Love & Romance – Is This Love?

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Part I–2003

Chapter 1

Dolphin

Gemma

 

“Two Bellinis.” The barman’s words broke through my thoughts. I averted my gaze from the green eyes holding me captive while fumbling in my handbag for money. When I glanced up, he had gone, and I was left with an inexplicable sense of despondency.

“Come on.” Chris tugged at my arm. “Let’s dance.”

I allowed her to drag me onto the dance floor where the disco music pumped out at an ear-splitting intensity. The floor vibrated as music pulsated through the room. The rhythm beat a tattoo inside my chest, as though my heart was pounding in time with it.

I scanned the room and saw him standing on the balcony looking at me with a warm smile that curled up his lips. My eyes travelled over his face, taking in his strong

jaw line

, full lips, fair hair and toned body. I returned a shy smile, cheeks burning under his gaze and heart fluttering in my throat. I glanced away to regain my composure as he sauntered over.

“Hey. I’m Theo. Do you mind if I come and talk to you?” His well-modulated voice lifted above the clamour.

He looked like he was expecting something. Oh, I haven’t told him my name.

“I’m Gemma.” I tried to sound casual.

“Nice to meet you, Gemma. I haven’t seen you around here before.” He extended his hand, holding it while maintaining eye contact.

A shiver ran through me at his touch. I have to sort myself out. He’s just a man. I meet guys all the time. I took a deep breath and, smiling my most enigmatic smile, answered, “No, I’m from London. In Devon for the weekend. I came to visit my friend. We haven’t seen each other in ages.” Like he needs your life story. “And you? Are you a local?”

“Yeah, home’s about a five-minute walk.” He glanced down at my feet and added with a cheeky grin, “Ten with heels.”

I kept my features deadpan as I pretended to misunderstand. “Whatever makes you think I’d lend you my shoes?”

“Touché.” He grinned.

I introduced him to Chris.

“So where are you taking her after here?” Theo asked Chris.

Chris and Theo spent the next few minutes comparing the merits of the local nightspots. What if he likes Chris? I might have been the icebreaker. How can I hope to compete with Chris? I looked at my beautiful friend with her glorious curtain of red hair.

“Can I get you both a drink?” The smouldering expression in Theo’s eyes reassured me.

When he’d gone to the bar, I grabbed Chris’ arm. “Oh God, Chris, I think I’m in love. He’s gorgeous.”

“I just hope his friends are as buff,” she replied.

 

“My mates are sitting over there. Do you fancy joining us?” he asked handing us our drinks.

He led us to a table where a dark-haired hunk with a bad-boy expression sat with two others. Tom had lank brown hair and a face engulfed in acne. Stephen was fair-haired but washed out. The hunk’s name was Jake, and from the outset, I knew he was trouble.

Chris took charge of Jake, Tom, and Stephen; enchanted, they hung off her every word.

“She handles them well.” Theo sounded impressed.

“No one stands a chance when she turns on the charm.”

“I’m sure you do okay yourself.”

 

The corded muscles of Theo’s hand tightened as he held mine. I smiled, nervous again. The others walked on ahead of us.

“Club’s just around the corner,” Theo said, a mischievous grin playing about his lips.

Tugging my hand, he pulled me to him and grasped me around the waist. A rush of heat swept over me. I blushed at the direction my thoughts were travelling.

Theo leaned in with a show of hesitation, tantalising me. I moved closer. His lips were soft as they brushed over mine. I longed to deepen the kiss, but he pulled back. What the…? I quashed the fleeting sense of disappointment. We’ll continue this later.

Theo slung his arm over my shoulder with a casual air while I slipped mine around his waist. We walked along in companionable silence, grinning at each other with stupid expressions. We joined the others in the queue that snaked halfway around the club. It took half an hour to get into the venue. The night air was balmy, and my hair stuck to my neck.

“My feet are burning,” the girl in front of us complained. I know how she feels.

The club was overcrowded but we managed to squeeze into the red chenille booth. Theo and I squashed in together, thigh brushing thigh.

We stumbled over who spoke first.

“I was just going to ask about your taste in music.”

“I enjoy an eclectic range of music, but jazz is my thing. And you?”

“Pfft. Jazz? I can’t listen to it for too long or I’d get bored.” I flashed him a cheeky grin. “I lurve Robbie Williams.”

Theo rolled his eyes.

“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with Robbie.”

“Depends on whose perspective you’re coming from,” he teased, “serious music lovers or females who go weak at the knees over a pair of trousers.”

