Grace Under Pressure Ch. 01byrachlou©
Although this is a stand-alone story, it is also a continuation of a previous story Saving Grace. I hope you enjoy this first chapter. If you did, you'll be pleased to know that the rest has been submitted!
Thanks for reading ~ Rach
* * *
The dry soil crumbled like sand as Grace carefully dug a small hole with her trowel. She impatiently brushed strands of hair away from her damp cheek and winced slightly when her neck creaked alarmingly. As much as she disliked gardening, it wasn't the kind of neighbourhood where residents allowed their gardens to descend into overgrown squalor and obligation was the only thing keeping her out here on a hot Saturday afternoon.
Open Gardens were held twice a year. This enabled less fortunate villagers to saunter round each carefully tended portion of paradise and admire the hours of effort that had gone into producing such tasteful blooms. In fact, local landscape companies maintained most of the gardens, whilst the owners worked elsewhere and only ventured outside when the hard work had already done - at vast expense.
But that wasn't the point.
The point was to put on a good show. One designed to arouse both envy and admiration in equal amounts. By the time half the village had trooped round the gardens and cooed over the aesthetically pleasing displays of horticultural wonderment, most went home feeling woefully inadequate and wishing their bald, weed infested patches of turf could be a fraction as lovely.
Balefully, Grace eyed the plastic tray of petunias, each delicate velvety petal twinkling with tiny prisms of water droplets. The striking pink and purple flowers were loud enough to add some much-needed colour to her front garden, but gaudy enough to annoy Jennifer's sense of taste. They were perfect.
She pulled one moist plug from the tray and pushed it firmly into the hole she'd dug. After pressing the soil back around the small plant, she sat back to admire her handiwork.
"One down; twenty three to go," she muttered, wishing she didn't feel obligated to make such an effort.
But Jennifer had already been round twice this week to remind her it was Open Gardens on Sunday and Grace knew she'd never live it down if she failed to do her bit for the street.
* * *
One week earlier...
"You haven't forgotten, have you?" Jennifer eyed the somewhat overgrown shrubs and bushes with alarm. "I know it's only voluntary to take part, but since everybody else puts on such a good show..." Her voice trailed off meaningfully and Grace felt the familiar prickle of irritation.
Gritting her teeth, she pasted a sunny smile on her face and said, "How could I forget when there are fluorescent posters plastered on every single lamp-post within a ten mile radius?"
As usual her sarcasm was lost on Jennifer. "Oh I'm so glad you saw them." Jennifer suddenly looked slightly alarmed and she scratched her head, lost in thought. "Actually," she said, "I think I forgot to stick one in the Post Office window. I must dash!" With a slightly distracted wave, Jennifer hurried away down the path.
Casting a cursory glance over her meagre garden, Grace briefly contemplated a trip down the garden centre and groaned inwardly. It was the last thing she felt like doing on her weekend, but she knew better than to try and thwart Jennifer. If she didn't make some kind of token effort she'd never hear the end of it. Besides, she had a lot to thank Jennifer for. If it wasn't for her meddling, Grace would never have met Alex.
* * *
"Speak of the devil," she said to herself when her front door opened and he appeared holding two glasses of lemonade. She placed the trowel on the grass and rubbed her cheek.
"How's it going?" he asked as he handed her one of the glasses.
Grace gulped the icy liquid down gratefully and momentarily closed her eyes. It would have been nicer if he'd opened a bottle of the chilled chardonnay she had in her fridge, but he disapproved of drinking alcohol in the afternoons, so she hadn't bothered suggesting it.
"Slowly," she said eventually with a grimace.
"Are you sure you don't want me to help?" Alex asked hopefully. "I don't mind a spot of digging."
"No, really, it'll be quicker if I do it myself."
"Okay, I'll prepare some dinner for us, then. Do you fancy a chicken salad? Or maybe some pasta?"
"I don't mind -- whatever you want to do will be fine with me." Actually she'd rather he ordered in a take-away, but Alex didn't like wasting money on 'junk food' either.
"Okay -- I'll get started." Alex smiled at her affectionately. Grace returned to her petunias as he walked away and tried to quell the sense of guilt that she felt at her unkind thoughts. She knew she should be grateful to have such a thoughtful boyfriend who was willing to prepare her a healthy dinner without a murmur, but she couldn't help wishing he wasn't quite so...predictable.
