tagRomanceAnything for You Ch. 09

Anything for You Ch. 09

byevanslily©

Well, here it is, the last part (finally). Sorry about the wait - in fact, I'll apologise now for the references to Christmas. If I'd got this finished when I meant to, they'd have been more appropriate. I should probably warn you that this is a long chapter - 6 pages, I think. In fact, it almost certainly should've been 2 chapters but I promised this chapter would be the last one and I figured you'd hate me if I split it. As usual, it took a bit longer to tie up the loose ends than I thought it would...

Huge thanks to everyone who's read this story from the beginning, for all the lovely comments and emails you've sent me - believe me, they really do keep me going! - and for being so patient with me. And huge thanks also of course to the usual suspects who've kept me going through thick and thin - JB and Kate. I couldn't do this without you xx

Lily

-x-


*

Of course, by the time I got back to the shop, my adrenalin-fuelled euphoria had dissipated to guilt-ridden despair. Alice took one look at me as I stumbled through the door and was there in an instant, her arms around me. "No need to ask how that went," she said, before exclaiming, "Sam, you're soaked through!" then, "Oh my darling, don't!" as I promptly burst into tears. "Everything's going to be all right!"

"It isn't!" I wailed, letting her peel my coat from me, the tightness in my chest making it hard to breathe. "I've just made everything so much w-worse!"

She pulled me close again, encouraging me to sob out the whole sorry tale, puncturing my account every now and again with muttered invective. And when at last I was done, she kissed my forehead and steered me towards the comfy chairs outside the changing rooms. "Sit," she insisted in a voice that would brook no argument. "Let's get you dried off a bit."

"I'm okay," I croaked but she didn't seem to hear, already en route to the kitchen. "Alice, don't." I didn't deserve her fussing over me, let alone her sympathy.

Oh God, what had I done?

"You know what you need right now?" she called, reappearing a moment later with a hand towel. "Lovely hot bath, I reckon." And with that, she swept up my sodden hair and gave it a vigorous rub. "Stiff drink too, but I don't expect you'll have anything stronger than orange juice at your place, more's the pity. There." She lifted my hands and clapped them over my towel-covered head, gesturing that I should continue the drying process. "I've put the kettle on. Let's make you a nice cup of tea then see about getting you straight home, my girl."

"Alice, I can't." Letting the towel fall, I buried my face into the soft and now rather damp cotton. "You know I can't. I've got to go back. Try to sort things out."

"Over my dead body."

Startled by the vehemence in her tone, I peeked out to find her glaring at me from the doorway, her arms folded. "But..."

"No way." She gave her head an adamant shake. "You are not going back there to grovel and apologise for what you said—something that's needed saying for years, if you ask me. No," she reiterated, waggling a finger at me when I tried to argue. "You're going home and that's final. Going home to pack so you're all set to get on that plane tomorrow morning." She patted my shoulder and turned to go back through the door. "Call it my first executive decision if you like, seeing as you're going off and leaving me in charge."

"But what about Dad?" I shuddered, picturing the horrible scene that must surely have unfolded at my parents' house after I left. "Poor Dad! I can't leave things as they are. I can't just fly to Treviso without—"

"Poor Dad?" She twisted back around. "Sam, this is the life your father's chosen! He's made his bed, he can damn well lie in it for a while. All this time, all these years, he's just let your mother wallow in it all, never having it out with her. Letting her walk all over any feelings the pair of you might have. The way he's let her treat you both." She shook her head then whipped the towel out of my hands. "It's not right. It's not healthy. It's high time he realised it can't go on. And if this is what it takes to make him realise, then good."

I rose to follow her into the kitchen, my body feeling curiously heavy, my knees like sponges. "But what if he doesn't know what to do? What if he can't cope?"

"Sweetheart." Alice's tone became gentler. "He needs to deal with this. Not you. You've got other things to think about now. This is your time."

"I thought you didn't want me to go to Italy." I watched as she reached into the cupboard above the kettle and brought down two mugs. "I thought you said... Wait." Two mugs? Glancing around the room, I spotted a box of Christmas trimmings on the sofa. "What have you done with Roxy?"

"Roxy? Er, she's popped out for a bit."

"What for? It's a bit early to fetch the sandwiches, isn't it?"

"Ah, well." She sounded rather vague. "Not busy, are we? And there were a couple of other things she needed to do, so we thought—you know."