I gave his arm a playful slap and fixed him with an I’m-not-impressed glare. His lips twitched, and we ended up breaking into easy laughter. We discussed our respective families. Theo talked about his sister Cass, whom he was close to. I experienced a fleeting sadness as I contemplated the detached relationship I had with my siblings. We did the whole ‘What’s your favourite thing’ and discovered that we both loved E.T. I coaxed him onto the dance floor just as “Crazy in Love,” by Beyoncé and Jay-Z, exploded around the room. At

first

we moved together with the uncertainness of two strangers but soon we merged into a sensual rhythm.

“Let’s get a drink.” Theo’s hand moved to the small of my back as he guided me back to our table.

The smell of smoke and sweat assaulted my senses as we threaded our way through the throng of writhing bodies. We fell onto the couch, where Chris and Jake sat talking. When we straightened up, our lips brushed. I moved in closer until our mouths clung together, soft and caressing. The kiss deepened, lips and tongues came together, exploring and tasting. His hand splayed against mine, fingers entwined, palms cleaving together.

The night was over too soon. We stood outside in the warm night air. People drifted out in varying stages of inebriation. In the doorway of a shop, a man fell to his knees and spewed out a stream of liquid and undigested food. Eager taxi drivers stood around touting for business. The occasional police car crawled along keeping a watchful eye on the revellers, alert for the slightest sign of an altercation.

A catfight broke out between two girls who’d had too much to drink. Two policemen separated them as clumps of peroxide hair came away in the taller girl’s hands. Skirts the size of belts hung askew and beer-stained tops rode high up their flabby midriffs. Hair coiffed to within an inch of perfection at the beginning of the night was now lank, while makeup ran down their faces, and they screamed abuse at each other.

“Come back with me?” Theo whispered.

Every inch of my body screamed to go. I’ve come here to spend the weekend with Chris. I can’t just leave her. She’ll understand. No, I can’t. I tried to explain to Theo, and saw his fleeting look of disappointment. We gazed at each other until he pulled me closer. I nestled against his chest.

“Can I see you again?” he murmured against my ear.

Phew. We exchanged mobile numbers and then kissed again before Tom and Stephen dragged a reluctant Theo away.

 

“Was Theo a good kisser? I want all the details,” Chris asked as we lay in bed ready to dissect the night.

“Mmm.” I grinned.

“Are you going to meet him again this weekend?”

“No, he’s busy.” I fought back the overwhelming urge to sleep.

“I got the impression that Theo’s the only one who’s comfortable with himself… like he wasn’t putting on an act.”

“Stephen struck me as being gay and not ready to admit it, not that I spoke to him much.”

“You were too busy playing tonsil hockey with Theo,” she teased, “but your gaydar is spot-on; Stephen is

sooo

in the closet. Jake played hard at acting ‘the lad’, but I sensed a deeper side of him. Tom appeared to have no real opinions, a carbon copy of Jake without conviction.”

“And without his dark and mysterious good looks,” I added.

“He is gorgeous.”

I caught a faint trace of wistfulness, but my mind was clouding as sleep descended on me. I snuggled into the duvet mumbling goodnight. My head spun as I drifted into blissful oblivion.

Football Pagebreak

Theo

 

The drumbeats rolled signalling the end of another episode of Eastenders. The doorbell shrilled just as I brought the can of Fosters to my lips. Who’s that? With reluctance, I peeled myself from the sofa. Jehovah’s Witnesses? I hesitated.

The bell rang again. It would be easier just to send them away with a polite but firm refusal. A third chime sounded as I entered the hallway. Pushy bastards. I flung the door open ready to hurl abuse only to find my girlfriend, Claudine, standing there. She had the air of a forlorn and frightened animal as tears rolled down her cheeks.

“What’s wrong?” It wasn’t often that Claudine displayed any kind of emotion.

“Oh, Theo,” she sobbed and flung herself into my arms.

“Honey, what’s happened?” I sought to console her while I held her close stroking her short brown bob. I wish she’d left it long. This thought was followed by guilt.

“Come in.” I closed the door behind her and led her into the front room.

“What is it?” I asked. “Has someone done something to you?”

She withdrew and paced over to the window, staring out before turning to face me. She gnawed at her nails, which were her pride and joy.

“I don’t want to see you anymore,” she blurted out.

She’s finishing with me. I didn’t see that coming. We didn’t have an exciting relationship, but it had been easier than being alone.

“Well, say something.” Claudine stamped her foot.

“What do you want me to say?” I was being deliberately obtuse.

Her face turned puce as she looked at me through narrowed eyes. At that moment, I wondered what I’d seen in her. Once I’d had that thought, the floodgates opened. Instead of being upset, I was relieved. I’m free. Exhilaration bubbled up inside me.

She waffled something about not being compatible. I studied the battered red sofa. The curry stain caused by Tom’s clumsiness after a night of drinking had resulted in a quarrel with my female housemates. I stared at the dull and dirty beige walls. The landlord needs to redecorate.