She sighed. The afternoon was already running away from her and if she wasn't careful, the petunias would start wilting in the sun before she'd finished planting them. A bed full of half dead flowers was highly likely to incur the wrath of Jennifer -- and that was the last thing she needed.
As she mindlessly shoved colourful petunias into small holes amongst the shrubs, she wondered whether Alex would fancy going to see a film later. There was a new romantic comedy showing at the multiplex in town and the reviews she'd read sounded promising. The problem was that Alex was something of a snob when it came to the cinema. He usually turned his nose up an all but the most obscure foreign language films and she had a feeling he would refuse to go and see such a mainstream piece of 'Hollywood trash'.
Whilst dwelling on this dilemma, she became aware of a loud throbbing engine growling down the normally quiet street. Shielding her eyes against the glare from the sun, Grace looked up to see a large, black motor bike pulling up outside Jennifer's house. Her curiosity was instantly aroused since Jennifer was not the kind of woman who had leather clad bikers for friends.
The sleek machine was silenced and its apparently male owner jumped off. As Grace watched surreptitiously through the tall strands of pampas grass, he pulled a silver helmet off and stared up the driveway for a moment.
Grace wished he would turn around. From the way his tight tee-shirt revealed a deliciously sculpted physique, she was dying to see what he looked like from the front. She was also wondering just who the hell he was. Almost as if he sensed her watching, he slowly turned to stare in her direction, the sunlight catching the blond streaks in his unruly hair. For what seemed like an eternity, time froze. Grace felt her heart stop in shock as she realised who had returned to Orchard Mews after eighteen long months.
Jennifer's son, with whom she'd had a passionate affair with, was back. Tom had changed beyond measure. He'd left a boy - and returned as a man. His body had filled out and his face had acquired a degree of maturity that had been missing when she'd last seen him. He still looked sexy as hell.
She felt her cheeks burning as he stared at her, taking in her skimpy vest and tight shorts with a faint grin of appreciation. It felt like the last eighteen months had never happened as she recalled with delicious clarity the way they had made love on so many occasions.
From the way his expression changed, she sensed he was thinking much the same thing. It was only when he took a sudden step backwards in surprise that she realised Alex had appeared behind her.
"Dinner won't be long," Alex said.
She jumped when he placed a proprietary arm loosely across her shoulders. Tom looked at her in surprise before he turned away and walked towards his mother's front door. In that instant Grace wished Alex would disappear and she hated herself for it.
Trying to remember that Tom was in her past, Grace turned to face Alex. "Have I got time for a shower?" she asked, hoping he didn't see the confusion written all over her face.
"Of course you have -- dinner can keep a while anyway."
"Okay, I'll go and jump in the shower once I've cleared up this mess." She bent and picked her trowel up along with the bucket of weeds she'd pulled from the beds.
"Who was that guy?" Alex asked with interest as he stood watching her tidy the last remaining clump of petunias.
"Oh I think its Jennifer's son. Why do you ask?"
"I just wondered." There was a pause before Alex continued, "He was looking at you funny and I thought maybe you two knew each other."
Grace hoped he couldn't see her face turn red as she continued to fuss with the flowers. "I think we met a couple of times before he left home," she said, wishing he would drop the subject. It felt wrong not telling him the truth, but the last thing she wanted was for Alex to get the wrong idea.
Besides, right at this moment, she didn't know what the hell to think herself. After all this time she hadn't expected to see Tom again -- or at least not yet. Jennifer had told her he was not planning on returning any time soon. The last she'd mentioned of him was that he had found a good job overseas and was seeing some girl out there. She couldn't help but wonder why he had suddenly materialised -- and what had happened to the girl.
It was a safe bet to assume Jennifer was in the dark about his return. If she'd known, she would have told Grace in an instant. Quite simply she wouldn't have been able to contain her excitement at having her prodigal son return from the wilderness.
She suddenly realised Alex was talking to her again. "What?" she said guiltily.
"I was asking if you fancied going to the cinema tonight?" he repeated patiently.
"What to see?" she asked eagerly, the thought off seeing the film she fancied cheering her up a little.
