‘Urm,’ She looks frantically around the kitchen. ‘Yes, I’ve changed my mind about the walnut floor.’ she says, dragging a magazine over from the other side of the table. ‘I quite like this.’ She points to an oak alternative on the cover of the magazine.
I start to voice my reasons for sticking to walnut when my phone cuts me off. My shoulders sag.
Ruth pushes my bag towards me. ‘Ava, perhaps you should answer. Whoever it is obviously wants to talk to you.’
I close my eyes in a give-me-strength gesture and reach into my bag to retrieve my phone before getting up from the table and making my way into the hall. ‘Jesse, I’m in a meeting. Can I call you back?’
‘I’m having Ava withdrawal.’ he murmurs. ‘Are you having Jesse withdrawal?’
‘Is there a cure?’ I ask on a grin, knowing damn well what the cure is.
‘Yes, it’s called constant contact. What time are you finishing work?’
‘I’m not sure. I have a meeting at two with Patrick.’ I glance over my shoulder and see Ruth flicking through the design magazine. She may not be paying any attention, but she must be able to hear me. Maybe that’s a good thing. I’m happily married, most of the time. And I’m pregnant, too. Should I slip that into the conversation?
‘Oh good. You’re finally going to see through on your promise to talk with Patrick.’ Jesse says.
‘Well it won’t take that long, will it?’
‘No, probably not, but it doesn’t matter because John will be waiting for me, won’t he?’ I answer his question with my own. I’ve probably dropped John in it, but what’s the point in pretending I don’t know?
‘He will,’ I can hear his grin in his tone. ‘How are my babies, lady?’
‘Our babies are fine,’ I realise immediately what I’ve just said, and I also notice my hand caressing my belly. ‘Jesse, I need to get back. I’ll see you later.’
‘What am I supposed to do until later?’
‘Go for a run.’
‘I already did that.’ he counters proudly. ‘Maybe I’ll go shopping.’
‘Yes, go shopping.’ I encourage him, hoping he lands in Babies R Us and doesn’t emerge until gone six. ‘I love you.’ I end the conversation on something that’ll placate him for a little longer.
‘I know.’ he sighs.
‘Bye.’ I smile and hang up, making my way back to the kitchen. ‘Sorry about that.’ I wave my phone as I sit back down. ‘So, oak then?’
She looks lost in thought as she studies me for a while, and then her stare drops to my tummy, which is tucked neatly under the table. I knew she must have heard, but a tiny part of me was hoping she hadn’t.
I start scribbling down a load of complete nonsense. ‘I’ll get a price on the oak. The fitting and labour will be the same, but I’ll check it out, anyway. Are you sure we’re ditching the walnut?’ I wait for her confirmation, but when I’ve ran out of things to write and she still hasn’t answered, I look up and find her still daydreaming. ‘Ruth?’
‘Oh, sorry! I was miles away. Yes, please do.’ She jumps up. ‘Ava, I’m so sorry, I’ve not even offered you a cup of tea. Or maybe wine. We could have a cheeky lunchtime wine.’
‘No, honestly. I don’t drink.’
Her abrupt question increases my unease. ‘Not in the week. I don’t drink in the week.’
‘I see. Yes, we can all get a bit carried away.’ She smiles, but it goes nowhere near her blue eyes. ‘How’s your husband?’
I can’t help the sharp inhale of breath. Not when she’s linked alcohol, getting carried, away and my husband all in two close sentences. ‘He’s good.’ I start to pack my things away, keen to leave. She may have innocently touched a nerve, but she’s still gazing longingly at me, and it’s becoming unbearable. ‘I’ll get those quotes and call you.’
I make to stand a bit too hastily and catch my heel on the leg of the chair, causing me to stumble slightly. She’s on me in a second, holding my arm to steady me. ‘Ava, are you okay?’
‘Yes, fine.’ I collect myself, trying my hardest not to appear uneasy, but now she has a hold of me and she’s not letting go. In fact, she’s trailing her hand up my arm. I tense from top to toe as it makes it to my cheek and strokes me gently.
‘So beautiful,’ she whispers.
I should move back, but I’m too shocked and my lack of recoil is allowing her to caress my cheek to her hearts content. ‘I should go,’ I say quietly, finally letting some sensibility filter into my brain. I step back and her hand falls away, a shimmer of embarrassment washing over her face. She laughs and looks away. ‘Yes, perhaps you should.’
I take her cue and make my getaway, hurrying down the hall to the front door and swinging it open. I don’t even close it behind me. John spots me rushing towards his car and jumps out. ‘Ava, girl?’ he questions as he runs a quick all over scan of me, checking I’m physically okay. Once he’s satisfied himself that I am, he looks past me and slowly reaches up to remove his sunglasses. His action wouldn’t appear so strange if he’d have left his glasses on, but he hasn’t, and now he’s looking up the path to Ruth’s house.
I slow my escape and turn to see what’s caught his interest, seeing the front door close to Ruth’s home as I do. ‘What’s up, John?’ I ask, feeling better now that I’m away from my friendly client, who now just seems creepy.
‘Nothing, girl. Get in the car.’ His glasses are replaced and he nods at me, instead of repeating himself, so I climb in and wait for him to join me. He slides in and turns towards me. ‘What’s got you in a state?’
