining plain of dazzling blue; virgin snow turning the garden and the streets around her house into a joyful white confection.
Oxford in the snow. It was stunning, and never failed to knock her socks off. Though not literally, as she was wearing two pairs. She cycled carefully into town to do her shopping, excited beyond belief about what was waiting for her at the antiquarian book shop off the Broad. She’d been paying for it for months, and now, finally, it was hers. Briefly. Then, within a matter of weeks, it would be Ellen’s. She couldn’t wait, and realised as she pedalled up towards St Giles that there’d been a sneaky role reversal in her house: Ellen was too cool for Christmas now. It was Maggie who was the little girl.
Aah, who gives a stuff, she thought, as she navigated the slippery roads, keeping a careful look out for the bumbling backpacked tourists who wandered in front of her like blind sheep, and the few students who were still around.
Term had finished the day before, and the whole city had been clogged with cars – all loaded up to the rafters with duvets, dirty clothes and crumb-shedding toasters as they headed off home for Christmas. It was a different Oxford once they’d gone – quieter, less congested, but a lot less lively as well. They’d avoided the snow, which had snuck in like a thief in the night, laying an inch thick on all but the busiest roads.
She’d arrived safely, if a little soggy, at Kavanagh’s Books of Note. She’d gleefully accepted the brown-paper wrapped package that had cost so much, and stashed it in her backpack before getting back in the saddle and heading towards the Covered Market, where she planned to treat herself to some hot chocolate and a small shed-load of tiffin. It was Christmas, after all. Almost.
Along the Broad she went, past the colleges of Balliol and Trinity, before veering off onto the ancient cobbles of Radcliffe Square. As she jiggled along, threading her way around the scarf-wearing academics heading to the majestic Bodleian Library, she noticed the lights were still on – it was after nine, but the hallowed halls of learning were still glittering with electricity, throwing tiny neon clouds through the glass. Must be all that dark wood panelling, cocooning them from the dazzling sunshine of the day. The steps up to it were dusted with snow, the cobbles coated and damp.
She was heading down the side of St Mary the Virgin, with its towering spire and dizzying staircase, looking all the more like a postcard through the fuzzy haze of still falling snowflakes. Inside, she could hear the sound of angelic voices rehearsing their Christmas carols – a crowd of undoubtedly less-than-angelic little boys transforming the Holly and the Ivy into something splendid and magical.
Then it was on, towards the High Street, accompanied by the random thought that Ellen might not like the book at all. That maybe she should have jacked in the idea completely, and given her the equivalent in cash. Maybe she’d prefer beer tokens to a first edition. Maybe she was just holding on to an image of her little girl that was long gone, eaten alive by the coltish young woman she now shared a home with. When Ellen bothered to come home at all, that was.
Later, she admitted to herself that possibly – just possibly – she’d been a little bit distracted. The much-used passage down to the High was relatively clear of snow, and she’d stepped up her speed just a tiny bit. Teeny tiny – so much so that her legs had hardly noticed the difference.
Sadly, that teeny tiny acceleration meant that when she saw the other bike – heading straight towards her and at what seemed like an impossible speed for a non-motorised vehicle to achieve – it was too late to do anything but screech like a banshee and hope for the best. Which was kind of her motto for life – she should probably get it printed up onto a T-shirt.
Catching a glimpse of startled, deep hazel eyes and a look of horror as he realised what was about to happen, they both attempted to swerve. Too late.
The next thing Maggie knew she was flying through the air, her bike free-wheeling into the wrought iron railings, the spokes crumpling and crunching as they slammed into them. She clenched her eyes shut as the world turned upside down, and braced herself for a crash landing. It came, with a dull thud, her backside skidding along in a pool of frost and slush and her helmet bouncing off the floor in a way that made her go temporarily cross-eyed.
For a moment she was too stunned to move. She lay there, feeling the moisture creep through the many layers of her clothing, a slow, paralysing sog of freezing cold snow wrapping itself around all her limbs. If this was a cartoon, she thought, Tweety Bird would be flapping round my head right about now. Wearing ear-muffs.
She lay still for a few seconds, allowing the fog to clear, before blinking her eyes and cautiously running a mental and physical check on her battered body parts.
Legs: yep, still moving. Arms: definitely all right. Head? A bit jiggered around, but essentially okay. Probably no worse than usual, anyway. It was only a searing pain running from her coccyx that was giving her any trouble. She’d landed on her arse – which, thankfully, had enough padding on it to have saved her from anything more serious. Three cheers for fat-bottomed girls.
She looked up and around, saw other people making their way towards them. Saw the man – the stupid, stupid man, with the big hazel eyes and the inhuman ability to cycle at 700 miles per hour – lying spreadeagled a few feet away from her, his few tortured, jerky movements making an abstract art snow angel around his big, twisted body.
She crawled up onto her hands and knees, and inched in his direction, all the while yelling words of both anger and concern. He’d knocked her off her bike. He was an idiot, and deserved a good shouting at.
Her backpack had spilled open, and her precious edition of Alice in Wonderland was lying tattered and torn and dirty, soaking slush up into its beautiful illustrated pages. And her bum hurt. A lot. She felt like karate chopping him in the nether regions. Except…he seemed to be in a lot of pain. And that leg of his was kind of pointing the wrong way. And…shit, where was the phone? And why couldn’t she feel her fingers?
As she got close enough to see his face, she realised who he was. It was Him. The Hot Papa from the Park. The Man with the Tux. The Guy Who Made Christmas Jumpers Sexy. The gorgeous American hunk-a-rama who had accidentally tripped in and out of her life over the last few days.
She glanced around, saw his bike. The bike with the child seat fitted on the back. The bike that was crumpled and buckled and lying abandoned by the rear wall of Brasenose College.
“The baby!” she shouted in complete panic as she finally reached him. “Where’s the baby?”
The first time she’d seen him had been less dramatic, but in its own way just as memorable. She’d been with Ellen, in the park. Three days earlier.
“I think I might die of oestrogen poisoning if this carries on,” Ellen had said, looking on in disgust at the scene playing out in front of her.
“It’s like all these yummy mummies have died and gone to totty heaven. Not a single one of them is watching their kids – they could be smoking crack or eating dog poo for all they’d notice. They’re obviously all just thinking about shagging, and I now feel like I need to scrub my entire brain with bleach. I mean – come on, he’s wearing a Christmas jumper! Surely it’s in the feminist rule book that you should never kiss a man in a Christmas jumper? ”
It was the first day of December, and the temperatures had plummeted overnight, as though the weather gods had consulted a calendar and decided to up their game. Ellen’s invective was accompanied by a cloud of warm air gusting in front of her; and trainer clad feet kicked impatiently at the frost-rutted soil beneath the bench.
Her usually pretty face was twisted in contempt as she ranted, and she shook her head sadly as she unscrewed her water bottle. They’d just reached the end of a three-mile run around the park, and Ellen looked untouched by the effort apart from a slight flush to her cheeks, and a few auburn tendrils clinging to damp skin.
That, thought Maggie O’Donnell, was what happened when you were 18, and your body hadn’t yet been battered by life, childbirth, or too many nights in alone with Colin Farrell movies and a box of cream horns.
She herself had been battered aplenty by all three of those things, though at 34 she was still in pretty decent nick. Internally, at least. Not decent enough to have spare breath right at that moment, though. Instead, she attempted to smile at her irritatingly athletic daughter, sprawled on the bench next to her, and looked on at the playground panorama that had annoyed Ellen all the way into an anti-Vagina Monologue.
Maggie had to admit she was kind of right, even if she was being overly judgey. There was a man. A real life, honest-to-goodness man, invading the territory that usually belonged solely to the female of the species – at least on a week-day.
He wasn’t just any old man either. He wasn’t one of the harried stay-at-home dads who sometimes turned up, covered in pureed peas and scuttling from the nappy bag to the swings with as much joie de vivre as a hippo with a hernia.