“Aren’t you upset?” Her lips trembled. I had some fast thinking to do.

“Of course I am but I realise that you’re right. We can always stay friends.”

 

Friday night I celebrated my freedom in The Crypt with three of my workmates.

“It’s good to have you back. Friday nights haven’t been the same without you.” Jake toasted with a pint.

“Yeah, never did understand what you saw in her,” Stephen said.

You wouldn’t.

A tall blonde sashayed towards the bar with her redheaded friend. Her hair hung to the middle of her back. She had graceful features and legs that went on forever. Her simple dress fell to just above the knee, modest at the front, but the back was scooped out and fell to the small of her back. She was exquisite. I became aroused just thinking about her.

She perused the cocktail menu, then, with confidence, caught the attention of the barman. As she scanned the bar, her face was alight with pleasure. Her gaze intercepted mine. Green and blue eyes merged with an intensity that I found disturbing. As we stared across the space that separated us, I felt a connection. I laughed a self-conscious tinkle, almost girly in sound. I was beginning to sound profound; the truth was she was stunning, and I wanted her.

The barman came back, and her friend dragged her away. I ordered our drinks and then stood chatting to the boys for a few minutes. What are you waiting for? If you don’t do something now, someone else will. I hesitated then told the lads that I was going after the gorgeous blonde.

“Give her one from me,” Jake said.

I laughed, shaking my head as I walked away. Life was never dull with Jake around.

I stood on the balcony, looking out onto the crowd. Some of the diehard jazz fans had gone since the band had left, and the DJ had taken over. The Crypt had achieved the dubious acclaim of becoming the in place, and the dance floor throbbed with people gyrating to the music. I spotted her. She seemed to be looking for someone, and when our eyes met, I realised it was me. I’m in there tonight. Her eyes slid down my body and up again while mine took the same route over hers. That was an invitation, and I didn’t need asking twice. I was halfway across the room when I found my palms sweating, my mouth was dry, and I hadn’t thought about what I was going to say.

“Hey. I’m Theo. Do you mind if I come and talk to you?” God, how lame was that? A surreptitious slide of my hands down the back of my trousers removed all traces of sweat.

“I’d like that.”

Her name was Gemma; it suited her. It was then that I said it. I didn’t think I could say anything so feeble but, in my defence, I was talking to a virtual goddess, and I hadn’t seen her around before. I was pleased she was only here for the weekend. It didn’t matter how beautiful she was, I wasn’t looking for another relationship. She introduced me to her friend, Chris, a stunning willowy redhead. I offered to buy them both drinks and headed back to my mates, who seemed to have taken up permanent residence at the bar.

“She blew you out, then?” Stephen chortled.

“No. I’m buying drinks for the two hottest women here tonight. Is anybody up for checking O2 out tonight?” I asked.

“We’re going to The Cube; it’s meant to be heaving with hot chicks,” Tom protested.

“Come on, lads, I think I’m in with a chance with this one. She’s hot.”

“Bit of a slag, is she?” Jake drawled. “What about her mate? Is she up for it, too?”

Tom and Stephen brayed like a couple of hyenas.

I frowned. “No, I don’t think she is. Neither is her mate. They’re both stunning and good company. But hey, it’s no big deal. If you believe we can get better at The Cube, then we’ll go there.” I tried to sound nonchalant.

“Is she anything like Claudine?” Jake asked.

“Hell no,” I laughed.

Jake and I had worked together for over five years and became friends in that time. I sensed a more vulnerable side to him, which he kept hidden. I often wondered if something had happened to make him behave in his callous manner, but I didn’t probe.

A group of drunken women staggered to their feet, relinquishing their table. Jake made a crude remark

to

them that earned him a tongue-lashing as we took their seats. I wondered whether it was a good idea, after all, to introduce Gemma and her mate to my unruly bunch.

My mates were enthralled by the

girls,

and behaved themselves.

I found Gemma easy to talk to, and her sense of humour matched my own. We talked about London, and I found myself thinking that maybe when I went there on business it might be possible to meet up. There was no reason we couldn’t have ‘just sex’ on more than one occasion.

I wondered how someone so gorgeous was single; I asked her.

“Oh, you know,” she dismissed, her tone airy, “just haven’t met my millionaire yet.”

“So he has to be rich. Any other criteria?” I questioned, getting into the spirit of things as her eyes twinkled with latent mischief.

“I don’t mind as long as he has the money to give me a lifetime of indulgence.”

“Dark or fair?”

“He could be ninety-eight and getting ready to push up daisies so long as he leaves me his money,” she teased.

“Cold-hearted adventuress.”