"Right." I narrowed my gaze at her, bemused by this ineloquent version of my assistant manager. "I kind of thought the whole place would be kitted out like Santa's Grotto by now."

"Tinsel," she announced triumphantly, as though she'd only just remembered what it was called. "That's what she's gone to get. Not enough—" she hesitated "—purple, apparently. She won't be long, I'm sure.

Deep joy, I thought wryly, wondering what on earth Roxy was planning to do with it before remembering that the new Sam—Samantha—had resolved to wholeheartedly embrace Christmas this year. "Okay. Fine."

"Fine?" Alice fired me a look not dissimilar to the one I'd sent in her direction moments earlier. "You just seen the Ghost of Christmas Past or something?"

"Maybe," I agreed with a weary smile, raking my fingers through my ratty hair in an attempt to restore some order. "Can't go on hating Christmas forever, right? So maybe I won't go home just yet. I could give you both a hand, couldn't I? It'll be much easier with the three of us."

"No, Sam. You look shattered already. The last thing you're going to feel like doing tonight is packing your suitcase if you stay here for the rest of the day. Here." Turning to me, she pushed a mug of tea into my hand. "Much better to get everything done out of the way this afternoon, don't you think? You can get yourself an early night then."

"But I haven't got that much packing to do. I've decided I'm not going to take loads of stuff so it won't take—"

"How are you getting to the airport tomorrow?"

I sighed, acknowledging defeat. "I've booked a taxi," I told her as she led the way back into the shop. "It's coming at eight."

Alice frowned. "Won't that be expensive?"

"That's what I told Marco, but..."

"Marco's paying," she guessed, nodding her approval and perching beside me on the front edge of the sales counter. "Well, so he should. Dragging you away from us, three weeks before Christmas."

"Alice." I pulled a face. "You've got to admit, the timing's turned out to be pretty good really. All things considered."

"Yes, I suppose." She studied me over the rim of her mug, her glasses steaming up slightly. "And there's no question it'll be good for you to get away. Just how long has it been since you had a holiday anyway? I can't remember the last time you had more than a day off."

I managed an indignant laugh. "It's not going to be a holiday. I'm pretty sure Marco wants me to work, you know."

"Not all the time, surely? And goodness knows, that's a lovely part of the world you're going to. Not far from Venice, is it?"

"No, not far." Probably not the best place to visit while suffering from a broken heart though, I thought. Wasn't Venice meant to be the City of Love?

"Well then. It'd be criminal not to make the most of it, wouldn't it? Ah..." Alice's tone brightened as she peered around me to the door. "Customers," she announced. "You stay there and drink your tea." She strode forward, her welcoming smile already in place.

Dear Alice, I thought, listening as she engaged the two women—a mother and her newly pregnant daughter—in friendly conversation, feeling unexpectedly wistful as I realised how much I was going to miss her. I'd seen her practically every day for more than six years and the bond between us had become strong.

In fact, it struck me that she'd more than filled the void left by the withdrawal of my mother's love, which was quite something, given that lifelong spinster and former midwife Alice had never had children of her own. "Never wanted to be bothered with all that," she'd always maintained, though I wasn't sure I believed her. Aunt Sarah had been similarly childless but at least she'd married. Her husband Tom had died before I was born. Ironic then that the three of us should run a maternity wear shop, though Alice's midwifery experience had certainly come in handy from time to time.

But Alice wasn't the only person I'd miss, was she? I was going to miss Roxy and her relentlessly sunny attitude to life. I was going to miss my customers too. Over the course of their pregnancies, I got to know some of them pretty well, especially those that returned to the shop pregnant with a second or even third child.

And, oh God, I was going to miss Drew...

The thought slid into my head without warning, causing such a burst of pain beneath my ribcage my breath hitched. Biting my lip hard, I jumped down from the counter and marched back into the kitchen, tipping the remains of my tea into the sink before putting the mug into the washing up bowl and filling it with hot soapy water. I washed up the other mugs abandoned to the draining board after an earlier cup of coffee, then, feeling more resolute, I plucked up the box of Christmas trimmings from the sofa and carried it out into the shop.

"Hey, what d'you think you're doing? That's my job!"

I glanced up to see Roxy standing by the door. She'd obviously only just returned because she was still wearing her black raincoat, along with a rather sodden-looking black velvet hat. "Not any more," I said brightly, forcing a smile. "Thought I might give you a hand for once. So come on, where is it?" I gave her an expectant look, my gaze having first travelled to her empty hands.