No, this man was…well, frankly gorgeous. Tall – over the six foot mark anyway. Broad. Brawny. Dressed in cold-weather duds of Levis, a sweater – one with a giant snowman’s face on it – and an expensive looking navy blue gilet. Dark hair that was starting to curl and looked like it was usually kept shorter. Yep – she could definitely see why the other mums had started to melt into a collective puddle of hormones on the frost-tinged grass. He looked like he’d stepped out of a rom com about a talented yet tortured rugby player.
She took a long drink of her water, sucked in a restorative breath, and continued to eyeball him as subtly as she could. Not, it seemed, quite subtly enough.
“Mum!” Ellen exclaimed, turning her piercing green gaze towards her. “You’re doing it too! It’s revolting – get a grip of yourself, you’re behaving like you’ve never seen a man before!”
“Well, sweetheart, I’m not sure I’ve seen one quite like that for…well, ever. And you’ve obviously never watched Bridget Jones’s Diary – a man in a Christmas jumper can be a force for good in the world.”
Ellen snorted, staring at the sweater – and the man wearing it – in a highly unconvinced fashion.
“Anyway,” Maggie continued. “Give a girl a break. I’m only flesh and blood, you know. It’s not like you hit 30 and you stop noticing, as you’ll discover yourself some day. And he is…easy on the eye.”
As she said it, one of the besotted mums walked straight into the slide, she’d been staring so hard, clonking her head in pure Carry On style and blushing furiously. Maggie bit her lip to stop herself laughing out loud. There but for the grace of God go I, she thought.
“Stop staring!” said Ellen, not quite managing to keep the giggle out of her voice. “You’re not a girl…you’re an ancient old hag. You’re well past your sell-by date.”
“I am so not,” replied Maggie, tearing her eyes away from the sexy stranger. “I may possibly be slightly past my best before date, but that’s as far as I’ll concede.”
“What’s the bloody difference, Queen of Tesco?”
“Well, if you eat something that’s past it’s sell by date, it’s bad. Pretty bad. Like, potential food poisoning bad. Think granddad after that barbecue when he used up all the old chicken and took the radio into the loo for two days solid. But the best before date…well, that’s more of a guideline. Advice. If you eat something after that, it just means it’s not at its best. It might not taste as good, but it probably won’t make you throw up.”
“And that’s you, is it?”
“Yes, that’s me. If someone – that man over there for example – was to eat me, I wouldn’t make him ill, but he might have tasted better.”
Ellen screwed her face up and made vomiting gestures with her fingers.
“I think I might throw up now…don’t you realise it’s your duty as my mother to remain a completely asexual being for the rest of your life? I like to believe that you’ve only ever had sex once – a majestic coupling that resulted in my entry into the world. I’m not ready to acknowledge anything more than that without trauma counselling. So stop leching and let’s head home. I think you need a cold shower. Invite the rest of the penis-starved hordes to come if you like.”
“Okay,” said Maggie, laughing inside at the thought of the ‘majestic coupling’ that resulted in her getting pregnant at 16. Not the description most people would have used, taking place as it did in the back of a Datsun Sunny parked in a layby off the A40. “Message received and understood, Captain Puritanical. Just let me have five more minutes of acting like an asexual being perving over a complete stranger, and we’ll be off.”
Ellen harrumphed, crossed her Bambi legs, and stuck her ear buds back in to listen to music. Presumably to drown out the sound of the sighs whispering all around her.
Maggie gave her a sideways glance, then looked again at the playground. Apart from the man, the whole scene made her feel a little bit sad. Melancholy. The park was only ten minutes from their home in Jericho, and you could see the dreaming spires of Oxford city centre rising hazily out of the fog, distant and fuzzy and lit up like a Christmas tree made of mellow yellow stone. It was a beautiful view, and one that seemed to never change.
This was the park she’d been coming to for so many years now. There were distant, almost sepia-tinged memories of her own mother bringing her here as a kid. Then as a teenager herself – reckless and wild, swigging from huge plastic bottles of cider and spinning on the roundabout. A habit that may or may not have been related to the later majestic coupling in the back of the Datsun Sunny.
Then as a parent with a cute baby girl of her own in the pram, filling in the endless hours of life as a stupidly young mum, feeding the ducks and wondering what her friends were up to. And with Ellen as a toddler, Ellen as a little girl – and now Ellen as an almost-adult. If she closed her eyes, she could almost replay it, like a fractured dream sequence in a movie.
The swings might have had a lick of paint and the benches were new, but for Maggie, there were ghosts of Christmas past everywhere here, wrapped around the branches of every frost-tinged tree and echoing in every excited childish squeal she heard.
Ellen’s childhood – those days you take for granted, where you’re the centre of their lives – seemed a million years ago. The mums out there now looked tired, and messy, and frazzled like all mums do. They hadn’t yet realised how precious these times were – and how fast you lost them.
She dragged her mind away from pointless, bittersweet memories, and back to the present. He was still there. The Man. Mr Tall, Dark and Handsome. It wasn’t just the way he looked that was getting the ladies in a tiz – it was the way he was behaving with the little boy. His son, presumably.
A chubby faced cherub with unruly, deep brown curls, he was clearly what was known in the trade as ‘a bit of a handful’. That – in school gate speak – could mean anything from a normal energetic tot to a demonically possessed alien being whose head could rotate 360 degrees while humming the theme song from In The Night Garden.
He was about two, and at that stage where they only have three settings – running, falling over, or sleeping. The Man didn’t look tired though. He didn’t look frazzled. Not a smudge of pea puree in sight. He was glowing with health and vitality, and keeping pace with the kid as he jogged from swings to slide to climbing frame, laughing all the time.
The Man was always there with a supportive hand, ready to catch the boy when he fell, ready to wipe mud of the knees of his jeans, ready to pick him up and swing him round in circles until the giggling had infected everyone within hearing distance. The Man sounded like he had an American accent, and he was calling the child Luca, which only added to the unexpected glamour of finding him here, on a grey, frosty day in Oxford at the start of December.
If he was aware of the fact that every woman in the playground was hoping he’d need a spare baby wipe or directions to the toilets, he didn’t show it. He was focused on one thing only – being super fun time dad.
Yeah, thought Maggie, standing up from the bench and starting to stretch out muscles that were already sore. Asexual. Past my sell by date. And late for work.
Time to stop the drooling, and get ready for the rest of the day.
The second time she saw him, she had her head up Gaynor Cuddy’s skirt. Gaynor was the first of her Christmas brides, and had come in for her final fitting. She was a larger-than-life girl, Gaynor, and had ordered an even larger dress – in fact, Maggie had decided, it was entirely suitable to feature in an episode of Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. Even if Gaynor wasn’t, to her knowledge, a gypsy, and instead worked as a call centre manager and lived in quite a swish flat off the Woodstock Road with her boyfriend Tony.
Hooped and embroidered to within an inch of its life, the frock was pretty much done. It had taken over a year to make, and about three miles of satin and tulle to construct. She’d exhausted the stock of every faux pearl merchant within a 100 mile radius, and risked permanent curvature of the spine, hunched over attaching them.
Now, after much trial and tribulation and detailed accounts of how little Gaynor had had to eat for the last month, it was perfect. Or, more accurately, it was perfect for Gaynor. Some of her other clients would faint with shock, but Gaynor was happy – and that was all that mattered to Maggie.
The reason she had her head up the skirt was to fiddle with the bridal under-garments. In keeping with the OTT frock, Gaynor had decided she wanted to have a garter belt that could double as a gun holster – where she planned on hiding a small fake pistol to whip out for comedy effect after the ceremony. It wasn’t an everyday request, but perfectly doable with a bit of fast stitching and the occasional dollop of cheat glue.
She’d normally be doing this in the fitting room, but, well. It just wasn’t big enough – so she was out on the shop floor of Ellen’s Empire, crawling around in discarded scraps of material and the stray threads of cotton that always seemed to coat the tiles, no matter how much she swept up.
