Anything for You Ch. 08byevanslily©
I know, I know—this has been such a long time coming, and I'm so very sorry for the wait. My life's been a bit bonkers lately and it's been hard to find time to write. Thanks to everyone who didn't give up all hope of me finishing this thing (not that this is the last chapter, there's one more to come!). I can't tell you how much it's meant to me to get your emails telling me to hurry up and put up a new chapter! So here it is... finally. :)
Thanks so much for reading me!
"How did it go last night?"
"Fu—" Bent double over the large box I was unpacking, the unexpected sound of Alice's voice behind me almost made me topple head first into it. "For heaven's sake!" I squeaked, grabbing the sides of the carton for stability. "Don't do that to me!"
Shit. I could tell from the hard note in Alice's voice that one, she had no intention of apologising, and two, that there was no way I'd be able to duck out of answering the question. I deliberately took my time over placing a pair of polythene-wrapped maternity jeans on the stockroom table. "They weren't in."
She sucked in a reproving breath. "Liar," she snapped. "You chickened out again, didn't you?"
"Sam, you're leaving the country tomorrow. Tomorrow, Sam!"
"You've promised me every day this week that you were going to tell your parents."
"I know, okay? It's just..." Groaning, I reached down into the box and pulled out another pair of jeans. "It's not that simple, is it?"
Oh, how well I was getting to know that 'well'. I slapped the packet down beside the first. "Don't," I begged, even though I knew begging was futile. "Please? Spare me just this once. Just—"
"You didn't really expect this would be easy, did you? To do this to them—to your mother, especially—at this time of year? You must have considered all of this when you said yes to Marco, surely?"
Of course I hadn't. I hadn't given any of it a thought when I picked up the phone and told him I wanted to come to Italy. I'd had one idea in my head and one idea alone: Drew couldn't find out what a fool I'd been. And when Marco had phoned back a short time later to announce he'd booked my plane ticket and I'd be flying out to Treviso the following Sunday, I'd felt nothing but relief. It was only when I broke the news to Alice the next morning the full implications of my decision were abruptly and forcibly driven home.
"You're joking?" she'd accused, gazing at me across the shop as though she thought I'd lost my mind. "Right now? Three weeks before Christmas?"
"He needs my help," I'd protested, wishing I'd taken the time to formulate a more convincing argument. God only knew, there'd been plenty of opportunity. I hadn't slept at all the night before. "If I go now, then they can finalise the catalogue, start getting the pieces made up, get a head start on the—"
"Well, that's all very lovely for Marco," Alice cut in, her brow furrowed in disbelief, "but how exactly am I supposed to manage here without you? In case you haven't noticed, we're busier than we've ever been. Now as you know, I'm not afraid of hard work, but I'm not superwoman. I can't do it all on my own!"
"I know that," I answered as patiently as I could, my heart sinking at her reaction. Somehow, I'd managed to persuade myself she'd be pleased. She, after all, had been the one who'd been so keen for me to go out to dinner with Marco. "I never intended that you would. Obviously, we'll have to take someone on while I'm away—" I grimaced as she gave a snort "—and I'm sure Roxy wouldn't mind doing a few extra hours here and there."
"Oh, Sam." She sent me a pitying look. "Where in the world do you think we're going to find someone at such short notice, someone who can replace you? At this time of year, I suppose we might be able to get a college student, someone who wants to make some money over Christmas, but the chances of finding somebody decent and reliable?" She shrugged, turning away to snatch up a cerise pink blouse that had been abandoned on the wrong rail. "Dear God, I can't believe you've been so irresponsible."
"Alice..." I bit my lip, staring after her. "It's only for three months. It's not forever. I'll be back before you know it."
"Who's going to do the ordering?" I could hear her muttering, as though to herself. "Do the books, pay the bills? Muggins here, I suppose?"
I swallowed. "Well, yes, I was hoping you might do some of that. But if you'd rather not, I s'pose I could do things from Italy. I'm sure Marco will help me sort out internet access and then I could—"
"Wait a minute." She'd rounded on me then, eyes wide with sudden realisation. "Next Sunday? You mean the fifth?"
Oh dear God. How could I not have realised? Just as I'd thought I couldn't sink any lower, a fresh wave of misery descended over me like a cloud. Bugger, bugger, bugger.
"Sam!" Alice sounded as appalled as I felt. "You can't go then. Not that day. Your mother..."
