Authors: Jill Mansell
The glorious bra and panty set, now destined never to be worn, was back at the cottage. Wearing a bronze lace top and tight black trousersâbecause she was, after all, supposed to be out clubbing with Susie and JenâMaddy parked in Armitage Close, an anonymous cul-de-sac around the corner from Kerr's apartment. Feeling like a fugitive, she checked all around before sliding out of the car, then made her way hurriedly to his address.
He answered the door so quickly that Maddy knew he'd been looking out for her. Now that she was actually here, she could barely make out what he was saying, so loud was the adrenaline-fueled pumping of blood in her ears.
She took a deep breath. This was it; she was
“I'm sorry, I'll calm down in a minute. I just feel so bad about deceiving Mumâ¦Marcellaâ¦” Managing a shaky smile, Maddy said, “And then I thought about not coming here tonight and that made me feel worse.”
Kerr led her through the paneled hallway, into a high-ceilinged sitting room. Primrose-yellow walls and a cream carpet didn't go at all with the heavy, reddish-brown mahogany furniture or the dark blue rugs sprawled across the floor.
“I know.” Kerr intercepted her gaze. “It's horrible, a complete nightmare. I rented it furnished. The kitchen has to be seen to be believed. Anyway, that's not important.” He shook his head. “Being appalled by my kitchen tiles isn't why you're here. Bloody hell, life would be a damn sight easier if it were.”
Maddy nodded, acknowledging this with feeling.
“I still can't believe this is happening,” Kerr went on. “It's only been a week, for heaven's sake. This time last Saturday I hadn't even met you.” He paused. “And then at the party,
. Since that night I haven't been able to stop thinking about you. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before.”
He was wearing a dark blue cotton shirt and faded jeans, the body beneath themâfranklyâto die for. Her stomach knotted with lust, Maddy whispered, “I know. Me too.” There was no point in trying to deny it; the attraction was fairly obviously mutual. She cleared her throat. “But what if we're feeling like this because we know it can't happen? Like being on a diet and knowing you can't have chocolate mousse?”
“OK, I thought about that too. That's why I invited you here tonight.” Moving toward her, Kerr smiled slightly and reached for her hands. “Come here, mousse.”
Pulling her toward him, he kissed her on the corner of her mouth, then on the other corner, then properly, and Maddy thought,
. It was like going to heaven, feeling Kerr's warm body pressed against her own and his fingers (thank goodness she hadn't used hair gel) sliding unimpeded through her hair. All too soon he pulled away, surveying her with an expression in his dark eyes that almost made her want to cry.
“OK, you have to bear with me now because I'm not used to saying this kind of stuff. I'm not sure, but I think I love you.”
“Oh God, don't say thatâ¦” Maddy covered her mouth, not meaning it for a moment. This was what she wanted to hear him say more than anything. But it was just so scary, so impossible. How could anything but misery result from a situation so dire?
“It's the only way. We both know how we feel. It's too late to back down and pretend it hasn't happened. Not seeing you again would only make me want you more.” Kerr waited. “Right, so this is the plan. We
going to see each other. We'll be incredibly discreet, no one else will know, and with a bit of luck, we'll discover we don't like each other as much as we think we do.”
Maddy stared at him in disbelief. “With a bit of luck?”
“I know, I know.” He shrugged helplessly. “But what other choice do we have? And it could happen, you know. In fact, the odds are that it will. How many boyfriends have you had?”
Taken aback by the bluntness of the question, Maddy said cautiously, “Wellâ¦quite a few, I suppose. All in all.”
“OK, same here. Maybe a bit more than quite a few.” A flicker of a smile crossed his face. “I'm sorry. If only I'd known, I'd have saved myself. But the point is, we went out with other people because we liked them. And each time, sooner or later, and for whatever reason, we stopped going out with them. Fingers crossed, that's exactly what'll happen to us.”
It didn't help that while he was saying this, he was running his fingers magically down the side of her face, touching her neck, looking very much as though he wanted to kiss her again.
“But you saidâ¦” Maddy's throat constricted with emotion. “You said that you thought you might, umâ¦”
“Love you. I know. But it could still happen, couldn't it? Give it a couple of weeks, and I might realize I can't stand the sight of you. Or you may decide you never want to see me again.”
Right now, that seemed about as likely as deciding that your favorite sandwich was cat food and mustard.