As she worked, the hoop held over her head, Gaynor rattled on about the reception (200 of their closest friends, including Maggie), and their honeymoon (the Seychelles, not including Maggie), and the fact that she planned to eat her own bodyweight in Terry’s Chocolate Orange the minute the dress was off, before she did anything else at all. Tony would undoubtedly be delighted with that schedule.
Maggie couldn’t hear everything clearly, and just kept shouting the occasional encouraging sound as she practised inserting the little gun into the holster, and pulling it back out to test its quick draw qualities. Yup. It seemed to be working just fine, and would definitely make for an entertaining photo or seven. Not quite a shotgun wedding, but she got the gag.
As she decided she was finally happy, she slipped the gun out again. It, too, was decorated with faux pearls – and had been filched from a Calamity Jane fancy dress outfit Gaynor had found online. Maggie took one more deep breath before trying to fight her way out again, carefully lifting the hooping, listening to the swish of acres of material, before crawling back out.
At exactly that moment – with her backside inching away, head still submerged in Gaynor’s flounce – the doorbell to the shop rang. Perfect timing. She should really have flipped the sign to ‘closed’.
Maggie climbed to her feet, wiping multi-coloured threads off the knees of her jeans, and turned to face her visitor. Gaynor giggled, and she realised she was brandishing the fake pistol in his direction.
“Don’t shoot! I’ll go peacefully!” he said, face creasing into a grin. A grin she recognised. The grin that belonged to the Man from the Park.
Her face already flushed from getting way too up close and personal with Gaynor’s stockinged thighs, she tucked a wild lock of her hair behind her ear, and tried not to look embarrassed. There was, she told herself, nothing to be embarrassed about. Certainly, she’d just crawled out from another woman’s crotch, and yes, she was pointing a toy gun at him. But he didn’t know that she recognised him. That she’d been ruthlessly mocked by her own daughter for leching over him. That several times, often late at night, she’d found herself remembering him – his height, the wide shoulders, the easy way he carried his bulk. The infectious love he’d obviously felt for his toddler son.
The toddler in question was also with him, and staring wide-eyed at the huge dress. Once his mind had processed it, he ambled towards the table that held Maggie’s small but perfectly formed Christmas tree. She’d made all the decorations herself with spare white silk and taffeta, and sprinkled them with glitter. It was…tasteful. Definitely a lot more tasteful than the one she had at home, which looked like a drunken elf had vomited a rainbow all over it.
The boy reached out, hands grubby from some chocolatey treat, and the man immediately walked over towards him and gently but firmly pulled him away.
“No, Luca – you have to be decontaminated before you touch anything like this.”
The child looked up at him, obviously debating whether he could make a break for it.
“No want show!” he said, defiantly, stamping one wellington-clad foot.
“I know you don’t want a shower, but you’re gonna get one – just as soon as we’re finished here.”
He hoisted the little boy up into arms that – Maggie couldn’t help but notice – were delightfully big and brawny. She had a momentary flash of him in Russell Crowe’s Gladiator outfit and felt her cheeks burn even brighter. She reminded herself that in reality, he was wearing yet another Christmas jumper – this one featuring Santa Claus with a bobble on his hat. He must have a collection of them at home.
“That’s okay,” she said, walking towards the tree and picking off one of the decorations. “These were made by Christmas pixies. They left a load of them – you can take one with you, if you like?”
The child looked at her, and looked at the sparkling bow she was holding out. Then he looked at the man, eyes big and hopeful. After getting a nod of approval, the boy grabbed it out of her hand as fast as one of those frogs catching a fly on a nature video. Scary reflexes.
“Thank you,” said the man. “That’s really kind. He’ll probably try and eat it, but what the hell…I was wondering if you could help me with a suit that needs altering. I have a Christening to go to, and my own got lost on the ‘plane journey over from the States. I got the nearest I could find, but…well, it’s a little on the tight side.”
Maggie bit back a small gulp, and laid a hand on the Christmas table for support.
“I bet!” piped up Gaynor, with perfect comic timing, “you’re the size of the jolly green giant!”
“Not gween!” replied Luca, before promptly stuffing the corner of the Christmas ribbon into his chocolate-coated mouth.
“Oh…I see…well, I’m really sorry, but I don’t do men…” Maggie stammered, realising as she said it that she might possibly have created the wrong impression. Or, unintentionally, the right one – she hadn’t actually done a man in many years. Her friend Sian said she was convinced ‘it’ had grown over again now, like when you leave your ear-rings out too long. Sian was classy like that.
He raised his eyebrows, his wide mouth managing to somehow smile with the upward tilt of just one corner. Gawd, she thought, he had a gorgeous mouth.
“I mean I don’t do men’s clothes. Obviously.”
“Obviously,” he replied, seeming to be quite enjoying her blush-a-thon. “Well, can you recommend anyone? Anyone who does do men?”
“I do men!” said Gaynor, before guffawing like Barbara Windsor after three bottles of Rioja.
Luca joined in, giggling away even if he had no idea what he was laughing at. He really was adorable – if slightly on the terrifying side.
“You could try Lock’s, up near Cornmarket. He should be able to help.”
He nodded his thanks, and maintained eye contact for just a fraction longer than the circumstances merited. Please leave, she thought, and let my face fade back to its normal shade. But for some reason he wasn’t moving – his bulk was between her and the door, making her feel trapped and hot and way too bothered.
He maintained that annoyingly intense eye contact and grinned wickedly at her, as though he knew exactly what she was thinking.
Maggie tried to smile back, aiming for friendly-but-firm, but thought she probably looked a bit like the Elephant Man as she did it. Her insides were going a bit squishy, and there was a strange ringing noise in her ears. She felt like she should say something more, try and at least appear like a normal intelligent human being, but her vocal chords had decided to go on strike. He was just so…shiny. And big. And healthy. There was a kind of glow around him – the Ready Brek boy crossed with GI Joe. For some reason, it made speech completely impossible.
“I need to go doo-doo,” said Luca.
At least someone wasn’t stuck for words.
Everything was hurting. His ribs, his face. His leg. Especially his goddamn leg. Marco had played a lot of sports in his life, and been on the receiving end of a lot of injuries, often inflicted by men the size of small SUVs. But nothing had ever quite hurt as much as this. He felt…broken. All over. He’d been well and truly Humpty-Dumptied.
It had all happened so quickly. One minute he was pumping along, listening to the playlist Leah had sent him, mind drifting in and out of the lectures he’d been working on, and the next…wham, bam, thank you ma’am – he was off his bike, and lying in the freezing snow wheezing for breath and wanting to cry like a great big baby. With the sounds of Aerosmith’s Love In An Elevator still very inappropriately bouncing around his brain. It was probably all their fault – rock music must have made him cycle too fast.
And now, on top of it all, on top of all of the pain and the confusion and the damn cold, there was this crazy woman – screaming at him so loud his ears were starting to hurt as well. She was definitely screaming louder than Steven Tyler had been a few minutes earlier.
She was crouched next to him, kneeling in the snow, and shaking him by the shoulders. Each little tug sent even more excruciating pain ricocheting down his left leg like an electric shock. The worst thing was he couldn’t even understand properly what she was saying – he was probably in shock. Or in concussion. Or in limbo, as the Big Guy decided whether he was going to get sent upstairs to the celestial choirs or downstairs to the red hot pokers. Dead In An Elevator.
Even that, he thought, trying to focus on the words flying out of her mouth, would be better than this torment. He blinked a couple of times, clenched his fists together so tight he could feel nails cutting into his palms, and stared up at her. Come on, man, he told himself. Get a grip.
He could hear the sound of sirens wailing in the background, and hoped that help was on its way. That there’d be morphine soon. Oblivion. Even if it did come with red hot pokers. He just needed to hold on for a little while longer; man up until he was whisked away in the back of the truck with the paramedics.
