tagRomanceThe Secret Attraction

The Secret Attraction


'Where are my brown loafers?' Edward Barnes yelled down the stairs.

Katherine, his wife of almost nine years, flicked her eyes towards the ceiling as she tried to finish off preparing a large strawberry Pavlova dessert. Sighing quietly to herself, she walked from the large kitchen of their impressive detached house, along the hallway to the bottom of the stairs.

'Have you tried looking in the bottom of the wardrobe?' Katherine called up to him, the sharp tone of her voice almost daring him to summon her upstairs to help search for the elusive footwear.

'Found them,' came the curt reply a minute later, without thanks.

Katherine allowed herself a little shake of her head and mouthed a silent curse as she returned to the kitchen. It was only ten o'clock in the morning, but already the late June heat was starting to sit heavy in the still air.

She wished she was outside, sitting beneath the large beech tree at the bottom of their garden, with only a magazine and cup of coffee for company. Her pale complexion and shoulder length strawberry-blonde hair meant Katherine did not fare well in a strong direct sun, but nevertheless she enjoyed the combination of warmth, shade and relaxing solitude.

That would have to wait for another time, though. Today being the 26th, and therefore the nearest Saturday to the 25th, meant observing a Barnes family tradition that Katherine had been introduced to eleven years ago, just a couple of months after she had first met Edward.

Her husband's father, Charles, had been born on the 25th of June - exactly six months away from Christmas. To Charles this had seemed significant and therefore the perfect excuse to hold a celebration which, over the years, had grown to rival the more usual December festivities.

Relations, friends and even employees from the Barnes family insurance business were now obliged to attend, with the centrepiece of the day being a long, boozy buffet lunch that would usually last into early evening.

The venue was always a large marquee erected in the middle of the expansive lawn of Edward's parents' house. The only stipulation for attending was that guests were expected to prepare and bring a dish for the buffet. This year, Katherine and Edward had been allocated desserts.

Which meant that Katherine, with no assistance whatsoever from Edward, had spent the previous afternoon in the kitchen. She had been attempting to make the perfect meringue for the Pavlova, knowing that the recipe dictated it should be allowed to cool and dry out overnight.

And she wanted it to be perfect; every item presented for the buffet would be subject to intense scrutiny by the harridans of the Barnes clan. Any mistakes would merely give them ammunition for snide comments and gossip for months to come.

The finished meringue ring resembled a mini fortress of swirled white peaks. Katherine began to fill it with dollops of whipped cream, which she then topped with a generous pile of glistening, quartered strawberries.

Sieving on icing sugar as a final touch, Katherine heard heavy footsteps clomping down the hallway, approaching the kitchen.

'Are the children ready? We'll need to go soon. I don't want us to be late,' Edward said, looking at his watch.

Katherine looked back over her shoulder at him, standing in the doorway with his arms now folded. He was dressed in his usual preppy wardrobe, which today comprised a pink polo shirt tucked neatly into pale tan chinos.

She noticed the dark brown leather belt straining against a waistline that had begun its inexorable expansion a couple of years ago. The ensemble was completed by the elusive loafers and a light blue sweater draped over his shoulders.

'I told them to go upstairs and get changed, Edward,' was all Katherine said in response before turning back to her dessert, clenching her jaw.

Maybe if she could have faced one of their increasingly regular arguments, she would have asked him: Weren't you just upstairs? Why didn't you check on the kids? And who the hell still wears bloody chinos?

The answer to that last question was simple, though: most of the men attending her father-in-law's birthday party.

'Right, well I'll go and get the car ready,' Edward muttered as he turned and departed the kitchen.

Getting the car ready? What exactly did that entail, Katherine wondered to herself. Whenever she used their Range Rover - invariably with the their son and daughter in tow and carrying armfuls of whatever detritus was required for the activity they were about to embark on - it was just a case of inserting the key and starting it up.

Not much preparation required there at all, but then Edward's excuses for avoiding his parental duties had never been great.

It was not as if he was a bad father. Rather, he saw his role as a painfully traditional one, as doubtless his father and all of his ancestors had in turn done before him. Organising the children was Katherine's function, one she had given up a promising career in public relations to pursue. She still hung onto the dream that one day she would return to work but, with a seven- and a five-year-old, that remained a distant aspiration.