“And if we don't?”
“If we don't, it's officially a disaster. We'll just have to run away together.” Kerr drew her toward him once more, his dark eyes fixed on hers. “We'll have to find somewhere where Marcella can't track us down. Join up with some charity or other and devote the rest of our lives to helping homeless, smelly old tramps in Siberia. It'll be vile, but at least we'll be together. God”âhe pulled a faceâ“I really hope it doesn't come to that. Talk about an incentive to get you out of my system.”
“Maybe we should write down a list of our bad points, to get the ball rolling,” Maddy said helpfully. “You know, I could go off you really quickly if you told me lots of completely hideous things about you.”
“You think? Like what?”
“Oh, like if you watch Sky Sports all the time. And get really worked up about soccer. And you hate dogs. And you're really irritatingly tidy. Or if you only change your socks once a fortnight. And you tell bad jokes all the time and expect me to laugh at them over and over again.” Actually, this was easy. All she had to do was remember all the things that had annoyed her about previous boyfriends. “Or you're proud of the fact that you've never done the dishes in your life, or you play with model trains, or you think it's funny to mock people with speech impediments, or like to pretend you've got a huge spider in your hand when you know perfectly well someone's terrified of spidersâ”
.” Kerr held up his hands in protest. “Jesus, what kind of men have you been associating with? That's the most appalling list I've ever heard. Do you seriously think I'd do any of those things?”
“Well, no.” Maddy was embarrassed.
“Apart from the spider trick, of course.” He nodded matter-of-factly. “I've done that.”
“When I was about sixteen. But if you think it would help, I could do it again.”
“No thanks. How about you?”
“What puts me off girls, you mean? God, loads of things.” Sliding his arms around her, Kerr said, “Girls on diets, girls asking if their dress makes them look fat, girls reading out your horoscope even though they know you aren't interested, girls who think spending a fortune on clothes and manicures makes up for not having a personality, girls who eat chips with their mouths open, girls who pee in other people's yards, then expect to be rescued when they can't climb back over the wallâOK, not true,” he said as Maddy shot him a warning look. “I love it when girls do that.”
“Where can we go?” asked Maddy.
“I told you, anywhere in the world. Actually, Siberia's bloody freezing. How would you feel about Barbados?”
“I mean here, while we're secretly seeing each other and doing our best to hate each other. Every time we go out, I'll be terrified Marcella might see us, or friends of Marcella might see us and tell her.” She gestured in desperation. “Or friends of friends, and God knows there must be thousands of
around. Don't you see? We can never go
“Fine.” Kerr shrugged, unperturbed. “We'll just have to stay here and make our own entertainment.”
“But it'll be like being stuck in a prison cell,” wailed Maddy. “It'll be boring!”
“I've been called a lot of things in my time but never boring. Anyway, why does it have to be? We can play card games. Watch documentaries on the TV. Make model airplanes. Do giant jigsaw puzzlesâ¦”
He was teasing her. Maddy squirmed with pleasure as his hands settled around her waist, his thumbs idly stroking her back. She was getting the distinct impression that the jigsaw puzzles he had in mind comprised two pieces.
“This isn't going to work.” She held her breath as his warm mouth brushed her collarbone.
“OK, you're right. Let's forget it.” Abruptly spinning her around, Kerr marched her back to the hall, yanked open the front door, andâ
“Noooo!” shrieked Maddy.
He closed the door.
“Think it might work after all?”
She exhaled slowly. Kerr, having successfully called her bluff, regarded her with amusement.
“Maybe.” Trembling again, Maddy leaned back against the wall.
“Sorry. Not good enough.”
“OK. We'll do it.” What choice did they have, after all? The alternativeânot seeing him againâwas unthinkable.
“Wise decision.” Smiling, he kissed her again. Feeling as though her whole body was on fire, Maddy wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back.
went her bra strap, and for a split second she thought Kerr had unfastened it.
“That definitely wasn't me.” Raising his hands, he protested his innocence. “I didn't do that.”
Bugger, he was right. With impeccable timing, Maddy realized, her left shoulder strap had chosen this moment to snap.
“Sorry, it's an old bra.” Wryly, she added, “The excitement must have been too much for it.”
“You see? That's one of the things I like about you. What color is it?”
“Umâ¦sort of coffee colored.” Mocha, actually, but Kerr was only a man. He wouldn't understand.