“Yeah, yeah…okay…stop shaking me, for Christ’s sake!” he managed to say, “it hurts like hell!”
Abruptly the woman dropped her hold on his shoulders, raising her trembling, blue-tinged fingers into the air with a gesture of surrender. Her eyes were bright green; filled with shining, unshed tears. Wild loops of red hair were tufting out of her cycling helmet, creating a fuzzy auburn halo around her whole head. She looked…crazed. And vaguely familiar.
“I’m sorry!” she said, leaning in close to his face. “But where’s the baby? Where’s Luca?”
“He’s not here, okay? He’s fine! I’m…not fine! Didn’t you wonder if I might have had a spinal injury before you started shaking me like that, you crazy woman? I could be paralysed for life!”
She fell back onto her bottom, relief flashing across her face, the tears finally falling. He saw a spasm of pain cloud her expression and she wiggled around in the snow, trying to find a more comfortable position. He recognised that pose. Bruised coccyx. He’d been knocked on his own ass enough times to spot the symptoms. He’d actually feel sorry for her, if it wasn’t for the searing agony of his own. He tried to move his leg a fraction of an inch; was relieved when it responded – he wasn’t paralysed for life, after all – but unprepared for how much it was going to hurt.
Marco let out a scream, then bit his lip so hard he felt tasted blood. Jeez. This was not good. Not good at all.
The woman he’d collided with leaned forward, and he recoiled as much as he could. For all he knew she was going to whip out a red hot poker any second now.
“Hey – don’t start shaking me again, okay, lady? Just…back off!”
She nodded, but stayed at his side. He felt her icy fingers crawl into his, and her other hand gently stroked stray hair back from his forehead.
“I’m sorry,” she said again, her voice now low and soothing and not as generally all-out terrifying as before. “I saw the baby seat on the back. You came into my shop yesterday, and I thought, well…I thought the worst.”
He held tight onto her fingers. She was even colder than him. So cold that every tear that fell threatened to freeze on her eyelashes. She had terrific eyes…huge, clear, the colour of dark green grass. Eyes that went with the pale, freckled skin, the long, deep red hair. Once he’d mentally removed the cycling helmet, it came back to him: it was the woman from the little place with the dresses in the window. The seamstress with the smile and the toy gun. The chick who’d given Luca that Christmas bow he loved so much. Wow. Small world, he thought, as another wave of pain crashed through him.
It explained her reactions, at least. Who gave a damn about a big oaf like him if there was a two-year-old cutie pie on the loose? If the roles had been reversed, he’d have shaken her too.
“It’s all right. He’s safe. Now, tell me…does that leg look right to you? It sure as hell doesn’t feel right.”
She glanced down, and tried hard to hide her involuntary shudder at what she saw.
“It looks just fine. Nothing a few stitches won’t fix.” And possibly a few metal plates and a skin graft, thought Maggie, while trying to smile reassuringly. It was a hideous mangled mess of jeans and banged up flesh. She hadn’t stared too long in case she started to notice any bright white bone that really shouldn’t be visible at all.
“’Kay,” he replied, strengthening his grip on her fingers. “I’ll take your word for it. You know all about stitches. Listen, keep hold of me, all right? My ID’s in my pocket. My phone’s in there too; look for numbers for Rob and Leah and get the hospital dudes to call them, will you?”
“Don’t be daft,” she said, “you’ll be able to call them yourself soon.”
“Nah,” he replied, his head lolling back down into the snow, listing to one side. “I think I’m gonna pass out now. And I think I’m going to enjoy it.”
The woman who was handing Maggie a coffee was a good few inches shorter than her. Probably a good few years younger than her. And definitely a whole lot more pregnant than her.
She was also, Maggie thought, heart-breakingly pretty. Blonde hair, tied up in a loose pony. Gorgeous skin. Huge, amber-coloured eyes. Five foot nothing and about ready to pop.
She lowered herself slowly down into the plastic chair next to Maggie, huffing and puffing as she sat, assuming the ‘bowling ball between legs’ pose beloved of heavily pregnant women the world over.
“I’ll be needing one of those soon,” she said to Maggie, pointing down at the inflatable cushion she was perched on. “After Luca was born I didn’t sit down for three days – just lay on my big wobbly belly, demanding caviar and champagne, while I watched reruns of America’s Next Top Model and hated all the thin girls!”
Maggie gave her a half smile, not sure if she was joking or not.
“Joking,” she said, clearing the matter up. “But I was pretty sore, and I still hate all the thin girls. You know how it is. Do you? Do you have kids?”
“One daughter,” replied Maggie, transferring the scalding hot coffee into the other hand to avoid adding third degree burns to her bruised coccyx. “But she’s 18 now. And one of the thin girls.”
The woman – Leah, she now knew, Marco Cavelli’s sister in law – did the usual surprised double take. Refreshingly, she didn’t even try and hide it. She didn’t seem the sort of person who was easily embarrassed. She was just too comfortable in her own skin to even bother.
“Wow,” she said, sipping her own hot chocolate and grimacing at the taste, the heat, or possibly the combination of the two. “You started early. High school sweetheart or too much swigging cider in the park at the weekend?”
Maggie laughed out loud – spilling Nescafe’s finest on her jeans as she did. She’d hit very close to the mark. Maybe she’d had a misspent youth as well.
“A little bit of both, actually,” she replied. “Seemed like a disaster at the time, but…well, it wasn’t. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Leah nodded, her blonde pony bobbing vigorously. “I know exactly what you mean. Luca was something of a happy accident as well, and he’s – “
“Adorable,” finished Maggie for her.
“Yes. I’d say I was biased, but it’s quite obviously a statement of objective fact – he is the most adorable little boy who ever walked the planet. Although he’s not exactly delighted right now – when we got your call we were about to head back up to Scotland with him. Instead, he’s stuck back in Marco’s flat, being looked after by his landlady, who he regards as one step down the moral ladder from Cruella de Vil. The landlady’s looked after him before and…well, let’s just say it took the mention of ambulances and emergency operations to persuade her to do it again!”
Maggie had been at the hospital for the last three hours. She’d drunk approximately fifteen of these coffees, in their finger-killingly thin plastic containers. She’d had her arse X-rayed. She’d been poked and prodded by a boy of about 12 who claimed he was a doctor but had to be lying. And she’d been given two paracetamol and an inflatable cushion to sit on. Her precious first edition was crumpled and soggy and stuffed in her backpack, she’d never got to her chocolate tiffin, and all things considered, it had been the Worst Day Off Ever.
Still, at least she was in one piece. Which was more than could be said for Marco. He’d been whisked away by the doctors once they got here, and had been too doped up to talk once the paramedics arrived. So Maggie had lingered in the family room as she waited for Doogie Howser to tell her what she already knew – she had a sore bum – and used Marco’s phone to call his family.
Rob – his brother – was on voicemail, but Leah had picked up straight away, answering in a fake American accent with ‘what gives, stud-in-law?’.
There’d been a fairly awkward conversation where Maggie explained what had happened, Luca squawking away in the background, and a slightly stunned pause where Leah finally connected the words ‘Marco’, ‘accident’, and ‘hospital’.
They’d arrived an hour later, and Leah had come straight through to find Maggie, while her husband went to ‘harangue the living daylights out of the staff’, as Leah put it.
Since then, the two women had been sitting together, sipping hot beverages, and making small talk as Maggie wriggled around on her inflatable cushion. There was a small fake Christmas tree on one table, and a few dusty drapes of tinsel over the doorframe. It was one of the least festive places she’d ever been, and she was desperate to just get home, take more pain killers, and soak her nether regions in hot water and Radox. Hopefully Ellen would be in later, and they’d have a fun old night applying ibuprofen gel, eating Chinese takeaway, and swapping war stories.