Sometimes, in her most private thoughts and usually after a few glasses of wine, Katherine could find herself speculating how her life would be if they had never had a family. She loved the children, of course, and would do anything for them, but witnessing the carefree existence of some of her childless friends was prone to invoke envy pangs.

Standing back from the kitchen counter, Katherine admired the completed Pavlova, a satisfied half-smile appearing at the corners of her mouth. The dessert was bigger than she had envisaged, about twelve inches in diameter and six high but she was pleased that, for once, something she had made actually resembled the picture in her cookery book.

Sure, there would be whispered comments that it was an easy recipe, but Katherine had long since learnt that universal praise at a Barnes family event was unattainable, so why bother attempting anything too complicated?

After a frantic fifteen minutes organising the children, getting changed into a cornflower blue sun dress and quickly dabbing on some make-up, Katherine was on the driveway, shepherding her offspring towards the waiting Range Rover. Edward sat motionless, drumming his fingers against the steering wheel, saying nothing.

As usual, the car radio was tuned to some dry news programme. Had she been on her own, Katherine would have switched to a pop station, but she knew Edward could not stand what he termed 'that noise'.

Sitting in the passenger seat, she reflected that that was just another symptom of their age gap: she was thirty three, while Edward was ten years older, and unfortunately old for his age, too. His attitudes would often betray that he seemed to have more in common with his parents' generation than with theirs.

With the journey only being twenty miles, it passed quickly and mostly in silence, apart from the muted chattering and occasional squabbling coming from the back seat. Involuntarily, Katherine swallowed hard as their car swept through the grand iron gates of her in-laws' house. There were already lots of cars parked there, mostly no more than a couple of years old, and mostly with a prestige badge.

Katherine recognised some of them as belonging to the advance party. This was some of Edward's siblings and assorted other relatives, all instructed to arrive early to help set out the buffet and complete any last minute preparations. The Barnes family knew when they were on display, and they liked everything to be just right.

As Katherine opened her door and stepped down onto the gravel driveway, a slightly plump woman sporting a severe dark brown bob rushed out from the house, beaming at them.

'Katherine, Edward, how are you,' she cried, before sticking her head through the open car door to greet the now excited children.

'Sophie, so nice to see you,' Katherine lied as the two women air kissed each others' cheeks. 'You're looking well,' she added, although it was clear that Sophie had managed to put on a few pounds since their last meeting just a month ago.

'Oh thank you, Katherine. I like your dress, is that the one you wore last year?'

Katherine forced a rictus grin, pausing to compose a clever reply that would reciprocate the offence without being too obvious. However, the appearance of Edward between the two women saved her the effort.

'Don't want to interrupt your gossiping, but do you want to get the kids un-strapped and out of the car, Katherine? They're slowly cooking in there!' he said, as he went to embrace Sophie.

'And how's my baby brother?' Sophie asked Edward.

Katherine and her sister-in-law had never seen eye to eye. Perhaps it was Sophie's self-appointed role of domestic goddess? Certainly she had, through innocuous sounding comments and observations over the years, made it abundantly clear that Katherine did not - and could not ever - measure up to her standards.

But at least it meant that today Sophie had taken it upon herself to organise entertainment for the kids, and Katherine watched as her children rushed off with their aunt in search of cousins to play with.

'Right, I'm off to say hello to mother and father. You better look after these,' Edward said, handing Katherine the car keys.

She just glared at her husband, snatching the keys off Edward and letting him wander off without a word. Yet again, with no prior discussion, it seemed that she would be driving them back later.

That meant that Katherine would not be able to have a drink, the very thing she could do with right now to both combat the ever-increasing heat and dull the experience of the party. However, even with several hours to go, she dare not risk being branded an irresponsible drink-driving mother by any members of the extended Barnes family.

It also meant that Edward would spend much of the afternoon filling himself with alcohol. Some people were happy drunks, or aggressive drunks, or wild drunks, or amusing drunks. Edward, however, was a morose drunk, and Katherine knew that when they got home, he would undoubtedly just disappear to his den, leaving her to put the children to bed.