“And what color are your panties?”
Oh, the shame. But since modesty clearly wasn't an option, Maddy said, “Black.”
Anyway, with a bit of luck, he'd find this out for himself before too long.
“Do you know how much I love it that you're wearing a brown bra and black panties?” Kerr said happily.
The horror. Unable to help herself, Maddy blurted out, “Mocha.”
There was a difference.
“Whatever. I justâ¦ All my life, whenever I've been out with girls and undressed them for the first time, they've always been wearing brand-new, super-lacy, matching bra and panties. It's so contrived, it makes me feel as if I've been set up. The situation just doesn't feel spontaneous anymore.”
“If you feel that strongly about it, you could always try not undressing them,” Maddy pointed out.
“It doesn't put me off that much. Anyway, I'm just saying it makes a refreshing change, and I really like it that you aren't the kind of girl who meets a new man and rushes out to buy a sexy new bra and panty set.”
“This isn't going to work,” said Maddy. “I'm supposed to be putting you off me.”
“Sorry, but you haven't.” Kerr's eyes glittered. “In fact, you've failed, with flying colors.”
buy a sexy bra and panty set! This morning! It's at home. I was going to wear them tonight, but Bean found them under the sofa,” Maddy babbled, “and then Marcella saw them and started teasing me about having a new man, soâ”
“Nice try.” Kerr tilted her face up to meet his and slid the broken bra strap down over her shoulder. “In fact, excellent try. But you can't fool me.”
“OK, I need you to know something. I'm not normally the type of girl who jumps into bed with someone on the first date,” said Maddy an hour later.
“No?” Grinning down at her, Kerr said, “You did it very well.”
“I just don't want you to think I'm completely easy, because I'm not.” She ran her hands through her drastically rumpled hair. “But this is different, because putting it off would only have made us want each other more. So by sleeping together as soon as possible, we've gotten all that breathless anticipation stuff out of the way, which made it the right thing to do, don't you agree?”
“God, yes, absolutely. I'm starting to get bored with you already. Any minute now I'll roll over, fall asleep, and start snoring like an elephant seal,” said Kerr. “That'll be your cue to prod me awake and say in a whiny voice, âWhy can't you give me a cuddle? Why can't we just lie here and talk about
?' Then I'll chuck you my phone and tell you to call yourself a taxi. Ten minutes later, you'll wake me up slamming the front door as you let yourself out of the apartment, and when I get up the next morning, there'll be rude words scribbled in lipstick on my bathroom mirror.”
“Wow, you really are a pig,” Maddy marveled, deeply impressed. “Who pays for my taxi?”
“What am I, a walking cash machine?”
The trouble was, nothing he said was managing to put her off. In desperation she asked, “Do you snore?”
“Like a tractor. Stick around and you'll find out.”
“I'm not staying. I can't.” Maddy knew she couldn't bring herself to go to Marcella's barbecue, to just turn up as if nothing had happened, but she couldn't stay here tonight either. Jake, who didn't miss a trick, was suspicious already. When he'd seen the new bra and panties earlier, the look he'd given her had made her flush with guilt.
It was so unfair. When it came to the opposite sex, Jake was no saint; if she had a pair of shoes for every girl he'd slept with, she'd be Imelda Marcos and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson rolled into one. But now, just when it was her turn to have some fun, he was threatening to come over all disapproving simply because of who Kerr was related to.
“Sure I can't change your mind?” Kerr's hand disappeared beneath the rumpled duvet, sliding down her hip.
Maddy shook her head. Why did everything have to be so difficult?
“I have to get back.”
“But not just yet.”
Oh God, this wasn't just difficult; it was completely impossible. But he was right: it was still only nine thirty. Giving herself up to a fresh surge of lust, Maddy smiled and insinuated one leg between his own.
Not just yet.
* * *
Marcella and Vince's yard bore all the morning-after signs of a truly successful party. Discarded cans and bottles were strewn across the lawn and in the flower beds, plastic glasses glinted in the sunlight, leftover burger remnants were being helpfully wolfed up by Bean, and the tables on the patio were piled high with overflowing ashtrays, discarded CDs, and empty bowls that had once contained mayonnaise, pickles, and Cajun dip.
Vince, busy cleaning the well-used barbecue, waved when he saw Maddy and called out, “You're too late! You've missed it!”