“Absolutely, darling,” she affected a falsetto accent before becoming serious again. “I’ve just never found the right person.”

I placed my hand on Gemma’s bare back ostensibly to guide her out as we left The Crypt. Her back was like silk against my fingertips. I felt the same euphoria you experience when you hit the jackpot on a one-armed bandit and the coins pour out.

Jake led the others in front and flashed me a conspiratorial grin. I took Gemma’s hand, as delicate as a butterfly’s wing. Her eyes shone as she looked at me, making me feel godlike. I contemplated lifting her caveman-style and carrying her back to my house to ravage her. Those red lips pouted in a way that cried out to be kissed so I pulled her into my arms. I kept the kiss light, just a mere meeting of lips coming sensually together. I longed to deepen the kiss, but the familiar stirring in my trousers precluded any such manoeuvre.

I held her to me as we walked along, aware of the envious glances thrown at me by both men and women alike. The streets were a hive of activity as Devon came to life and the young set partied. Laughter rang out around us.

 

We struggled through conversations in the club. Music from Christina Aguilera and The Black Eyed Peas bounced from wall to wall in an ear-splitting cacophony.

I allowed Gemma to drag me onto the dance floor. I’m not sure that what we did was dancing. My hands encircled her tiny waist, skimming over her back. One hand held the base of her spine while the other travelled up, caressing between her shoulder blades. She clasped her hands around my neck while her body pressed against mine. Her breasts strained against the flimsy material of her dress, and likewise, my disloyal cock showed arousal, betraying me to the outside world.

After a few songs, I couldn’t endure any more of this exquisite torture, so I led her through the crowds. Back at our booth, we tripped onto the sofa. I used this opportunity to kiss her again.

 

Thousands of stars lit up the warm night sky while all around us was floodlit by harsh street lighting. The club’s doors were flung wide open, spewing forth a stream of people no longer allowed the relative security of its environs, thrust onto the streets.

I turned to Gemma. “Will you come back with me?”

Had she been leading me on all night? Those eyes didn’t seem deceitful. My disappointment subsided. I’ll have her even if it isn’t tonight. There’s always my trip to London.

We exchanged numbers. I kissed her again. Slowly at first, building the crescendo. Our mouths and tongues

merged,

tasting, teasing and provocative until the silent music we were making demanded an increase in tempo that we were unable to fulfil.

“So she didn’t put out,” Tom’s crude words reached me as we walked away.

“Shut up.”

 

I hit the sack at six a.m., after a further drinking session with the lads. Struggling to sleep while the light filtered through the chinks in the curtains and the birds chirped, I lay thinking about Gemma’s body and wasn’t surprised when I found myself aroused. I’ll have to see her again, I thought as I sought release. Contented and drowsy now, I slipped into a comfortable slumber.

 

 

Chapter 2

Dolphin

Gemma

 

Chris pulled the chintz curtains open with a dramatic flourish. The morning light streamed through the windows, flooding the little room with light. Screwing my eyes up, I groaned when the pain hit me. It felt like a herd of elephants was doing the River Dance on top of my head.

“Go away,” I moaned, throwing a pillow at Chris, hitting her straight in the face.

“I’ll make you coffee and get you something for the pain.” She chucked the pillow in my direction.

I gave up attempting to sleep as Chris pulled back the covers and thrust a glass of water and a couple of tablets at me. “I’ll treat you to a cooked breakfast in the local greasy spoon,” Chris coaxed, offering my preferred hangover cure.

 

After breakfast, Chris manoeuvred us to the old part of the town, where all the antique shops were. I followed her into a minuscule curio shop crammed full of junk. At least she can’t stay long in a shop this size. I meandered around, trying to take an interest in the old vases, grandfather clocks and furniture.

“Can I help you?” The old man in a battered cardigan and brown cord trousers peered at me, pushing his spectacles lower down his nose while he glared over the top. He knows I have no interest in anything in his shop and has written me off. How dare he? I traced my hand over a shiny walnut table.

“A fine example of Regency craftsmanship.”

I’d shocked him. I savoured every bit of my shallow victory. He moved onto Chris and greeted her as one lover of all things old to another. My triumph was short-lived as I trudged past him a dozen times in the forty-five minutes that it took Chris to finish her browsing. Each time, he shot me a knowing look. My eyes and nose became irritated by the dust and the musty smell permeating every inch of the claustrophobic shop.

“Your mum has the same table in her hallway,” Chris said, unaware of my silent sparring with the old guy. The lifting of the corners of his mouth alerted me to his conquest; I’d won the initial skirmish, but he won the war.

“Are you buying anything?”

“Not today. I may come back another day; there’s a couple of things I like.”