Luca, it turned out, wasn’t Marco’s son at all. He was super uncle, not super dad. He’d been staying here with Marco – who was delivering a guest lecture at the Law Institute – while Leah and Rob had a few days together in their cottage in Scotland.
“Though technically it’s not ours,” said Leah. “It belongs to a midget called Morag. Which I know sounds ridiculous because I look like I still need one of those plastic steps toddlers use to reach the bathroom sink, but Morag is both a midget and a thin girl. I’ve never forgiven her for making me feel fat the first time I stayed there, and tried to squeeze into her clothes. I only had a wedding dress with me at the time…”
Maggie raised her eyebrows, about to ask the obvious question. And also to ask what kind of wedding dress, purely out of professional curiosity.
“Long story,” said Leah, grinning. “Let’s just say it ended with loads of fabulous sex, me moving to Chicago with Rob, and eventually with Luca arriving on the scene to turn all our lives upside down. And now, with little Bella here,” she finished, rubbing her vast tummy.
“It’s a girl?” Maggie asked, feeling the familiar combination of broodiness, regret and several shades of envy flood over her. She recognised its arrival, and tried to mentally scoop it back into the bitter little box where it belonged.
“We don’t know for sure,” replied Leah, “but I’m insisting that the universe provides me with at least one other person who doesn’t pee on the toilet seat.”
“Just wait until she’s a teenager and you’re sharing a bathroom cabinet with her,” said Maggie, recalling the disaster zone that was Ellen’s shelf back at home. “You might yearn for a bit of pee on the toilet seat.”
“Ha! That may be very true…oh, look, here’s my lord and master – he’ll have news for us…”
Leah dumped her hot chocolate cup on the table, and dragged herself to her feet as quickly and gracefully as it was possible for one human being containing another human being to do.
The man who had entered the room walked towards her, scooping his vertically challenged wife into his arms and squeezing her tight enough to produce a little ‘eek!’. Leah rested her head against his chest for a moment, and Maggie could almost feel the relief flowing from her.
She’d been so chatty, appeared so relaxed, that Maggie had been starting to wonder if she was worried about Marco at all. Now, she realised, she had been. With this man to lean on, she suddenly looked small and scared and less larger-than-life. Like she was finally able to relax.
Leah reached up and placed her hands on either side of Rob’s face, planting a big wet kiss on his lips, before disentangling herself and leading him over to Maggie.
“Maggie, meet Rob,” she said. “Rob, meet Maggie. No, don’t try and get up – think of your poor bottom!”
Maggie did as she was told and stayed seated. Her poor bottom was indeed protesting. Instead, she looked up at Marco’s brother, and despite the unpleasant circumstances, couldn’t help but like what she saw. He was just as tall – maybe less brawny – and had the same dark, wavy hair. His eyes were brown, not hazel, but the resemblance was strong. Strong enough to make her blush as she recalled some of the less than chaste thoughts she’d had about his twin over the last few days.
“Hi Maggie,” he said, squatting down in front of her so he was on eye level. “Thanks so much for everything you’ve done. He’s back in recovery – they were able to reset the bone without surgery, and the docs say he’ll be fine; it wasn’t anything too complicated. I just spoke to him for a couple of minutes. He’s pretty high, so I’m not sure what this means, but he said to tell you he surrenders – don’t shoot him, don’t shake him, and don’t scream at him.”
“Oooh,” said Leah with a giggle, “that all sounds very interesting! I thought you two didn’t know each other? How’ve you managed to fit all that in?”
“We don’t know each other,” replied Maggie, finishing off the coffee and urging her red cheeks to fade back down to acceptable levels. Having Rob so up close and personal wasn’t really helping on that point – he had that same tanned, fit, healthy glow that she’d noticed in his brother. It wasn’t really fair to womankind.
“But…well, we’ve crossed paths. Until we were on the same path, that is. Then it all got a bit nasty. Is he all right?”
“Yes, Rob,” added Leah, “will he ever play the violin again?”
“Probably not with his left leg,” he answered, dashing his wife a white-toothed grin. “But he’ll be okay. You want to go see him? Both of you?”
Maggie started to protest – it was, in all honesty, the last thing she wanted to do. She was throbbing in unmentionable places – and not in a good way. Her clothes were still damp. Her hair was so big she might not even make it through the door frame. She needed to get home, back to comfort and calm and safety – and away from dangerously sexy American men and their heart-wrenchingly pregnant wives.
Leah listened to her spluttering, and fixed her with a no-nonsense amber stare.
“Of course you want to see him, Maggie,” she said firmly. “Why ever else have you been hanging round here for the last three hours? It certainly wasn’t for the coffee.”
“I could hire a nurse,” said Rob, frowning at his still doped brother.
“Well, make it a hot one…” Marco mumbled in reply, his eyes slowly focusing on Maggie, who was lurking in the doorway, leaning on the frame and looking decidedly uncomfortable being there at all. His eyes were still a little fuzzy, and she looked like a giant blob of red hair stuck on top of a body.
“No – we’re going to find the nastiest, meanest, ugliest nurse in Britain,” added Leah, who was sitting at the end of the bed looking at his medical chart. “It says right here that you need someone over 70 with facial warts.”
“Hey – I have a generous spirit when it comes to women,” answered Marco, struggling with the remote control to his bed until he was semi-upright. “I could find that hot. I could find anything hot right now, I’m on so many drugs. Maggie – that’s your name right? Come on in. How’s your ass?”
She walked slowly into the room, trying to ignore Leah’s little snigger at the question, and sat carefully down on the spare chair next to him. He was wearing a puke-green hospital gown that was way too small for him, and he certainly wasn’t glowing any more. He was hooked up to various beepy machines, and had a drip attached to his arm by one of those horrible spiky things that always made her cringe. She could see the outline of his plaster-cast leg beneath the sheet, which was equally cringey. The crash hadn’t been her fault – but she still felt guilty.
“My ‘ass’ is wonderful, thank you,” she replied, placing one hand on the edge of the bed. He quickly covered it with one of his own, luckily not the one with the spiky thing in it. “How’s yours?”
“It’s hanging out of this gown, for one thing…hey, Maggie? Thanks for sticking around. Thanks for calling these guys. And I’m so sorry about the accident. I’m glad it’s me who ended up here, not you.”
“So am I,” she said, linking her fingers into his and giving them a quick squeeze. She’d been aiming for friendly and reassuring, but found herself in such a tight grip that it started to feel entirely different. Maggie tried to pull her hand away, but he held on, and winked at her as she struggled. His eyes were clouded with pain and drugs, but they still managed to have enough sparkle to make her tummy contract. She remembered those eyes so well from his visit to the shop. The way they looked at her for just a little bit too long; the way they’d made her feel exposed and cornered and just a little bit gooey inside.
It wasn’t just the eyes, of course. The face was pretty gorgeous as well. The wide smiling mouth; the cheekbones. The ridiculously impressive arms bulking out of the green gown. It was very inappropriate to notice such things at the side of a hospital bed – but she wasn’t blind. Or dead. Just very, very…jittery. Yes. That would be the word. Not horny at all – that would be sick, under the circumstances, and she wasn’t sure she’d recognise it even if it was true. She was just…jittery. In some very strange places.
“Maybe you could be my nurse,” said Marco, grinning at her, a flash of brilliance on a pain-wracked face.
“She’s not ugly enough,” interjected Leah, looking up from charts she couldn’t even understand.
Hmm, Leah thought. Medical charts, I don’t understand. But the way Marco’s looking at Maggie, and the way Maggie’s trying so hard not to look back at him? That, I do understand. Leah switched her narrow-eyed gaze over to Rob, and saw from the one quizzically raised eyebrow that he’d noticed too. For anyone who knew Marco, it was hard to miss.
Leah snapped the file shut, and leaned back in the chair. She loved it when a plan came together. Now she just had to convince everyone else she was Hannibal Smith, and get started on that imaginary cigar.