Sighing to herself, she opened the tailgate of the Range Rover, and carefully lifted the Pavlova out.

The marquee was, as ever, impressively large and it was refreshingly cool inside. Even Katherine had to admit that she was impressed with Charles Barnes. He had even thought to hire some catering-sized refrigerated displays, which sat humming quietly in the far corner. She gently placed her Pavlova into one of these, alongside half a dozen other desserts. Thankfully, it would not be disintegrating into a melted mess in the heat.

The party was beginning to get busy, and the chatter of so many conversations filled the marquee. Although it was too early for anyone to start eating yet, the savoury items were already on display along a long trestle table at the end of the marquee.

Not able to face making excruciating small talk with anyone just yet, Katherine sneaked across to inspect the various dishes. Not that she considered them the opposition, of course, but she merely wanted to check that her effort had come up to scratch.

Numerous platters and bowls were laid out, full of various salads, quiches, cold meats and salmon. Continuing her slow inspection, one dish caught her eye. Katherine could not figure out what it was, so she paused, trying to establish what might be in it.

It seemed to have the consistency of coleslaw, but was a vivid yellow with various indescribable dark bits floating around in it. She was considering sticking a finger in it for a sneaky taste, when a sudden voice close beside her made her jump.

'What on earth is that?' the man, who had appeared unnoticed at her side, asked. 'It looks kind of... weird... and very yellow.'

Katherine turned her head to look at the man standing at her shoulder. She instantly recognising him, but struggled to place a name to the face. He was around her age, a little taller than Edward and certainly a lot slimmer around the middle. Katherine noted with approval that he was wearing smart designer jeans and a blue and white chequered short-sleeve shirt, which showed off his lightly-tanned forearms.

'Oh, sorry Mrs Barnes,' the man continued, his eyebrows knotting in concern, 'please tell me you didn't prepare it?'

'No,' she laughed, 'and you must call me Katherine.'

His expression relaxed, evidently relived he had not insulted her. He returned her smile.

'OK, Katherine it is.'

'Katherine it is,' she repeated, hoping that he would now reveal his name.

'You don't remember me, do you Katherine?'

'Well... I do.' Then, after a momentary pause, it hit her. 'You were at the firm's Christmas Ball, weren't you?'

'That's right,' he laughed, 'I work for your husband.'

But what's your name, Katherine thought, desperately trying to remember. They had chatted for a long while back in December, but specifically about what she could not recall. She remembered his brown eyes, though, and the way he had made her laugh. On that occasion there were no driving responsibilities, so she was free to drink, something she put her temporary amnesia down to.

'OK, I admit it, I can't remember exactly what you do for the company.' she said, pleased at her strategy for eliciting a name without offending him.

'I'm in risk management, which really is as dull as it sounds, I'm afraid,' he replied, grinning at her. Damn it, was he enjoying this, teasing her?

'That doesn't sound dull at all. Not as dull as being a housewi...'

She cut herself off mid-sentence, suddenly conscious that she shouldn't be complaining about her lot to an employee of her husband's.

'Is your wife here with you?' Katherine asked, rapidly changing the subject.

'Uh no, I'm not married Katherine.'

The answer surprised her, if only because most of her friends were already married and busy raising families.

'How insensitive of me, you might be gay,' she said, immediately regretting the insensitivity of the comment. What if he was, or hadn't come out, or had just gone through a messy divorce, or was a widower, or was any number of other things that were equally none of her business?

'Don't worry Katherine,' he smiled at her. 'And if I was gay, I'm sure I'd be flirt... chatting with your husband instead of you.'

'Oh, are we flirting?' she enquired deadpan, pleased that she was now the one doing the teasing. Perhaps they were? It had been so long, it was unfamiliar territory.

'Sorry, it was a slip of the tongue... I meant chatting, honestly,' he said, his face turning crimson with embarrassment.

Then, as she looked at him, by a miracle of memory his name returned to her.

'Well, Ben, I really have to circulate. Maybe we'll bump into each other later on and do a little more, er, chatting?'