 

Sunday mid-day saw us sitting on the quayside, having lunch. The temperature soared into the thirties, and the sun beat down on us without mercy. I longed to be lying on a beach now, topping up my tan. Chris, however, wasn’t a sun lover. She preferred the salon spray tan and was keen to be out of direct sunlight. Probably wishes herself in some musty old shop with an equally old relic serving her.

“I bet those apartments across the water are the last word in luxury.” I caught a glimmer of excitement in Chris’ eyes. “Spill.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything yet…”

“Uh-huh. Yeah. Out with it.”

“Well… okay, okay.” She held her hands up in surrender as I glowered at her. “I’ve got an appointment on Wednesday for a viewing.”

“Oh, Chris.” I jumped up and hugged her.

Her dark green eyes glowed with excitement.

“They’d be so proud of you,” I choked the words out.

Chris grasped my hand across the table and squeezed it.

“Do you remember that night, a few months before my sixteenth, when they caught me trying to sneak out of the house as we were going to attempt to get into that club?”

“I remember. We didn’t get in.” I smiled at the memory.

“I was furious with them at the time, but they just hugged me and packed me off to bed. They weren’t even angry. I heard them laughing about it later when they thought I was asleep.”

“I can still taste your mum’s scones.”

“And Dad’s homemade lemonade. They loved having all my friends around. It made up for them not having any more children.”

“They doted on you.”

She gave a sad smile.

“We used to love your mum’s hugs, and your dad gave us such good advice.” Tears welled up in my eyes, and my throat constricted.

“I miss them so much,” Chris whispered letting out a ragged breath. A solitary tear fell from her red-rimmed eyes and slid down her cheek.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…”

“No, it’s all right, I’m glad you did. Everyone avoids talking about them for fear of upsetting me. I can’t believe that it’s almost five years.”

I stroked her hand in a feeble gesture of comfort, knowing how the death of her parents still haunted her.

“We were so worried when you left London and moved to Devon. You knew no one, had no-one to support you.”

“I needed that. Every nook and cranny in the house held memories. I couldn’t live indefinitely on antidepressants, and talking to councillors didn’t even begin to make it right. I needed to start over, to be anonymous. I hated the pity I saw in people’s eyes.”

I squeezed her hand. “You can’t go cluttering a modern apartment up with ancient relics.”

Chris spluttered a hoarse laugh. “Just you try stopping me.”

After lunch, we went for a walk, stopping to browse at some of the jewellery stalls.

“Come on, I’ll treat you to a crêpe,” I offered.

Chris linked her arm through mine as we ambled along the waterfront. The sun bounced across the surface, providing a magical appearance, while the willows dipped their boughs into the water. We sat down, dangling our legs over the side, to eat our crêpes.

 

Football Pagebreak

Theo

 

My head pounded; little shards of pain slicing my brain at regular intervals. The incessant ringing took a while to break through my subconscious. I stumbled out of bed, tripping on the sheet that had curled around my foot, sprawling face down on the floor, arms akimbo, my head just missing the computer workstation. With a groan, I unfurled the sheet and crawled towards the door. My fingers gripped the landline phone just as the ringing came to an abrupt halt.

Slumping onto the battered sofa, I dialled 1471, listening as the automated voice recited Claudine’s number. What does she want? Probably wants to see if I’m miserable without her. What did I ever see in her? Gemma had elicited more excitement with one kiss than Claudine had in the two years we’d been together.

As I stood up, the room spun on its axis. A brass band struck up a loud symphony in my head; I hoped that the cymbal player’s piece would be short. With the help of the wall, I made my way to my stockpile of hangover cures.

 

The Royal Chester Hotel was a pretentious five-star affair: a

fourteenth century

castle set amongst acres of land. Generations of dissolute aristocrats who’d understood nothing about estate management had fallen on hard times after years of profligate living. The final nail in the coffin came in the guise of World War One. The eldest son, an officer who hadn’t strayed too close to the front line, was struck down and killed. Hailed as a hero. His younger brother, the last in the line, sold the estate to an American who solved his increasing debt problem. He drank and gambled the rest of his money, and within two years was laid to rest beside his brother.

Swathes of land surrounded the extensive drive. Horses grazed. A few

pricked

up their ears at the sound of the car disturbing their tranquil environment. As the car drew near, the fields were replaced by formal gardens enclosed by four-foot symmetrical hedges. Arched entrances led from one garden into another, with stone statues and water-feature centrepieces adorning them.

The wheels crunched across the gravel on the driveway. Before

me

stood the imposing edifice crafted in medieval stone that had been sympathetically restored. The Keep housed the main foyer, where the functions were held. The castle had four other towers set in a rectangle, with the Keep at the front, central to the whole structure. Parapets linked the buildings to each other. Glass domes had been added later, fusing old and new. The other side of the castle housed an enviable stable of horses, which were available to the clientele.