"I've got to go. Marco's already bought the ticket." But there was a horrible wobble in my voice. "She'll understand. Well, she'll just have to understand, won't she? She can't expect that I'll always be able to—I mean, I can't spend the rest of my life..."
But I hadn't been able to finish the sentence. Instead, I'd had to walk away, letting my hair swing forward to hide my tears.
That had just been the start of a miserable week. And even though Roxy had tried hard to be upbeat about how fabulous an opportunity it was for me, it was only too clear she was concerned about what the implications of my absence might be for her. Deep down, I understood their worries about the shop and their ability to keep things running smoothly, although recruiting a temporary replacement had turned out to be a simple affair despite Alice's gloomy predictions.
Margaret had been the second person we'd interviewed from the recruitment agency, a sweet and clearly very capable lady in her late forties who'd been only too pleased to accept a three-month position. Alice made me suffer nonetheless, only speaking to me when absolutely necessary—or to harangue me about not telling my parents of my impending travel plans.
But what made me most miserable of all—perhaps perversely, given how worried I'd been at first—was that Drew had made no attempt to contact me whatsoever. Well, unless he'd left messages on my mobile phone, of course. I hadn't managed to summon up the courage to switch it back on. But he hadn't come to the shop or shown up at my place after work. Instead, after that first night when the phone wouldn't stop ringing—and for all I knew, that hadn't been Drew calling anyway, just a drunk who'd dialled a wrong number—my house had seemed eerily silent in the evenings.
Though why on earth had I expected otherwise? I'd stormed out on him, hadn't I? Why would he want to contact me? To him, my behaviour must have seemed pretty irrational. Make that completely irrational, I concluded wretchedly. I could hardly blame him for wanting to keep his distance.
I jumped, realising I'd been miles away and that Alice, right here, right now, once again appeared to be waiting for an answer. Unfortunately, I no longer had any idea what the question had been.
She rolled her eyes. "For pity's sake," she said with a weary sigh. "I think I've had just about enough of this. Get your coat and borrow Roxy's big umbrella—it's raining cats and dogs out there—and go and see your parents right now."
"What?" I gaped at her. "No, I can't. It's Saturday morning. I need to be here. It could get—"
"Busy? Well, you won't be here next Saturday, will you?" she interrupted grimly. "So we may as well get used to it. Roxy?" She raised her voice. "Sam's going out for a while, is that okay with you?"
"Fine," Roxy called back—rather too quickly I decided when her head appeared around the door a moment later, her hair smoothed into a sleek pink bob today. "I've got a feeling that if the rain doesn't stop, we're not going to get busy any time soon. Still, I guess that means we can put up the Christmas dekkies."
I grimaced at her. "Were you listening?"
"Of course I was bloody listening. It's not like you were keeping your voices down, is it?" She looked unabashed. "And I really don't see what your problem is. Just go and tell them that you're going to Italy! You're a grown woman, aren't you? You can do what you like."
Alice and I exchanged glances. "Oh yeah," I said with forced breeziness. "Whatever I like."
Roxy frowned. "Am I missing something here?"
I held up a hand in defeat. "Alice can tell you all about it while you're putting the fairy lights on the tree," I mumbled, sidling past them both.
"Well, can Alice tell me about what happened between you and Drew as well then? 'Cos that's what this is all about, isn't it? Why you're going to Italy, I mean."
My hand froze on the kitchen door handle.
"Holy crap." Her tone softened abruptly. "I'm right, aren't I?"
"What?" I could feel Alice's eyes burning into my back. "Something happened between you and Drew? What do you mean, something happened?"
"Nothing..." My voice cracked. "Nothing happened, all right?"
"You two had a row?" Alice clearly had no intention of letting me off the hook. "But I thought you said he was okay about you going to Italy?"
I hadn't. When I'd first told her of my plans, her exact words had been, "And what does Drew have to say about all this? Does he think it's a good idea?" I'd simply taken the coward's way out and nodded.
"Oh, come on, Alice. Seriously? A row?" Roxy mocked before I could answer. "You're kidding me, right?"
"Well, what then?" I could sense the older woman's mounting irritation. "If they didn't have a row—?"
"Sex, doh. They had sex, okay?"
"Rox!" I pressed my forehead against the door, the gloss paint cool against my heated skin. "Oh, God. Please let me be dreaming."
There was an ominous pause.
"Sam? Is this true? You—and Drew...?"
