‘Yes, we talked. He knew about Dan.’ She pauses, and I know she’s waiting for a shocked gasp from me, but too much time has passed for me to fake one now.
I try, anyway. ‘Really?’ I practically shriek, receiving three sets of wide, startled eyes shoot straight to me from every corner of the office.
‘Whatever, Ava.’ she mumbles. ‘I felt like such an idiot. He’s not as daft as I thought.’
‘I know,’ I agree. ‘So, everything is okay?’
‘Yes, everything is fine. Perfect, in fact.’
I’m smiling again. ‘No more Manor?’
‘No more Manor.’ she confirms. ‘How are you? Throwing up? Achy legs? Any stretch marks?’
‘Not yet,’ I look down and notice my hand resting on my stomach. ‘I might not be the only one getting all of those things, though.’ I prick her curiosity. There’s no way in hell I’ll ever keep this one to myself.
‘Ooohhhh, who’s preggers?’ she asks, obviously intrigued. ‘Not boring Sal?’
‘No!’ I look over at boring Sal and instantly register that she is, in fact, boring Sal again. I cave on the inside for her. ‘Who then?’ Kate’s impatient voice relieves my eyes of boring, suicidal Sal and pulls me back to her pressing need for answers.
‘No, Coral is pregnant and that’s not all.’ I’m teasing when I really don’t need to. I have her full attention and shock. She’s heard nothing yet. ‘And she claims it’s Jesse’s’
I pull my phone away from my ear, certain that the whole office, perhaps even the whole of London, heard her. ‘It’s not, though.’
‘Wait, wait wait.’ She’s gesturing with her hands in my mind’s eye, and I hear the unmistakable scraping of a chair across her kitchen floor. She’s sitting herself down. ‘Coral’s pregnant?’
‘And she claims its Jesse’s?’
‘Yes,’ I open my email as I answer, all casual and not at all affected by Kate’s shock. I’m over it.
‘But it’s not?’
‘How do you know?’ She asks the question prudently, but it’s a fair one, and I highly expected it.
‘Because she tried to pass off a peanut as a walnut.’
‘What the fucking hell are you on about?’
I sigh and continue absentmindedly scrolling my email account. ‘She has a scan picture. She’s claiming it’s a four month scan, but it’s clearly not and she’s cut all of the evidence away - the date, everything.’
‘The crafty fucking bitch! Is she that desperate?’
‘Very. She’s four-ish weeks, maximum. The last time Jesse slept with the tramp was over four months ago. I swear to God, Kate, I was this…’
‘Fucking hell! SAM!’ she shrieks, and I jump in my chair. ‘SAM!’
‘Will you stop yelling in my ear?’ I snap, hearing thundering footsteps down the line, then the sound of a door crashing open. There’s the mumbled, sleepy voice of Sam, and the high pitched, wide awake shriek of Kate. I can hear neither. Sam is too quiet and Kate is so loud, she’s all distorted. ‘Kate?’
‘Ava, fucking hell!’
I’m losing my rag now. ‘Stop your shouting and talk to me.’
‘Okay,’ she pants. ‘Drew slept with Coral.’
I sit up in my chair. ‘When?’
‘Oh, about four or five weeks ago.’ she says casually, which is a million miles away from the last few moments of frantic shouting and blurting of words.
‘How do you know?’
‘Sam told me. Drew was rat arsed, Coral nabbed him. The poor bloke knew nothing about it and probably wouldn’t if Sam hadn’t have turned up at his place. He caught her sneaking out.’
‘Oh shit,’ I’m not scrolling my email casually anymore. I’m tapping my pen wildly on the side of my desk. ‘How did she think she’d get away with it? I mean, the baby would be three months overdue!’
‘Desperate people do desperate things, my friend.’ She’s calmed right down. ‘Sam’s on the phone to him now. Are you okay? That must have been a shock, even if she was lying.’
‘Yeah, I’m used to shock with Jesse.’ I brush it off with the apathy the whole episode deserves. Drew won’t be, though.
‘Good. You need to be careful now, don’t you?’ She asks it sweetly as a question, but there is a tinge of menace in there, too.
‘I do, I am, and I will. Listen, I’d better go. Patrick’s got the hump with me and Tom, Sal and Victoria all look like someone’s slapped them in the face. Lunch tomorrow?’
‘Perfect. Call me.’ She hangs up, and I cast a sceptical gaze around my office. It’s only ever this quiet when I’m here on my own. I glance over my shoulder to Patrick’s office and see his door shut and whilst I’m dying to call Jesse and off load my new knowledge, I would be pushing my luck further. I know Sam will be calling him up, anyway. I should prep for my meeting with Ruth Quinn.
* * *
At eleven thirty, no one has spoken still, Patrick hasn’t come out of his office and I’m feeling nervous when I knock on Patrick’s door. I don’t just open it like I usually would. I wait for his okay and when it comes, I poke my head around and smile sweetly. ‘I have a noon appointment with Miss Quinn.’
‘Fine. You need to be back by two. We’re having a meeting.’ His tone is clipped, and he doesn’t look at me, choosing to keep his attention on the screen of his computer.