I paid the taxi driver and walked through the massive oak studded doors, my shoes tapping a staccato on the stone floor. Ahead was a reception desk, behind which a spiral staircase led to two bridal suites taking up the whole of the upper floor. Two reception rooms led off the foyer either side, with a large board outside bearing the names of the wedding party. A guard in the guise of a green liveried footman held a list of all guests.

Gourmet finger food graced the tables. The band was poised to play. Along the walls were huge oak tables and throne-like chairs. I spotted my parents chatting to friends. Cass was at the edge of the dance floor, wearing a pained expression while pretending to listen to our cousin Giles. He was in all probability pontificating about how well he’d done in life. My sister needed rescuing.

“Where were you? You were supposed to be here an hour ago.”

“I was just telling Cassandra here how I…”

“Yes, quite, Giles,” I interjected. “I would love to hear it; perhaps some other time, though. I must steal Cass away.”

Giles’ face reddened, echoing the colour of his hair as his jaw dropped open causing his jowls to wobble.

Cass tugged on my arm. “So, what kept you?”

“Had a heavy night. Could’ve stayed in bed.”

“Whose bed, though?” Cass enquired

waspishly,

but then softened it with an affectionate smile.

“You’ve heard,” I laughed. “I was going to save it for you till tonight as a special treat. So, the gossips got in first. So who was it?”

“I got it from the horse’s mouth.” Cass’ strident tone held a sting. “She said the relationship was too boring for words.”

I refused to rise to her bait. “Your words, but true nonetheless.”

“You don’t appear distraught.”

“Should I be?”

Cass grinned. “Come on, let’s see ‘The Parents’.”

We reached the table where our parents sat with Jeremy and Kate Rose, their friends, part of the narrow, almost incestuous social set to which everyone here belonged. I kissed Mother’s cool cheek and shook Father’s hand while greeting the Roses with a smile and a nod. I’d just decided that this would be a tedious evening when Cass winked, an air of barely suppressed mischief shining from her eyes.

“How was the ceremony?” I asked with no real interest.

“It was lovely.”

“It will definitely be in the society pages,” Kate gushed.

“Sandra looked divine and carried herself well. She did your uncle Geoffrey proud, but then that is no more than one would expect from her.” The inference was that Cass and I failed to live up to her expectations. “You have spoken to her, haven’t you?”

“Er… well…”

“Out with it, Theodore. I can’t tolerate stuttering; it plays havoc with my nerves.” The last, she confided to Kate, who nodded in sympathy.

“I haven’t seen her yet.” Cass glared, her crimson painted lips puckered. The skin between her lips and nose reminded me of a concertina. Her eyes, the same unusual shade of green as mine, a Perkins family trait, flashed in resentment. My eyes locked with hers. As the silent understanding passed between us, she deflated, and her jawline jutted out as she sought to regain her composure.

“Theodore. Well, really, how terribly ill-mannered of you. It isn’t how I brought you up,” Mother hissed. Her colour heightened as she contemplated what her best friend would think of me and whom she’d tell.

“What would you know?” Cass’ voice trembled, barely coherent.

“What was that, Cassandra?” Mother demanded, puffing up her bosom as she fixed her with a penetrating gaze.

“I said I’m sure he didn’t know.” Cass smiled, a picture of innocence.

Mother swung back to face me, missing the fleeting and rebellious smirk that crossed her friend’s face.

“I take it you deposited your present in the reception safe?”

Shit! I was supposed to buy it today. Mother will have me hung, drawn and quartered for this. My chaotic thoughts were mirrored on my

face,

because Mother turned an interesting shade of puce. As she opened her mouth to rain abuse down on me, Cass interrupted, grinning like the cat who’d not only had the cream but who’d savoured every lick.

“We bought the present together,” she lied. “That hideous crystal vase on the gift list.”

Mother nodded, rising to circulate. She’d wasted enough time on us. Kate followed in her wake.

“Make sure you congratulate your cousin,” she threw over her shoulder as she departed. I relaxed back into the chair, letting out a sigh of relief.

“Bitch,” Cass hissed.

“You saved my life. I could see the gibbet being erected.”

“Right to the noose tightening around your neck,” Cass finished.

“How did you guess I’d forget?”

“I bumped into Claudine while I was picking a present. I figured you’d be out celebrating; ergo, with a rotten, stinking hangover, you’d forget the present.” Her smile held a strong suggestion of self-satisfaction. “Soooo, I bought that horrific vase, forged that scrawl you call a signature on the card, et voilà.”