"Where's what?" She looked across at Alice who was now at the cash till with her customers, bagging up one of the new pairs of jeans we'd unpacked that morning and a pink tunic.

"Tinsel," Alice called cheerily. For a split second, I thought I saw a flicker of consternation in Roxy's expression. "Purple tinsel, of course."

Was it my imagination or had Alice just put a lot of emphasis on the word 'purple'?

"Oh!" Roxy's face cleared. "Yes!" She shot me a theatrical grimace. "Couldn't find any. No one seems to have it, can you believe that?"

I could, actually. This was Stow Newton after all, hardly the shopping capital of middle England. "So you didn't buy any tinsel at all then?" I looked down into the box at the assortment of tangled strands. "Some more red might've been nice."

"More?" She grinned, taking off her coat. "It's nearly all red, Sam. I know it's your favourite colour but a little bit of variety wouldn't go amiss."

It was my turn to grimace at her. "Variety like red and purple? Not exactly a classic combi, Rox."

"No," she admitted curtly, her gaze meeting Alice's as the older woman escorted her satisfied clients to the door. "How did it go with your Mum and Dad, anyway?"

"Not good," Alice responded for me once they'd left, pushing the door closed behind them. "Which is why she's taking the afternoon off."

"Alice!"

"Good idea," Roxy agreed. "Get your packing finished."

"I haven't got much packing to do!"

Neither of them seemed to be listening. It was a conspiracy, I realised. The decision to send me home had clearly been made in my absence and there didn't seem to be a thing I could say to change their minds. "Still a bit wet," Alice said, producing my coat with an apologetic tut and holding it out so I could push my arms into the sleeves. "I'll run you home in the car so you don't get even wetter. You'll be okay on your own for a few minutes, won't you Rox?"

"Of course. But first..." Roxy threw me a smile over her shoulder as she jogged across to the changing rooms then pulled back one of the gold curtains with a flourish. "Da da!"

"Oh!" I gasped as a multi-coloured bunch of helium-filled balloons sprang forward, bobbing energetically and straining against the counterweight of a teddy bear perched on a stool, the strings secured parachute-like to the straps over his little arms and legs. "What's all this?" I found myself moving nearer, the words on the balloons jumping out at me now. We'll miss you! Sorry you're leaving! Good luck! Fresh tears welled up in my eyes. "No! You shouldn't have!"

"We were going to get you flowers," I heard Roxy say.

"But that seemed daft," Alice chipped in. "Because you're leaving tomorrow. You wouldn't get the pleasure from them, would you? So we thought—"

"Balloons!" Roxy finished gleefully. "And hey, you can take the teddy with you, 'cos he's only little, isn't he? He'll fit in your suitcase. And when you look at him, you can think of us, stuck here in boring old Stow Newton while you're—you're..."

"Having a fantastic time," Alice said at once, her arm coming around my shoulders. She gave me a squeeze when I leaned into her, brushing her lips against my hair. "But we really are going to miss you, don't you have any doubt about that. It's not going to be the same around here without you."

'Oh God." I blinked hard, overwhelmed. "I'm going to miss you too. In fact, you know," I managed a smile, "maybe I won't go. Yeah, p'raps I'll stay here with you after all."

"No!" Roxy exclaimed. She put her arm around my other side. "Don't you dare! You've got to go! You're going to have an amazing time, do you hear me? And besides." She shot me a meaningful look. "I need you to big me up to Marco's Dad when you meet him. Get me an internship at Salvani next summer."

"Rox, I probably won't even see Marco's Dad," I protested, half-laughing now. "But yes, all right!" I added, relenting as she pulled a disappointed face. "If I see him, I'll tell him how wonderful you are, okay?"

"Good," she said, nodding solemnly. Then she grinned, hugging me again. "Aw, come on, boss. Everything's going to be all right, isn't it, Alice?"

"Yeah, 'course it is," I said, forcing a smile as Alice asserted her agreement and hugged me fiercely in turn. And then I looked at the balloons again and suddenly found myself smiling for real. "Oh... Purple tinsel."

There was a slight pause.

"I know!" Roxy gave a dramatic moan. "Alice, as if!"

"Well, what was I supposed to say?" Alice said. She sounded miffed. "I'm not used to making up cover stories, am I? I don't do subterfuge. Smoke and mirrors."