"Uh-huh." I glanced up towards the ceiling and blinked hard. "But don't worry, it's over. Well, to be honest, it never really began," I added, forcing out a laugh that sounded brittle even to my own ears. "So actually, there's nothing to be over."
"Sam." Roxy's voice was gentle. "Of course it's not over! He loves you! Don't you know how long he's been waiting for you to realise that? He absolutely adores you, you daft cow. Anyone with half a brain can see that."
"Nice try, Rox." The lump in my throat was getting so big, I couldn't swallow it down anymore. "But I'm afraid you've got that all wrong. He's seeing—seeing someone else. And that's okay. 'Course that's okay. I'm fine with that, really." And blinded by tears now, I wrenched open the door and part-stumbled, part-fell into the kitchen.
In the seconds that followed, I was only dimly aware of Alice ordering Roxy to close the shop, telling her to turn over the sign on the door and stick up a 'Back in fifteen minutes' post-it note. But I couldn't fail to notice being swept into matronly arms, or being held so tightly it almost hurt. Neither could I have missed Alice's murderous hiss of, "I'm going to swing for him—I'm going to bloody swing for that boy!" in my ear while I buried my head into her shoulder. "He promised me," she muttered. "I made him swear he'd never hurt you!"
At length, she pulled back to inspect my face, taking the box of tissues Roxy proffered and pulling out half a dozen sheets. "This is what you get if you leave a child and go off gallivanting around the world," she announced, mopping at my soaked cheeks. "I told my brother it was a bad idea."
"Th-they emigrated," I felt obliged to hiccup to a puzzled-looking Roxy. "Drew's parents, I mean. And his s-sister, Cathy. To New Zealand. But Drew was n-n-nineteen, Alice. He wasn't a child—no, he wasn't!" I insisted as she made a harrumphing sound. "He w-was at university wh-when they left!"
Alice's lips set in a firm line. "This is my fault," she said tightly, steering me towards the settee now and making me sit down.
"How can it be your fault?" Roxy protested, still round-eyed. "Drew's a grown man."
"Yes, and I should've given him some guidance. Helped him understand the right way to behave around women—"
"What?" She spluttered with laughter. "Alice, just what century do you think we're in? And anyway, from what I've seen, Drew already knows exactly how to behave around women! He's got no problems on that score."
"If by 'no problems', you mean, no problem leaving a trail of broken hearts in his wake," Alice retorted with dignity, "sure. Look at poor Kayleigh, for instance. Such a lovely girl, and yet—"
"Kayleigh's not broken-hearted," Roxy exclaimed. "For heaven's sake, they were never going out in the first place! It was all pretend, okay?"
"What?" My voice joined Alice's in chorus.
"What do you mean, 'all pretend'?" Alice demanded.
Roxy sighed. "Fake," she rephrased with barely concealed impatience. "Not real. Make-believe. Got it? They weren't in a relationship at all. According to Rufus, there was this guy who was stalking her for a while. So she and Drew cooked up a plan to pretend they were an item so he'd leave her alone long enough for her to take out an injunction. And it worked really well—he backed off. But in the end, this guy got arrested by the police, anyway. Turned out that Kayleigh wasn't the only woman he'd had a thing for—he'd been making a right nuisance of himself. He'd had loads of restraining orders taken out against him. Think he might even have ended up with a jail sentence in the end."
I stared at Roxy in stunned silence.
"Are you absolutely sure Drew's seeing someone else?" she asked, not unkindly.
"I..." The lump in my throat returned. "Yes. He—he keeps getting all these text messages," I got out at last. "It's the way they're worded."
Her eyes widened again. "You read his text messages?"
"I know." I couldn't hold her gaze, a sickening wave of heat rising into my chest. So much for our employer-employee relationship. Some role model I was turning out to be. "I know I shouldn't have. And the stupid thing is—the really stupid thing is..." I put my head in my hands and groaned. "I've got no right to expect him not to see anyone else anyway! I was the one who made him promise it wouldn't change anything—that we'd still just be friends. It's not like we're actually together—we're not in a relationship. We're not even pr-pretending to be an item..." I let the words trail away to a whisper, a fresh wave of tears threatening to engulf me.
"I don't understand." Alice sounded bemused. "You slept with my nephew but you're not...? You're not in a relationship?"
"Never mind that." Roxy dropped on her knees in front of me and dragged my hands from my face. "Does he know?"