‘Okay,’ I shut the door with care and leave the office bewildered and concerned. A meeting? A meeting to discuss my lack of job commitment lately, no doubt, and bizarrely, I’m not even that concerned.
I’m greeted by a moped courier at the door. ‘Delivery for Ava O’Shea.’ His voice is muffled through his helmet, which he hasn’t taken off.
‘That’s me.’ I murmur apprehensively, the sound of my maiden name sending a chill down my spine.
‘Sign here, please.’ He thrusts a clipboard under my nose and I sign away, taking an envelope from him when I’m done. I don’t want to accept this delivery, but when John pulls up, I try my hardest to appear natural when I really should be appearing exasperated at the big guy’s arrival. The courier jumps on his bike and zooms off down the road without another muffled word. It’s not until John leans over and pushes the passenger door open that I realise I’m frozen in place, still with the envelope in my hand.
‘What you got there, girl?’ he asks, his smooth, shiny forehead creasing above his wraparounds.
‘Nothing,’ I stuff it in my bag and jump in, pulling my seatbelt on. ‘What are you doing here?’
He pulls straight into the traffic and starts the therapeutic tapping of his palm on the steering wheel, and I wonder how the leather hasn’t developed a dent in it from the constant drumming. ‘You have an appointment, girl.’
My inquisitive eyes bore into the side of his head. He can’t possibly know that because I’ve ensured my work diary remains under lock and key, just like my mouth. ‘How do you know?’ For the first time since I’ve known this big, menacing, black man, he looks awkward, and he’s refusing to look at me. ‘He’s making you follow me, isn’t he?’ I accuse. I don’t believe this.
His tapping increases momentum. I give him time to think about his answer, but I can tell by the look on his face that he knows I’ve got him. ‘Girl, someone tried to ram you off the road. You cannot blame him for being a little jittery. Where am I heading.’
‘Lansdowne Terrace,’ I reply. ‘So what’s your excuse for all of the other times he’s stalked me?’
‘I don’t have one.’ he answers candidly. ‘Those times he was just a crazy mother fucker.’
I laugh and John joins me, his neck retracting just how I like it. ‘Don’t you get bored?’ I ask, thinking that he must see me as a royal pain in the arse. This definitely can’t be in his job description.
‘No,’ He quits with the laughing and turns to me, smiling fondly. ‘That crazy mother fucker isn’t the only one who cares about you, girl.’
I have to press my lips together before my stupid pregnant emotions get the better of me and I let out an embarrassing sob. I know John won’t appreciate it. ‘I don’t mind you either.’ I shrug his affection off because I know he’ll appreciate that, and his quiet laugh confirms it.
‘I’ve been reading.’ he informs me, leaning over and opening the glove compartment. He takes a book out and hands it to me before resuming tapping of the wheel.
I read the title, and then again to make sure I have it right. ‘Bonsai trees?’
I start flicking through the pages, admiring the pretty little trees and imagining John bent over one, delicately clipping at the fragile branches. ‘It’s a hobby?’
‘Yes, very relaxing.’
‘Where do you live, John?’ I don’t know where the question comes from. John and Bonsai trees would never be two things that I would naturally put together, but with this strange, new knowledge, I’m compelled to know.
‘All alone.’ He laughs. ‘Me and my trees.’
I’m astonished. I would never have thought it. This is a man who on first sight I thought was a member of the Mafia—this huge, black, mean looking geezer, who patrols The Manor, keeps over exited men, and perhaps women, too, in their place, and now I find out that he lives with trees? Fascinating.
* * *
‘Are you going to wait outside for me?’ I ask John playfully when he pulls up outside Ruth Quinn’s house.
His gold tooth flashes, and he reaches over to take the book. ‘I might read a few pages, girl.’
‘I’ll be as quick as I can.’ I jump out and dash up the path to Ruth’s home.
The front door is open before I even knock. ‘Ava!’ She sounds far too happy to see me.
‘Hi, Ruth. How are you?’
‘Fabulous! Come in.’ She looks over my shoulder on a slight frown and ushers me in quickly.
I let her be curious because explaining John will take too long, and I don’t want to stay any longer than is necessary. I need to keep this as professional as possible.
She leads me down the corridor, into the kitchen. ‘Did you have a good weekend?’ she asks.
Brilliant and awful. It seems like light-years ago. ‘Yes, thank you, and you?’ I settle myself at the huge oak table and get my files out.
‘Wonderful,’ she sings, taking a seat next to me.
I smile politely and open her file. ‘So, what did you want to discuss? Cupboards?’
‘No, don’t worry about the cupboards. We’ll stick with the original. Now, the wine fridge, remind me, did we opt for the single or double width?’
If that is what she’s dragged me here for, I will be most upset. ‘Double.’ I say slowly. I’m not at all comfortable. She could have called for both of those points. My phone starts ringing from my bag, but I ignore it, even though it’s Angel. I don’t plan on being here for much longer, and there is absolutely no need for me to be, so I can call him back as soon as I escape. ‘Was that all?’ I ask dubiously. My phone rings off, then starts again immediately.
‘Do you want to get that?’ she asks, looking at my bag.
‘It’s fine,’ I shake my head mildly. She doesn’t know it, but it’s in disbelief. ‘Was there anything else Ruth?’