"There's an Ingmar Bergman double bill on at the Art House theatre in Mansfield. I thought we could go and watch it." He smiled at her cheerfully and Grace felt like slitting her wrists.
"Sure, if you like," she said in a dull voice. "I can't wait."
"Great! Right -- you go and jump in the shower and I'll lay the table." He headed back into the house and Grace felt like screaming in frustration. The petunias taunted her with their cheerful flowers and she kicked one with the toe of her boot.
Now she had an interminable evening ahead to look forward to, watching the most depressing films imaginable. One day she hoped she would learn to say "no".
* * *
"You've been quiet all evening?" commented Alex as they walked up the path to her front door.
It was an oppressively warm night and small beads of sweat trickled down between Grace's breasts.
"Have I?" she replied vaguely. The key slid smoothly into the lock and the door opened. The hall was blessedly cool and Grace kicked her heels off gratefully. The smooth surface of the Victorian ceramic tiles felt delicious against her hot feet.
Alex pushed the door shut behind them. Despite the fact she knew he was expecting to stay over, she suddenly wished he would go home. She needed time to sort out the chaotic maelstrom of thoughts that were screaming like a typhoon inside her tired brain.
"I'm sorry, I have a headache," she said eventually, realising that Alex was waiting for an explanation for her lack of interest in the evening.
"Must be the weather -- the forecast said storms were heading our way."
"Yeah, it must be." She headed into the kitchen listlessly and proceeded to switch the kettle on.
Standing against the counter, staring into the darkness of the garden, she didn't hear Alex approach and when he wrapped his arms around her waist, she jumped slightly. His lips nuzzled her neck and she shut her eyes, trying not to let him see her lack of response.
When his hand crept up her rib cage and cupped her breast, she pulled away. "Do you mind if I sleep alone tonight?" she asked, averting her eyes from his surprised expression.
Immediately he backed off and his hands dropped away from her body. "Is there something wrong?" He gazed at her searchingly and she felt a twinge of guilt.
"No, I just don't feel that good. Maybe if I get some sleep then this headache might go." She wasn't lying -- she really did have a headache now. The kettle reached boiling point and steam began to billow out into the kitchen before it switched itself off. Grace ignored it and walked across the room towards the hallway, hoping Alex would follow her.
Alex looked slightly annoyed for a moment, but he took the hint and said, "Okay, no problem. I'll leave you to it. I've got stuff to do tomorrow, but I'll ring you next week."
He left and as she shut and locked the door behind him, Grace felt something like relief surge through her. She liked Alex, but not for the first time, she wondered if maybe she should call it a day.
Their relationship was something that she'd fallen into rather unwittingly. He was another of Jennifer's acquaintances and when they'd been introduced at a dinner party, Grace had found his company pleasant enough. He was intelligent and not too pushy, thoughtful and happy to take things slowly.
Whilst he never made her body sing with desire to any great degree, she had found him attentive in the bedroom and, up to this point she'd coasted along quite happily. As she climbed beneath the cool cotton sheets and switched the bedside lamp off, she couldn't help but think that maybe she should not have allowed her loneliness to let her settle for someone she could never love in the way they deserved. It wasn't fair on Alex to let him think they had a future. She knew he wanted more than she could give him.
The sheets knotted in tangles around her tanned legs as she tossed and turned in the cavernous bed. Sleep seemed an elusive friend, but eventually it overtook her and she drifted off into confused dreams permeated with images of Alex and...Tom.
* * *
The chardonnay slipped down a treat while Grace watched the villagers trail up and down the street, their map of all the open gardens clutched in sweaty palms. One of the neighbours had elected to do cream teas in aid of the Church Steeple Preservation Fund. Frankly Grace thought they deserved sainthood for standing out in the baking July heat, dishing out endless cups of tea and scones to hot and bothered families.
She had stayed within her back garden, unwilling to play the polite hostess. Fortunately, her garden wasn't on the itinerary, so it was only her front lawn and flowerbeds that were being subjected to intense scrutiny.
Jennifer's paradise was however a firm favourite with the hoards. The ornamental pond with its massive koi carp was proving fascinating to scores of grumpy children who liked watching the iridescent fish swim lazily around in the glare of the afternoon sun.