Maggie’s living room had been transformed into a scene from Casualty. Normally spacious, with high ceilings and a huge bay window that flooded it with light, the whole space was now dominated by a recliner chair and a hospital-type bed.
A hospital-type bed that Leah was busy decorating with tinsel, looping the strands around the rails and making small coo-ing noises as she stood back and took in the overall effect.
“What do you think?” she said, glancing up at Maggie, and gesturing at the bed in a ‘ta-da!’ gesture.
I think, said Maggie to herself – completely silently – that I’ve made some kind of terrible mistake. I think I want my house back. I think I’m just not a nice enough person to do this.
“I think,” she said out loud, “that I feel a very large gin and tonic coming on.”
“Ha! I am so jealous…just wait til I’ve popped this one out, and I’ll be back to visit – me and you will go and paint the town red, Maggie!”
Maggie couldn’t help but smile at the idea. There was something about Leah – something infectiously happy – that was hard to resist. In fact, it was all because of that infectious quality that her beautiful Victorian cottage living room had been hi-jacked at all. That and – just possibly, she had to concede – the fact that she did give at least a teeny tiny Christmas fig about what happened to Marco Cavelli. The Hot Papa from the Park. The Man with the Tux. The idiot who’d crashed his way into her life – and now, apparently, taken it over.
It was five days since the accident, and two days since Leah had turned up at Ellen’s Empire bearing a huge bouquet of white roses, and an equally huge box of very posh chocolates. Rob had come in first, opening the door with its customary jingle, and they’d found Maggie sweeping up. As usual. Specifically she was trying to get at a card of hooks and eyes she’d dropped behind the sewing machine.
There was a tape measure draped around her neck, and her hair was swept up into a wild bun. Tiny strands of ivory cotton were stuck like linty limpets to the front of her black T-shirt, and she’d tied a ribbon made of discarded satin around her wrist to remind her to buy milk on the way home. It was her version of writing a note on the back of her hand.
“Wow,” said Leah, smiling at her, “you look like Cinderella.”
“And you’re my fairy godmother?” replied Maggie, propping the brush up against the wall and walking forward to take the gifts. She instinctively sniffed at the flowers, and was rewarded with a deep, decadent whoosh of rosy gorgeousness going up her nose. One of her favourite smells ever.
“Depends on your point of view,” added Rob, looking around the ultra-feminine shop with the air of a sea creature stranded in the Sahara Desert. “If you listen to her long enough, the wicked stepmother starts coming more to mind…”
Leah made a fake-outraged harrumph and poked him in the stomach, just as the door to the fitting room opened. Out of it walked Lucy Allsop, wearing one of the most beautiful dresses Maggie had ever worked on.
Lucy was tall and slender with deep brown hair and sunkissed skin, and her dress fitted her like…well, like it had been made just for her. Which it had, with a great deal of care. The A-line shape skimmed over her slim waist, a v-neck hinted at curves but stayed within the boundaries of classy, and the whole gown was covered in lace applique. The arms and the back were made of sheer lace that gave it all a vintage feel, and Lucy’s colouring made her one of those rare brides who could pull off pure white without a hint of anaemia.
She looked absolutely stunning – and also a little stunned, as she emerged into a room to be confronted by a heavily pregnant woman who’d need the world’s biggest frock, and her devastatingly attractive husband.
“Oh my gosh!” said Leah, breaking the ice and scurrying over towards her, “you look completely gorgeous – like a foxy Kate Middleton!”
“Umm…thank you?” replied Lucy, running her hands nervously over the lace. “You don’t think it’s a bit…tight?”
Maggie’s heart sank at the words. She’d heard variations on them many times before. Always from jittery brides who secretly wanted nothing more in the world than a six pack of Wagon Wheels, terrified that they’d made some terrible couture cock-up, freaking out about the whole thing. It was rarely about the dress itself –more about the impending life-changing event. She might be a dressmaker, but she also sidelined as life coach, best friend and anxiety management expert.
Lucy, in particular, was under pressure – from her own parents, from in-laws, from the huge wedding that had grown from a family gathering into a huge, sprawling mass of a thing. She’d completely lost control of it all, and several of the recent fittings had been accompanied by tears, and on one occasion a bottle of emergency Prosecco.
“No, no, no! It’s perfect – you’re perfect – everything about it is perfect, and you’re going to have the most perfect day!” gushed Leah, looking at Rob for back-up. Leah’s personality was huge, but Maggie had noticed how often she involved her husband in her conversations – he seemed to be her other half in pretty much every way.
“You look wonderful,” said Rob on cue, the American accent making Lucy’s eyebrows pop up a fraction of an inch. “And whoever the lucky guy is, he’s going to be lost for words when he sees you walking down the aisle.”
Lucy stared at him for a moment, a slow blush managing to creep its way up her cheeks, and nodded.
“Good. That was the idea. Maggie, I’ll just go back in and try on some of the jewellery, okay?”
“Lovely – I’ll be in in a few minutes to help you out of it. And they’re right Lucy – you look fantastic. You and the dress are both breathtaking.”
Lucy gave her a small, sad smile, then flicked one more glance in the direction of Rob – tall, dark, glamorous and pretty hard not to look at – before retreating back into the fitting room, apparently reassured. Phew, thought Maggie. Good save.
She laid the flowers and chocolates down next to the Christmas tree – the one Luca had been so fascinated with – and walked back to her unexpected guests.
“Thanks for that,” she said, tucking her always-straying red hair back behind her ears. “Lucy’s had a hard time. And the brides…well, they get nervous.”
“I remember,” replied Leah. “I felt exactly the same. The lady who made my dress – second time round, the first dress was as much of a disaster as the wedding I never quite made it to - was near to a breakdown by the time I’d finished with all my whinging – I was so desperate for it all to be perfect.”
Maggie had the bare bones of their story now, told in fits and starts by Leah, Rob and his brother: Leah had been all set for a fairy tale wedding of her own, on Christmas Eve three years ago, until she found her fiancé in a deeply compromising position with one of the bridesmaids. She’d driven away in horror, suffered a very serendipitous vehicle malfunction, and ended up stranded in a snow storm outside Rob’s cottage in Scotland – still wearing the dress. The rest, thought Maggie, taking in the giant tummy and the magnificently happy woman who wielded it, was very romantic history.
“You’d have looked perfect to me if you’d walked into the room wearing a clown outfit, with a big red nose and huge shoes,” said Rob, giving her a smile that would have made every woman in a three-mile radius melt a little inside. “Even if you’d sprayed my face with water from a fake flower.”
God. They were just so in love, thought Maggie. In a way she’d never, ever experienced. The irony wasn’t lost on her – the way she made her living creating beautiful dresses for women about to marry their great loves. She’d never been married. Never even been in love. Never experienced that contented glow that Leah radiated, enjoying a pregnancy rather than being ashamed of it; with a deeply committed man beside her side every step of the way, instead of an embarrassed and terrified 17-year-old kid who was doing his best but was really still a child himself. It was like looking into a different world.
“How is he?” asked Maggie, a little abruptly. She needed to break the spell. Stop feeling sorry for herself. Help Lucy out of the dress. Go and buy milk. Continue to go about a life that might not be all hearts and flowers, but was perfectly satisfactory, thank you very much.
“Good,” replied Leah, finally dragging her eyes away from her husband. “He’s coming out in a couple of days. We’ve got to head back up to Scotland soon to carry on arranging the Christening, and hopefully he’ll be able to follow us up in time for Christmas Eve. He just needs a bit of TLC between now and then and he’ll be fine – the doctor’s say for the first three weeks, he should try and stay put and recuperate so he’s ready to travel. In fact, that’s kind of why we’re here…”
And somehow – from the start of that conversation – Maggie had found her life and her home turned completely upside down and inside out.