"Know what?" I said bleakly. "Know that I read his text messages from Angie? Know that I'm insanely jealous? Know that I'm madly in love with him? Know that I'm going to Italy 'cos I'm positive he doesn't feel the same way about me and I'd rather not make a complete idiot of myself?" I flinched in self-disgust. "No."
"Sam. You haven't told him?" There was an uncharacteristic note of compassion in Alice's voice. "
"Angie?" Roxy persisted. "That's her name?"
I nodded then jumped violently at the sound of someone hammering on the front door.
Alice whirled around. "For heaven's sake!" she exclaimed, peering out into the shop. "Can't they read the sign?"
"Best let 'em in," Roxy said, ever the pragmatist. "It's piddling down out there, after all. Might be the only customer we get all day."
Grumbling under her breath, Alice bustled away. By the time I heard her calling an expertly cheery if patently insincere, "Hello there, sorry about that! Terrible weather, isn't it?", I'd helped myself to another tissue and heaved myself off the settee to inspect my appearance in the mirror.
"Well, you're a sorry sight," I admonished my reflection, for once grateful I hadn't bothered to put on mascara. But then I'd given up on eye make-up days ago, finding it rather more practical at present to use a brighter than usual shade of lipstick to detract from my sallow complexion.
"These texts." Roxy came up behind me as I cautiously blotted the outer margins of my eyes. "What did they say? Can you remember?"
Of course I could. Every word. Probably best not to admit that, though. "Stuff about how she'd had a great time, how she was looking forward to seeing him again. And yucky stuff." I lowered my voice, glancing around to check Drew's aunt wasn't in earshot. "Called him 'big boy'. 'Mr Magic Fingers'. That sort of thing." I drew in a shaky breath and fluffed up my hair. "Anyway. I s'pose Alice is right and I should just get this telling my parents thing over with." I nodded towards the huge green and white striped golfing umbrella presently drying in a corner. "Can I borrow your Dad's umbrella?"
"Sure. He doesn't know I've got it. Hope he wasn't planning on playing today." There was a pause. "Sam?"
I turned to meet her gaze and for a split second, saw something I didn't quite recognise there. "What?"
"Oh." She shrugged. "Nothing. Well, except... I just wanted to say..." She sent me a wry smile. "Good luck?"
"Yeah, thanks." I managed a wry smile of my own and reached for my jacket. "I think I'm going to need all the luck I can get." But just as I was about to pick up the umbrella, some sixth sense made me pause and turn around. "Rox... How did you know for sure?"
She looked blank. "What?"
"That I spent the night with Drew?" I winced when her expression turned part rueful, part mischievous, afraid she was about to confirm Drew's theory it was possible to smell sexual enlightenment.
"Ah. That. My brother's got a job for the Christmas holidays. He's working at the Park as a night porter. Said he thought he recognised you. Said he brought you up some chicken goujons and a bottle of champagne and that you and this bloke—who I've gotta say, sounded a whole lot like Drew—were looking all cosy on the bed, cuddled up together in those posh bathrobes they have there."
James. Oh God, that's why he'd looked so familiar. True, I'd only met him a couple of times and only briefly at that, but still...
"I did tell him that if he was planning on keeping his job, he might want to think about being a bit more, well. Discreet."
I rolled my eyes. "You think?"
Her smile widened as she reached for the open umbrella. She collapsed it for me and handed it over. "I'm sure he'll get the hang of it."
"I'm sure," I murmured. I'd almost made it to the door when I stopped again. "So does that mean that he didn't tell you—?"
"That the next night, you were in exactly the same room with some Italian guy who'd ordered some champagne—and that he thought that the same guy he'd seen you with the night before was there as well, only he really didn't look too happy?"
I groaned and she grimaced sympathetically.
"Nah. Come to think of it, I'm sure he never mentioned that."
It wasn't just wet outside, it was freezing, an arctic wind whipping soggy leaves into a frenzy as I picked my way down the High Street trying to avoid the worst of the puddles. Roxy was right, it would be a quiet day. It might only be three weeks until Christmas, but only the most determined and hardiest of shoppers would be foolish enough to venture out in this weather.
Oh God, I so didn't want to do this. In my head, I'd rehearsed endless versions of the discussion I needed to have with my parents but none of them seemed right.
I sighed, pulling my scarf up around my neck in a vain attempt to keep the chill at bay. Maybe it was better not to have a plan. Maybe I should just trust to fate that whatever I came out with would be the right thing to say.