'Yes, I hope so,' he replied. 'And well done for eventually remembering my name Katherine,' he added, winking at her.

Katherine spent the next couple of hours doing exactly what she had told Ben she would be doing. Moving around the party, dutifully spending time with her in-laws, occasionally checking on the children, and sometimes venturing into the sultry garden, which was bathed in the hot June sun.

She came across Ben a few times as she mingled, but he was always with other people. She could not stop thinking about him, and his slip of the tongue, though. Did he really think that they were flirting? And what on earth had they said to each other at the firm's Christmas Ball?

Katherine could not deny that she had fantasised about having an affair in the past, mainly at those times when she was particularly frustrated by either her husband or her routine. But she had been content to leave it as just a fantasy. Besides, her daydreaming would usually end when the reality of the consequences hit her.

She knew from others' experiences that the Barnes family had a peculiarly Victorian attitude to infidelity. A male member taking a mistress might be tolerated if they were discrete and did not produce any bastard offspring. Any similar dalliance committed by a woman, however, would result in them being virtually ostracised.

Katherine hated that, but there was little she could do about it and shamefully accepted it as just one of the prices to be paid for being a Barnes. She had often wondered whether Edward had strayed during their marriage but, really, she did not want to know the answer.

After another excursion around the gardens, Katherine returned to marquee. She had already eaten her first course a short while ago, and was now ready for dessert.

Inexplicably, when she had arrived at the buffet table earlier the mystery yellow coleslaw-like dish had all gone. It seemed its contents and flavour would have to remain an unsolved mystery until next year.

She noticed there was a cluster of people gathered around the refrigerated cabinets, already helping themselves to the desserts. Katherine wanted to convince herself that she was not concerned, but she could not help it; she had to see whether her Pavlova was popular.

Katherine sidled up to edge of the group, and through the huddle of bodies she saw a man's lightly tanned arm manipulating a large portion of her Pavlova onto a plate.

Moving in closer, she realised it was him. Ben. About to eat her dessert. She felt a strange, nervous, sensation in her chest.

'What on earth is that?' she asked, almost in a whisper. 'It looks kind of...'

'It looks kind of yummy,' Ben interrupted, turning to face her.

'I sure hope it is, I'd never live it down if I gave everyone food poisoning,' Katherine said, unable to help herself smiling at him.

'Wow, so this is the Edward and Katherine Barnes contribution to lunch?'

'Um, well more just the Katherine Barnes contribution, if I'm honest.'

'Somehow I can't imagine Edward up to his elbows in egg whites making meringues,' Ben laughed. 'I was thinking of taking it outside, it's getting a bit busy in here. Why don't you grab some too, before it all goes, and join me?'

'Well, I should really be, er... I'm not sure what, to be honest.'

'Take this,' he said, handing her his plate, ignoring her excuses. She watched as he cut himself another equally large portion. Then she felt his free hand resting lightly against the small of her back, guiding her through the throng and out of the marquee.

Katherine could not help taking a sly glance over her shoulder, just to check that they were not being watched. Thankfully, their leaving seemed to go unnoticed.

The afternoon sun seemed at its strongest as they walked through the sprawling gardens. Katherine knew the grounds well, and she led them away from the house and marquee, down to somewhere she knew would offer them some shade and - equally important - a refuge from the crowd.

Coming to a seemingly impenetrable wall of azaleas, Katherine stepped through a narrow gap into a small area of lawn, enclosed on all sides and shaded by the shrubs.

'A secret garden,' Ben commented, looking around.

'That's what they call it,' Katherine confirmed, as she sat down on an old wooden bench. 'A great place to come if you don't want to be found by your nagging relatives or noisy children.' And your husband, she wanted to add, but decided against it.

Ben joined her on the bench, and they began to eat the Pavlova in silence. But it was a comfortable, relaxed kind of silence, not the tense, foreboding variety Katherine was used to.

'That was excellent, Katherine, thank you' Ben said as he scraped the last spoonful off his plate. 'You're certainly an excellent chef.'

'You're welcome, it's nice to be appreciated,' she replied, genuinely pleased that he had enjoyed it.

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