At first she’d said no. And at second, and at third, and at fourth. But somehow, somehow, she’d been convinced. Leah’s approach had been emotional, predictably enough. Marco didn’t really know anyone here; he needed company, and – the big finale – she, Leah, heavily preggers and distressed as she was, just wouldn’t feel safe leaving him in the hands of a stranger. If it wasn’t for the impending arrival of Baby Bella, and needing to look after Luca, and the Christening, she’d have stayed herself – and she couldn’t bear the thought of poor, lonely Marco being abandoned to some unfamiliar Nurse Ratched figure.
Maggie had listened to it all, knowing she was being manipulated, but grudgingly admiring the way it was being done. Then Rob had started in, with a lot more common sense. It would only be for a few of weeks. They could pay for anything she needed – equipment, extra care if necessary, a vehicle big enough for the wheelchair. Marco wasn’t used to being laid low, and was likely to need a firm hand – he’d be trying to do way too much too soon, and he already knew Maggie. Felt responsible for what had happened. Would be less likely to ignore her advice than he would hired help. They could also compensate her financially if it affected her work, pay her whatever the going rate was.
It was at that point she’d held up her hands, accidentally throwing the tape measure over one shoulder, and said: “Enough! I’ve heard enough. Leah, lovely as you are, I can recognise bullshit when I hear it. And Rob – I’m not after money. I only have one final dress to sort out before Christmas so I won’t be losing work. The issue here is…well, I have a daughter at home, I have a father who’s not as young as he was. I have responsibilities. I have a life of my own.”
At least some of that was a lie, she knew even as she said it. Ellen was way too busy to need her, and her dad was 68, fit as a fiddle, and had a better social calendar than both of them put together. As for her own life…she could pretty much jot down her engagements on the back of a matchbox, once she removed work. So, what was the real reason? Did she even have the answer herself?
“I’m really sorry for what happened to Marco, but I’m not sure I’m the right person to be helping him out in his hour of need. I’m not a nanny – I’m a dressmaker. And what makes you think he’ll want to stay with me anyway? He was looking for a hot nurse last time I saw him! What makes you think he’ll listen to a word I’ll say?”
Rob and Leah looked at each other, and to Maggie’s surprise it was Rob who replied.
“I just have a feeling about it,” he said. “That he’ll get better quicker if he’s with someone he knows – if he’s with you. And I’ve learned over the years to trust my instincts. I’m asking you to trust them as well.”
And so it had come to pass, against all her better judgment, that Marco Cavelli was to be her unexpected houseguest for the next few weeks.
Maggie had half hoped that Ellen would object, and give her the perfect excuse to say no – but once her daughter had stopped laughing, she was all in favour of the idea.
“It’ll give you something to do,” she’d said, “other than drink gin and watch Christmas cooking shows. Last year’s obsession with goose fat still haunts me. Now you can drink gin and watch him instead. Invite Sian round, and those women from the park. It’ll be like a Chippendales’ party. I’m fine with it as long as he stays out of my stuff.”
Her dad, Paddy, had been just as annoyingly supportive.
“It’s the Christian thing to do, love,” he’d said, “a stranger in need and all that. Especially at this time of year. Beside, it’ll keep you busy, won’t it?”
Both responses had highlighted one very unpleasant fact to Maggie: that her nearest and dearest obviously saw her as a sad, lonely being floating through life with nothing to occupy her other than work and them. The even more unpleasant fact was that they might just be right.
She’d always been secretly proud of how she’d coped with the challenges life had thrown at her. Losing her mum when she was 14. Getting pregnant not that long after. Abandoning her hope to go to University when she chose to keep the baby. The trauma of the birth and the surgery that followed it. The long, sometimes difficult years that had come after.
She’d raised her child – who had, despite her acid tongue, turned out beautifully – and had managed to make a living from what had always been a hobby. She’d kept them fed and housed and happy – mostly all on her own. She’d learned to be independent and smart and strong, looking after her dad when he needed it and making sure Ellen had everything a girl could wish for.
But now the landscape of her life was changing. Paddy was well out of his dark days, the days when he viewed life through the bottom of a glass, and Ellen…well, Ellen was starting to create the landscape of her own life. Which was good – it was the way it was supposed to be; you raise a child well enough, confident enough, capable enough, and you get rewarded by seeing them fly the nest. It was the natural rhythm of life – but one that perhaps, Maggie had to acknowledge, she hadn’t been quite prepared for.
Caring for Marco might be ever so slightly terrifying – but it would indeed keep her busy.
Leah had finally left, having hustled and bustled her way through the house making sure everything was ‘just perfect’ – which mainly seemed to involve adding Christmas decorations, riding up and down on the recliner chair while making small excited noises, and stocking the fridge with Marco’s favourite beer. She’d headed back up to Scotland with Rob and Luca, full of promises to stay in touch, giving Maggie a massive hug on the doorstep before she disappeared off into the snow.
The snow that was still falling – coating the front garden like icing on a very large cake, where it remained, pure and untouched. Not so long ago Ellen would have been out there making snowballs and ambushing passing postmen. Now, she was out at the pub, saying a fond farewell to her super-posh boyfriend Jacob and drinking cider.
Maggie looked out of the window. Looked at her watch. Almost 6pm. He was due any minute, and she had no idea what she was going to do with him. The main living room was now kitted out for him to use, and a nurse was going to come every morning to help him with his ‘personal care’. Even the words made her blush, so she hadn’t pondered that one too closely. There was a TV, she had DVDs, and there was a downstairs loo – which he’d definitely need if he drank all that beer Leah had bought. The second living room – usually draped with fabric samples, patterns and bridal magazine cuttings – had been tidied and cleared so that Maggie had her own space to retreat to.
Upstairs – due to the annoying but convenient broken leg – would be completely out of bounds for Marco. Probably a good thing – the only man Maggie had ever lived with had been her own father, and Ellen had never lived with one at all. He’d probably faint at the sight of their hoards of undies, make-up, and never-put-away tampon boxes. There’d never been any need to man-proof that part of the house, and Maggie was glad there still wasn’t. She remained convinced that one puff of testosterone would result in the whole bathroom exploding.
A few minutes after six, a car drove up outside. It was one of those boxy van-type things, and Maggie knew it had been hired for her to use, to ferry Marco around if he needed it. Her own car – a little Fiat 500 – probably wasn’t big enough for him even without the broken leg.
She watched as a man in uniform walked to the back, and pulled out a folded wheelchair. He set it up, then walked round to the side of the van and slid the doors open. Marco immediately tried to stand up, using the frame of the car for support, and she looked on as the nurse told him off, insisting instead that he waited until he could help ease him into the chair.
Marco’s face as he did it was a picture of frustration and clenched anger. Maggie bit back a smile – looked like Rob was definitely right about one thing. He was indeed going to be a difficult patient.
She jumped off the window seat and ran round to the front door, opening it wide. Luckily there were no steps, it opened right out onto the path, and she stood there with chattering teeth as her new ward was wheeled towards her, the chair making parallel tracks in the snow as it moved.
He looked a lot better than the last time she saw him, which probably wouldn’t have been difficult. The tanned skin had regained its healthy glow; his poor face was starting to heal, and he was wearing loose-fitting sweat pants rather than a puke green hospital gown. His left leg was in plaster and propped upright, and he had a laptop case resting on his knees.
His eyes met hers as he was pushed up the pathway, and he gave her a little lopsided grin that added to the goosebumps. She had the sneaky feeling this man could be coated head to toe in plaster and still make her tummy feel odd.
The nurse came to a stop outside the door, his face creased with a massive frown. It had clearly been a fun ride from the hospital for both of them.
“So,” said Marco, looking up at her, “we meet again. Any chance of a beer? My grandma back here refused to stop on the way.”
Jeez, thought Marco, as he listened to that damn nurse go through his ‘patient aftercare checklist’ for the third time. The man needed to take a chill pill. He’d gone on and on and on. Explaining the meds, explaining the chair, explaining the warning signs. When to up the dosage. When to call the doctor. When to bring him to the emergency room. He talked about him as though he wasn’t there, wasn’t sitting right in front of him, wasn’t ready to stagger straight out of this nifty gadget of a recliner and whack him over the head with his crutches.