She reached over and gave me a quick hug; it was a symbol of our solidarity, gaining strength from each other. “All this affection is giving me a headache.” She affected a theatrical leading lady’s voice. “I’m going to powder my nose, darling.” She flounced off and left me laughing at that unlikely prospect.

I headed across the grandiose hall, searching out my cousin. Yards of white silk and lace gave her away; there was no hiding in that getup.

“Theo, glad you made it,” Sandra prattled as I greeted her with a kiss on the cheek. “You’ve met Garfield, haven’t you?”

“Yes. Congratulations to you both.” With reluctance, I gave him my hand, which he shook as though he was trying to draw water from an old-fashioned water pump.

Someone else claimed their attention, and I was able to escape. Grudgingly, I made polite conversation with anyone I couldn’t avoid on my route back to the table. I was scrutinised and reminded that I should attend their functions more often. My smile never wavered, neither did it reach my eyes.

“How much longer are we expected to stay?” I asked as I flopped down beside Cass.

“You’ve only been here an hour. Another couple at the least. Your drink’s there.”

“Did you see the meringue that Sandra was wearing?”

We sat back for a good bitching session, which was a pleasure Cass had introduced me to at an early age.

“You act like a King and Queen sitting holding court,” one cousin complained after trying to socialise with us. “You could circulate. It’s not the done thing, you know. One feels one must come to you.”

“No one asked you to come,” I snapped, fed up with this farce and feeling delicate from my excesses of the night before.

Cass laughed, adding to her humiliation.

“Yes, well…” She scraped the heavy chair back. “You have always been weird. Too cliquey by half. It makes one wonder – you being brother and sister and all…” She left the rest unsaid, but her intent was all too apparent.

Cass chortled, unwilling to let her have the parting shot. “Let’s go before all hell breaks loose. We’ll go to yours and get slaughtered.”

 

“So what’s new?”

“There’s a cute new editor at work.” She grinned, belying the casual tone of her voice.

“Go on.”

Her fingers played absentmindedly with the thick black curls of her hair that hung to mid-neck. I smiled; she always twisted her hair when she lied.

“There’s nothing more to say yet. Tell me about Claudine.” She reached into her bag and pulled out her cigarettes and lighter. She placed the cigarette between her lips, lit it and took a drag. The smoke rose upwards, to dance above our heads before forming a cloudy mass. She leant forward and refilled our drained glasses.

I told her about Gemma, but I wasn’t sure why.

 

The grass on the pitch crunched underfoot. Taut as a bow due to the lack of rain, it snapped as we trod on it.

“Are you ready and raring to go?” Jason laughed as he saw my face.

“Only in the direction of my bed,” I parried.

“The delectable Claudine keeping it warm, is she?” Toby joined the verbal affray.

“I’ll tell you later over a pint.”

“Come on, lads, this is pathetic,” Coach screamed. “You’re never going to beat The Crown’s side on Tuesday. You’re a bunch of useless bastards. I don’t know why I get out of bed on a Sunday morning.”

“He doesn’t get out of bed. His wife kicks him out,” Jono guffawed

“What was that, Jono?” Coach shouted.

“Nothing, Coach.”

“We haven’t got a chance against The Crown even if we play our best,” Toby murmured.

“You’re not wrong there,” Jason agreed. “We’re going to be shown up as a bunch of amateurs.”

The thought of the match on Tuesday and the conditions of the pitch left our usually enthusiastic team feeling low, which was reflected in our performance.

 

Toby

stooped

, to avoid hitting his head on the black Tudor beams adorning the low ceiling. The wooden floorboards resounded with the tramp of weary feet. Everyone was in need of that after-match pint.

“Did you see how the ball sailed through the air, finding the back of the net?” The blue specks in Toby’s grey eyes flashed with pride after scoring the only goal of the match.

“Yeah. I hate to rain on your parade but our goalie’s shite; he’s worse than the rest of us.”

“I ‘eard that,” Peter called across the pub.

“You were meant to,” I shouted back in good humour.

“I didn’t see you doing any better,” Toby joshed.

“I was awake until two a.m. drinking with Cass.”

“How is the hedgehog?” Jason’s pet name referred to her sometimes prickly nature.

“We escaped the reception of a family wedding.” I pulled a face, which produced a chuckle from Toby and a perplexed look from Jason when I added, “I left her sleeping it off in my bed.”

“So if Cass’ got your bed, Claudine isn’t in it.” He raised an eyebrow, his face taking on a quizzical expression. “I worry about you sometimes. Why are you in a rush to return to your bed?”

I waited while the two of them stopped chuckling.

“You’re the second person to allude to an unnatural alliance between my sis and me.”

“So where is Claudine, then?”

“Claudine put me on the transfer list on Thursday.” I grinned at their shocked expressions

“Shit.”