“Morning, darling!” Marcella, wearing a scarlet satin nightgown and dark glasses, was busy filling a black trash bag with empty lager cans. The party might have gone on until five a.m., but Marcella and Vince would still have been up at eight to make a start on the clearing up. Pointing to the honeysuckle-covered gazebo, she said, “I need to get up there. You couldn't be an angel, could you, and fetch the stepladder from the garage?”
Maddy carted out the stepladder, then watched as Marcella climbed to the top step, reached into the depths of the honeysuckle, and shook out three mismatched shoes, a string of uncooked sausages, and a pink sequined T-shirt.
“Don't ask,” said Marcella.
“So it was a good party.” Maddy held the ladder steady as her mother jumped down.
“The very best. You don't know what you missed.” Turning, Marcella enveloped her in a hug. “And how did your night go? Did you have a lovely time?”
A lovely time? It had possibly been the best night of Maddy's life. Adding to her litany of shameless lies, she said, “Great. Jen's got her eye on one of the new barmen at Brown's. Susie's convinced he's gay. We ended up at the Crash Club.” Even as the words were tumbling out, she realized she was going to have to warn Jen and Susie, explain to them that they were her alibis and that if Marcella should bump into them, they had to back her up. Preferably without knowing the real reason why she needed alibis, since it went without saying that the fewer people who knew about this, the better.
God, getting complicated already.
“Oof, my poor head.” Marcella groaned as she bent down to pick up an empty CÃ´tes du RhÃ´ne bottle.
Looking rueful, Marcella said, “Ozzy Osbourne impression. We had a bit of a karaoke thing going. Should have stuck with Diana Rossâfar less headbanging involved.”
“Here, let me do it.” Taking the black trash bag away from her, Maddy said, “I'll clear this lot up. You go put the kettle on.”
“You should have come along,” said Marcella. “We missed you. Nuala and Dexter came up after the pub shutâyou haven't lived until you've seen Dexter doing his Rod Stewart impression.”
You haven't lived until you've been to bed with Kerr McKinnon
, thought Maddy, not daring to look at Marcella and busying herself with the black bag.
“So do you think he's gay?”
Good grief, no!
Startled, Maddy said, “What?
“The new barman at Brown's.” Marcella laughed. “Dear me, you're away with the fairies this morning.”
“Sorry. Too busy picturing Dexter singing, âDo ya think I'm sexy?'” Bending down, Maddy picked up a charred baked potato. “And yes, I think the barman was gayâit's always a bit of a giveaway when they wear a Barbra Streisand T-shirt. But that's the kind of luck Jen has with men.”
“She'll find the right one sooner or later. There's plenty of lovely men out there if you know where to look. Jen'll end up with her Mr. Perfect one day.” Marcella glanced fondly across at Vince as she spoke. “And so will you.”
Guilt swept through Maddy like a bushfire.
Raising a teasing eyebrow, Marcella went on, “That is, unless you've already found him.”
“Honestly, I do the decent thing, turn up early to help you with the clearing up, and you start having a go at me.”
“I'm not having a go. I'm on your side,” Marcella protested. “Look at how happy your dad and I were. And now I've got Vince and he's every bit as wonderful. Sweetheart, I just want you to be happy too.”
Last night's bedroom antics had left Maddy with aching, trembly limbs. Dumping the black bag on the grass, she said, “And when I do find him, I'll tell you. Come on. We'll finish the rest of this later. Let's have a cup of tea.”
* * *
No one ever escaped with just a cup of tea at Marcella's house; she was physically incapable of not cooking for anyone who happened to drop in. Vince carried on clearing up outside. Maddy, who adored the cozy, comfortably cluttered kitchen, sat in one of the sunny window seats with Bean on her lap while Marcella got busy with the frying pan. Within minutes, two vast plates of crispy smoked bacon, eggs, potato and mushroom hash, grilled tomatoes, and buttered toast were on the table.
Fifteen thousand calories each, no problem
, Maddy decided. Then again, she'd probably used up that many during last night's shenanigans, five thousand calories perâ
Oh God, stop it. Don't even
about that now.
“I invited the Taylor-Trents last night,” said Marcella.
“What, all of them?” Maddy paused between mouthfuls of perfect bacon. “Not Kate, surely.”
“Come on, give the girl a break. I popped up to borrow Estelle's lovely big serving dishes for the potato salad. How could I not invite Kate?”