He’d had broken bones before. It was no big deal – it hurt like hell, but he’d heal. This guy, though – he was talking to Maggie as though she was about to take on the care of whole platoon of war veterans. The poor woman was looking more flustered by the second as she tried to take it all in.
He hadn’t even wanted to come here. He understood that Leah and Rob needed to leave, but he saw no reason why he couldn’t have simply gone back to his own flat. He’d have been far more comfortable with some hired help. Then, if the mood took him, he could swear, curse, bully, and generally misbehave with no consequences at all other than a mild dose of self-loathing afterwards.
He couldn’t behave like that with Maggie – it just wasn’t in him. Considering the fact that he’d only met her twice – and that on one of those occasions he was distracted by the business of going unconscious – he cared just a little bit too much about what she thought.
Even when he was lying in the hospital bed doped up on morphine, he’d been concerned about her. Worried about her injury. Mildly embarrassed that she was seeing him flat out and vulnerable. It wasn’t exactly how he’d planned to see her again.
That first time, in the wedding dress store, he’d felt how nervous she was around him. Maybe she was like that with everyone – or maybe it was just him. He didn’t know, but the effect was the same: it brought out his inner he-man. Made him feel strangely protective towards her; made him want to wrap his arms around her and keep her from the rest of the world.
It had been a strange mix of physical attraction and her attitude – a mix that made him want to both hide her away and, if he was honest, torment her a little bit himself.
The women he usually socialised with didn’t have that effect on him. They were usually successful, tough, professional women who used him with as much carefree attention as he used them. Friends with benefits – shallow but satisfying.
In fact the only other woman who had ever made him feel that protective before was Leah – back in those awful, messy days in Chicago, when Rob was behaving like a grade A ass towards her. It felt like a million years ago now, but it had been hard – seeing his brother’s pain plunge them all into a black hole of emotional hell.
He’d felt protective towards Leah – but in the way he always imagined a big brother would feel towards a little sis. This was different. His first thought when he met Maggie had been that she was a looker, without even knowing it. His second had been that she came across a little bit shy, a little bit scared. His third had been less wholesome – he’d started to wonder, as they chatted over Luca’s bouncing head, how much fun it would be to see what would happen if he pushed, if he provoked; if he managed to coax out some of that fire redheads were supposed to have.
So he’d flirted, made eye contact, lingered there a few moments more than he should have – just to see what might happen. To see if she felt any of that attraction at all, or if it was all on his side. He wasn’t arrogant, but he didn’t struggle with women – and this one intrigued him right up until the point where Luca’s toilet habits had interrupted. He needed to have a word with his nephew about mentioning doo-doo in front of hot women. It just wasn’t cool.
He’d thought about making up some excuse to see her again. He was in Oxford for the next few weeks anyway, and it’d be nice to have some company. Especially company that was tall and curvy and had crazy red hair you could imagine spread out all over a pillow.
But before he even had time to consider doing that, fate had stepped in – and he found himself reduced to a pile of rubble in front of the woman he’d been hoping to impress. Once a chick’s seen you in a hospital gown, he suspected, there’s no going back – you can never be alpha male again…and now, thanks to Leah and Rob’s insistence, here he was. Sitting in her shabby chic front room, being treated like a naughty child by Nurse Attila the Hun.
“She gets it,” he said, interrupting the nurse mid flow. “She’s not an idiot – she gets it. We have the meds. We have the numbers. Now for God’s sake, get lost, will you?”
Both the nurse and Maggie stared at him, looking shocked and horror-struck in the way only the English can at bare-faced rudeness – even when it is deserved.
Maggie frowned at him, her knuckles whitening as she clutched the typed-up contact list a little too tightly.
“Don’t be so rude,” she said, “or there’ll be no beer before bed time for you, Mr Cavelli.”
She turned back to the nurse, who had started recommending yet again that the patient be given no access to alcohol in his current condition, and started guiding him towards the door. Marco was sure she’d had enough too, but she was just dealing with it a whole lot better than him. He let out a little sigh as they both disappeared off into the corridor.
He had been rude. It wasn’t called for. He was just…frustrated. Pissed off. Feeling helpless and tired and in more than a little pain. He was used to calling the shots, to being in charge. To the cut and thrust of his work as an attorney. To a full and active life full of sports and friends and women and drinking a beer whenever the hell he wanted to. Being passive really didn’t suit him, and now he felt embarrassed at the way he’d reacted. Embarrassed that Maggie had seen him turn into a jackass within minutes of entering her home.
God, he thought, it was going to be a long few weeks. Physical torment, forced inactivity, and some strange compunction to be on his best behaviour around this woman. He felt like crying – but there was no way he could. He was sure Maggie was stressed enough having to console a wailing wuss as well.
He heard the front door close, and watched as the nurse walked carefully down the snow-coated path. He was on his phone – probably reporting him to the Bad Patient Police – then through the gate and away. The lucky bastard was undoubtedly going to head to the nearest pub to drown his sorrows.
He listened as Maggie closed the door, then to her footsteps coming back down the hallway. There was a pause, then she walked into the room and looked at him with a small frown, hands on her hips.
“How are you feeling?” she finally asked, after a moment of silence.
“In all honesty, like complete shit,” he replied.
“Good. Because you’re acting like one as well. I know this is difficult – for both of us. I know we’re both probably wondering why we went along with this ridiculous plan at all. And I know you’re probably feeling frustrated, and in pain. But we’ve got to find a way to make the best of it. It won’t be for long – you’ll get better, and we can both go back to our real lives just in time for Christmas. Until then, let’s at least try and pretend this isn’t completely weird. Deal?”
It was pretty much the longest speech he’d heard from her. Her body language, her eyes, her expression – they were all different than before. The little mouse had gone – all because he’d made her angry. Good to know, he thought, realising that he was kind of enjoying being told off by her. Pervert.
“It’s a deal,” he said. “I’m sorry. I was being a jerk. I’m not used to sitting around feeling weak, you know?”
“I can imagine,” she replied, her green eyes skimming over his not-usually-weak body in a way that definitely suggested more than a care-giving interest. She seemed to realise what she was doing, and reined herself in with an almost physical jolt.
“Right. You sit tight, Marco. I’ll go and get you a beer. I think I need one too.”
Two hours later, Marco was in his bed, propped upright, and Maggie was on the recliner, legs tucked beneath her.
They’d navigated a few potential problems – like him getting into the loo on his own after Maggie wheeled him to the door; him refusing to take his meds until she threatened to kick him in the shin, and arguing over who was paying for the take-away pizza. And somehow, she’d felt a whole lot more settled once he’d agreed to clamber up into bed – he was a big presence, and it felt a lot more acceptable to have this large man in her territory once he was tucked away under a blanket.
Now, after a couple of beers, they’d relaxed enough in each other’s company to simply talk. Maggie had forgotten to switch the lights on or draw the curtains, and the room was bathed in the glow of the moonlight, the glittering Christmas tree and the flickering images of the muted TV.
He’d told her about his job and his life in the States; about losing his own father to a heart attack; about the death of Rob’s first wife and the turmoil that followed. The way the whole family had suffered until Leah came on the scene and saved the bunch of them. She’d told him about Ellen, and her dad, and about her shop. She’d been so comfortable – and mildly tipsy – that she’d almost told him about other things too. Things she never ever felt happy discussing with anyone, because it simply hurt too much.
Still, the whole evening was turning out to be a lot nicer than she’d possibly imagined – it was a rare novelty to have adult company in the evening. It made her realise how lonely she’d been getting; the way her changing circumstances had been creeping up on her, almost without her noticing. Ellen was studying at Godwin College – medicine, which was a horrifying thought for any future patients – and although she lived at home to save money, spent most of her nights with her friends or with Jacob.
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