“I thought you’d end up married, with kids, like us.” Toby’s dazed expression made it hard for me to keep a straight face.

“We never had anything exciting.”

“The excitement wears off.”

“I’m not sure we ever had it.” I was glad when Toby changed the subject.

As if on cue, after our second

pint

, Toby and Jason both stood up in unison, saying they had to get home to their families.

Jason’s head tilted sideways, blond hair flopping over his face.

“Come back to mine for dinner? Cathy always cooks extra, and the kids love seeing you.”

 

Cathy walked through the archway that led from the kitchen, wiping her hands down the blue striped apron as she came to greet me.

“Jack, Katie, Daddy’s home. And he’s brought Uncle Theo with him.”

The scurrying noise grew louder until it became a dull thud. Five-year-old Jack flung himself at my knees, demanding I join him for a game of footie in the garden. Three-year-old Katie hung back, bashful, smiling under her lashes.

“Have you got a hug for me?” I tickled her, bending down to her level.

She wrinkled her nose, the feathery dusting of freckles on it shifting with the movement.

“Come on.” Jack tugged at my arm.

“Jack,” Cathy admonished.

“Uncle Theo will play later. Let him sit awhile,” Jason broke the sternness of his wife’s rebuke.

“It’s fine. I’ll go and play now, or else he’ll be bouncing off the wall until I do.” I ruffled his tousled blond hair as we walked together to the garden, stopping to plant a kiss on Cathy’s cheek.

“Watch my flowers.” Cathy adopted a harsh tone to detract from the grin that lit up her face.

“Charmer. She holds you up as the shining example of how to be a gentleman.”

I shrugged my shoulders and held my hands up, “What can I say?”

“You and me ‘gainst Dad and Katie.”

“Against, Jack. Don’t drop your A’s.”

Jason swung Katie up onto his shoulders. She squealed with delight as he ran after the ball with her bouncing on top, blond ringlets bobbing.

“Jay, be careful with her up there.” Cathy stood in the doorway, smiling. “Shall I ring Claudine? She can join us for dinner, too.”

Both Jason and I halted, turning to stare at her, while Jack took advantage of the situation and commandeered the ball.

“Shit.”

“Jason!” Cathy admonished.

“You didn’t hear

that,

kids,” Jason ordered.

Jack stood there with a cherubic expression, a hint of devilment playing about his brown eyes as he wondered whether to repeat it. His mother’s stern face made him change his mind. He kicked the ball and screamed.

“Goaaaaaal.”

Cathy placed her hand on her hips.

“Okay, boys, what gives?” Her American drawl was evident when she was serious, angry or flustered, even after so many years of living here.

“Claudine dumped him,” Jason said.

Cathy’s face dropped. “When? How? What?”

She crossed the vast expanse of grass like a whirling dervish and grabbed me by the shirt.

“Game over. I want information; every detail.”

Katie, now consigned onto the carpet of grass, tottered after us. My expression pleaded for them to rescue me. Father and son shook their heads in sync, throwing their palms skyward.

Cathy directed me to a chair, stopping to turn off the radio. She opened the fridge, drew out a can, pulled the ring and poured the beer, setting it down in front of me. She waited until I’d taken a mouthful and then said, “Now talk.”

I took a deep breath. Her attention to detail was painful, and the pain would be all mine. Something soft touched my legs. Katie’s soulful eyes burned into me. Placing a hand on my knee, she pulled herself up onto my lap.

Once I’d fulfilled Cathy’s need for detail, she hugged me and allowed me to re-join the lads. I experienced a yearning for the love and comfort of a family of my own. I’d never pictured Claudine in that role, but Gemma’s face sprung to mind. I pushed that thought aside as fanciful. I didn’t want a relationship with her but I did want to see her again so I texted her, asking her to meet me in a couple of weeks when I was in London. She replied in the affirmative. I stood grinning for a moment.

 

Amazon Link: http://amzn.to/2y7HdZd

Reviews:

on 23 September 2017

I love this story with its strong, yet realistic characters and their close bonds of friendships. The author does not hold back and lets the characters be who they are meant to be, even if they are at times a bit crude but that is how many young people are today in England. I adore the character of Theo who as the blurb tells us is a modern man with strong old fashioned values.

The friendships of some of the characters may at times waiver but they are there for each other in a crisis, and this is what I love most about this story. The bonds of true friendship.

It is hard to say too much about this book without giving anything away but what I will say is that I LOVED the second part of the book most of all. Even though it is at times truly heart-wrenching.

Very highly recommended.

 

on September 30, 2017
Once you get started you won’t want to put it down. Maria Gibbs is an incredibly talented author capable of variety that is compelling every time. Is This Love will have you laughing, crying, cursing, and “awwww-ing”
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