“She'd kill any party stone dead.” Maddy envisaged Kate Taylor-Trent throwing herself into a bout of no-holds-barred karaoke. Surely not.
“Well, they couldn't make it anyway.” Marcella shrugged comfortably. “They already had dinner booked at the Hinton Grange. And they have a guest staying with them for a few days.”
“Lucky guest.” Maddy pulled a face.
“I met him. He seems charming. His name's Will and he's going to be making a TV documentary about Oliver. And for your information, they were all in the pub on Friday afternoon and Kate gave Dexter Nevin a bit of a tongue-lashing. He'd been yelling at Nuala, so Kate laid into him big-time. She and Nuala have buried their differences, by the sound of it.” Meaningfully, Marcella went on, “You could do worse than follow their example.”
Bloody Nuala. What a traitor.
“She called Nuala fat.
” Maddy gestured irritably with her fork. “It's hardly the same as spending years making someone's life a complete misery.”
“Just a thought, darling.”
“And you've got streamers in your hair.” Reaching across the table, Maddy gently removed a tangle of rainbow-colored paper ribbons.
“We couldn't get hold of any fireworks, so it was party poppers at midnight. Oh, we had such a good time.” Marcella beamed. “You really should have come along.”
“I was shattered.” At least this wasn't a lie. “Drove home, fell into bed at one o'clock, didn't even hear Jake and Sophie come in.” Also true, but at least when they had arrived home, Jake would have seen her car outside and known she was back. In her current guilt-ridden state, this had seemed particularly important.
“I know it's never going to happen, but I do wish Jake and Juliet could get together.” Regretfully Marcella shook her head. “They'd make such a great couple. They did Sonny and Cher last night.”
“Sonny and Cher got divorced,” Maddy pointed out. Then she asked, “What?” because Marcella's expression had abruptly changed.
“Kerr McKinnon. Heard anything about him lately?”
Maddy almost fell off her chair. The air was knocked from her lungs as if she'd just been punched by a giant fist.
Was this some kind of test? No, it couldn't be. Marcella wasn't the game-playing type. If you'd done something wrong she confronted you outright, more often than not with a frying pan in her hand. She didn't pretend everything was fine, then suddenly launch into an attack.
“Who? Kerr McKinnon? Why would I have heard anything?” Her skin prickled all over with the effort of sounding normal.
“Oh, I know, daft question. It was just something Kate Taylor-Trent said last night. We were in the kitchen when she asked if he was back living around here. Gave me a jolt, I can tell you.”
She wasn't the only one. Staring at Marcella, who was looking decidedly fierce, Maddy said, “What made her say that? I thought he'd moved to London for good.”
“Let's hope so. It was just that Kate thought she saw him the other day, driving down Gypsy Lane.” Marcella's mouth narrowed as she jabbed a fork into her tomato, splattering juice.
“She probably made a mistake. Nobody's seen him for years. They wouldn't even know what he looked like these days. People change,” said Maddy, her legs wound rigidly around each other like barbed wire under the kitchen table.
“Ha!” Marcella's eyes were colder than ice. “Not that family. I'd recognize any of them, and that's a promise.”
“I'm sure it wasn't him.”
“Better not have been. Driving through Ashcombe as if nothing had ever happened.” Bitterly, Marcella went on, “Although as far as they're concerned, I'm sure nothing ever did. Arrogant bastards, the lot of them. I daresay they've forgotten all about it by now. Oh, don't let me get started on that familyâ¦”
That was the trouble with Marcella, Maddy decided helplessly. She didn't differentiate between the various McKinnons, just lumped them together as a single entity. It was no good trying to explain to her that Den McKinnon had been the one driving the car and that Kerr had been out of the country at the time. They were brothers and as far as Marcella was concerned, that was all that mattered. Anyone who was a McKinnon could rot in hell.
look what they've made me do.” Crossly Marcella rubbed at the mark on the front of her scarlet silk nightgown, as if Kerr McKinnon had personally erupted into the kitchen and fired tomato juice down her front. Glad of a diversion, Maddy jumped up and fetched a cloth from the drainer. Her cell phone, lying on the kitchen table next to her plate, promptly began to chirp.
“Nuala.” Having glanced at the caller display, Marcella handed over the phone in exchange for the damp cloth. Taking it with trepidation, Maddy thought that on balance, she'd have preferred to keep the cloth.