From her strategic position under the oak tree, Grace could hear snatches of conversation as people came and went on the other side of the tall hedge. It was an enjoyable distraction from her churning thoughts and she lazily closed her eyes.
When the side gate banged noisily she almost didn't register the sound. Shading her eyes against the sun, she squinted at her visitor crossly. The last thing she wanted was to have to make polite conversation.
"Hey," said Tom with a slight trace of a strange accent in his familiar voice.
She froze. The glass of wine she was holding tilted sideways and pale liquid splashed all over her legs. He was the last person she expected to see standing before her. After his unexpected arrival, she hadn't seen him since. Part of her had hoped that maybe he might come round -- but the sane part of her knew it could only lead to trouble if he did.
Unfortunately she was having difficulty stringing two coherent thoughts together at that moment. "You're back," she said eventually. It was stating the obvious and she cursed her idiocy.
"I do believe I am," he replied sardonically.
"Is there any of that wine left?" he asked when she stayed silent, not trusting herself to say another word. He nodded towards the empty glass she held tightly in her shaking hand.
"Yes." She stood, trying to calm her racing heart and hoping like hell he wouldn't be able to see how nervous she was.
"Any chance of a glass? I'm parched."
"Er, yes, the bottle is in the fridge." Now she felt wrong footed. He was acting like the last eighteen months had never happened. It was if he had only walked out of her house yesterday.
Jumping up, she walked down the lawn towards the kitchen. She needed to put some space between her and Tom. It was claustrophobic with him standing there, staring at her; his hot eyes made her feel naked in the blistering sun.
"Your mum didn't tell me you were coming home?" She passed him a glass of wine and moved across the room so that the table was between them.
He shrugged. "She didn't know. I wanted to surprise her and Dad. So I flew back and spent the first couple of days with a friend." He drank some of the wine and glanced around the room, taking in the changes she'd made since he had last set foot in it. "I had stuff to sort out and I needed some time to do it."
"She must be pleased to have you home."
"She was. Until she realised I wasn't staying long!"
A sharp spike of disappointment stabbed through Grace's heart. "Why? Where are you going?"
"Not so far. I have a job and I've signed a lease on a flat in Mansfield."
"Wow -- you've got everything sorted!" Grace had to admit she was impressed. He had really grown up in the last eighteen months. The boy with no real ambitions was long gone. "What's the job?"
"Sales manager for a web design company."
"Well done!" Grace felt unbelievably proud of him suddenly. She could only imagine how delighted his parents must be.
"It is pretty cool, yes. I discovered I had hidden talents when I was travelling and this job came about through someone I met overseas. Bloody good luck really!"
For a second he looked like a kid again, beaming with pride at his achievements. Then his expression sobered and he looked at her reproachfully.
"You never got in touch with me."
"How was I meant to?" Grace stared at him in surprise.
"I wrote to Mum and asked her to give you my email address. Why didn't you write?"
"Tom, your mum never gave me any email address," Grace said gently. No doubt Jennifer had had her own reasons for the lapse, but Grace couldn't help but feel a little cross.
Tom looked positively furious. "How dare she interfere in my life," he raved. "I can't believe she did that!"
"Maybe she thought it was for the best," Grace said carefully. Even though she was annoyed, she could see why Jennifer might have made such a decision. Although the two women hadn't really discussed things after Jennifer's revelation that she'd known all along about the affair, it didn't take an expert to realise that beneath her sympathetic veneer, she was fiercely protective of her only child. No mother would be too happy about her young and impressionable son having a relationship with a woman much older than him. It appeared that Jennifer had taken matters into her own hands and decided to nip any further contact in the bud.
No wonder she'd gone all out to try and fix Grace up with a more suitable man. By the time Grace had decided that Alex wasn't so bad, she had been invited to numerous dinner parties and cocktail evenings. There had been a constant stream of eligible bachelors arriving at Jennifer's house in the months following Tom's departure overseas.
In many ways, Grace hadn't minded all that much. Despite her determination to forget Tom, he wasn't all that forgettable and she had found it difficult to move on. It wasn't helped by Jennifer's regular news updates on which girl Tom was dating at the time. Jealousy wasn't something Grace had been afflicted by before, but the thought of Tom with other, younger, girls, had made her feel physically sick.