"Yes, but tinsel? And purple tinsel? Why not gold, or green or...?"

Grinning as they continued to bicker behind me, I knelt in front of my 'bouquet' and stretched out a hand to stroke the teddy bear's soft brown fur. So cute, I thought as I fingered the tiny pair of blue dungarees he was wearing, enormously touched Alice and Roxy had gone to so much trouble.

I was going to miss them both so much.

That now familiar hurt burned in my chest. Oh God, was I doing the right thing? Was I even strong enough to do this? Strong enough to leave everything and everyone I loved behind?

I took a deep breath. Of course I was. And anyway, it was much too late to back out now.

*

Funny then, how the words 'it's not too late' kept whirling around my head.

The next morning, sitting halfway up the stairs, I peered down through the gloom at my suitcase, parked neatly beside my overnight bag in the hallway. In the end, it had taken me less than half an hour to pack, just as I'd known it would. I'd be travelling light. A few pairs of jeans, an assortment of tops... Well, they were the only clothes I possessed, other than a certain red dress, of course. I'd always used to love clothes. Like Roxy, I used to make my own, but in recent years, I'd somehow got out of the habit of making anything nice for myself. Besides, I'd had no need of a more extensive wardrobe. I wasn't sure of the dress code at Maretti but if I was expected to be suited and booted then I'd just have to go shopping, wouldn't I? It might provide a means of bonding with my new colleagues.

I winced at the thought, shifting slightly in an attempt to relieve the numbness in my left buttock. It occurred to me I should probably move but somehow, I couldn't summon the will. There was nothing left to do. There hadn't been since five o'clock yesterday afternoon. And now it was... I glanced down at the handset in my hand before remembering I was wearing a watch for once, the one Marco had given me. Both phone and watch were in agreement. It was seven forty. Still twenty minutes to go before the taxi arrived.

Which meant there was time.

Sucking in a deep breath, I brought the phone up in front of me and tapped a button to bring up the directory. There it was, his name at the very top of the list, above Mum & Dad, above Shop, above Alice, testimony to the fact that until ten days ago, his number was the one I'd phoned the most. Could I really leave the country without calling him one last time, even though he hadn't been in touch with me?

Though to be fair, maybe he'd tried. After much deliberation, I'd unplugged the landline last night, half-fearful my parents would call, half-fearful they wouldn't. And I'd let the battery in my mobile phone go flat days ago without reading so much as a single text message or listening to any voicemail. My mobile wasn't coming with me, that much I'd decided. If I needed a phone in Italy, Marco could get me fixed up with a pay-as-you-go type contract. It would probably work out cheaper anyway.

Drew. If I pressed that key, would it make things better or worse? Would I find the right words? Could I explain without explaining, excuse myself without making an excuse, convey just how much I was going to miss him without giving myself away?

Or—and this was a radical thought—could I simply tell him the truth?

I hit the button and raised the phone to my ear, closing my eyes as I rested my cheek against the wall, not knowing what I was going to say, only that I was going to say something. Anything. It didn't matter what, did it? I'd made a big enough fool of myself already, I decided, as the number connected and rang out for the first time then a second. I couldn't sound any more foolish if I tried.

Ring, ring.

And if I could clear the air, have a stab at putting things right, make light of my stupidity, hell... Maybe we could even laugh about it all one day.

Ring, ring.

Or not. When it rang out for a seventh time I straightened up, my pulse slowing, the cold wash of disappointment chasing the adrenalin from my veins. He wasn't going to answer, was he? Was he asleep, sleeping so deeply he couldn't hear the phone, even though I knew he had a phone right by his bed? Was he ignoring the sound because he knew it would be me?

No. He wasn't answering because he wasn't home.

I stabbed at 'End Call', biting my lip in a desperate attempt to hold myself together. Of course he wasn't home. He'd be with Angie at her place. In her bed, his body curled around hers, their naked limbs tangled together...

Blinking the image away, I rose to my feet and stumbled down the stairs, my legs stiff and uncooperative after sitting in the chill for so long. I could check everything one last time even though I'd already checked three times. Check that the back door was locked and deadbolted, that all the windows were firmly closed, that the taps weren't dripping, that the cooker was switched off at the socket, that the fridge really was empty, that the thermostat for the central heating had been left at a suitable temperature—Alice had cautioned against turning the whole system off. "Not in winter, silly. That's asking for trouble."

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