I sag and pull my seatbelt on, feeling a little stupid. ‘I think I have a female admirer.’
I expect a laugh or at least a shocked gasp, but I get nothing, just a nod of acknowledgment and a face that turns away from me. ‘Something else to send the mother fucker crazy.’ John rumbles dryly. ‘What’s her name?’
‘Ruth Quinn. She’s strange.’
He nods thoughtfully. ‘Back to the office?’
‘Please, John.’ I throw my bag between my feet, dislodging the envelope that I tucked neatly in there earlier. It pokes out, reminding me of its presence, and I reach down, curiosity getting the better of me.
‘What’s that?’ John asks, nodding at the brown A4 envelope that I’m holding.
‘I’m not sure.’ I sound as apprehensive as I feel. ‘A courier delivered it.’ I’m being totally honest because if this turns out to be another warning, then I’ll be telling Jesse anyway, so it’s of no consequence if John knows, too. I peel the seal and pull out a piece of card and as soon as I clock the cut out letters, I lose my breath.
‘What is it?’ John asks, his voice laced with concern.
I can’t speak. There is a certain level of maliciousness linked to these sorts of letters and as I stare down at the message, assembled with various newspaper and magazine cuttings, my casual disregard of my previous warning seems quite reckless.
‘It’s another warning.’ I manage to splutter through my racing breath. I feel sick.
‘Yes, I had one with some half dead flowers. I just chucked it in the bin and put it down to a jilted ex-sexual conquest.’ I open the window to get some needed fresh air.
‘What does it say?’ John keeps flicking his sunglass covered eyes over to the piece of card that I’ve dropped in my lap. I read the message to him.
‘I told you to leave him.’
A frustrated curse shoots into the air. ‘What did the other one say? Was it like that one?’
I try and collect my scattered thoughts and attempt to recall the exact wording of the other message. ‘Something along the lines of me not knowing him. They said they did.’ I shake my head in frustration. ‘I can’t remember. The other was handwritten.’ I’m furious with myself for getting rid of it when I should have been sensible and told Jesse. He’s got Steve investigating the car incident and my drugging and, stupidly, I kept something from him that could’ve assisted in dealing with this. It may have sent him off the deep end initially, but the long term benefits to him knowing far outweigh the meltdown that would be guaranteed—the meltdown he’s going to have very soon because now he will know, and I’m going to be facing a seriously pissed off male. I’ve been so stupid.
‘Why haven’t you told Jesse?’ John sounds concerned, only heightening my own worrying thoughts.
‘Why do you think, John?’ He can’t be so unwise to ask that question, and the deep breath and brief look of understanding that travel across his annoyed face tells me he’s not.
‘Okay, girl.’ He doesn’t say I’ve been foolish, but I know he’s thinking it.
‘I thought it was Coral.’ I say quietly.
‘Even after the dressing down that you gave her this morning?’ He’s restraining a small smile, I can tell.
‘No, I thought it was Coral before. Not now.’
‘Do you want to tell him, or should I?’ John asks seriously. I know what he means. No further elaboration is required and when he looks at me and nods at my pleading face, I know he understands. ‘I’ll tell him, girl.’
‘Can you try to calm him down, too?’
‘If we were talking about anything else, I’d say yes. But this is you. I’m not promising anything.’
I sigh, but I appreciate his frankness. ‘Thank you. Are you going back to The Manor?’
‘No, girl. I’ll call him. You just get done at work, and I’ll be waiting for you.’
‘Okay.’ I agree, feeling anxious, stupid and way too vulnerable. Once again, I’ve underestimated something that I really shouldn’t have.
* * *
The office is still uncomfortably silent when John drops me off at work. All three of my colleagues heads are firmly down, Sally still looks suicidal, and Patrick’s office door is still closed. No one acknowledges me when I pass through and Sally doesn’t offer me a coffee, so I dump my bag and head through to the kitchen to make myself one.
I’m just tipping my third sugar into the mug when my shoulders rise and tense at the sound of my beloved husband’s ringtone. If I could get away with it, I’d ignore him, but he’ll be calling the landline and failing that, charging into the office. Abandoning my coffee, I take deep breaths of courage as I go in search of my phone. This isn’t going to be a call that I can take in the openness of my office, so I hurry to the conference room and close the door behind me before connecting myself to what will be a raging mass of angry male.
‘Please don’t shout at me!’ I blurt down the line, immediately holding the phone away from my ear once I’ve made my plea.
I was right. ‘What the fucking hell were you thinking?’ he yells. ‘You stupid, stupid woman!’
My eyes close, and I quietly accept his rant, keeping my phone at a safe distance.
He’s breathing erratically between scorns. ‘I’ve been pulling my fucking hair out, trying to work with Steve and figure this shit out, and all along you had a handwritten threat?’ I hear a door slam. ‘And you tore it up? Evidence, Ava. Fucking evidence!’
‘I’m sorry!’ I’m close to tears. ‘I didn’t want to worry you. I thought it was harmless.’
‘Harmless, even after you were drugged? And did you still think it was harmless after you got rammed from the road?’ He’s so mad, but I know it’s because he’s not in control. He can’t control what’s happening, and it’s sending him crazy mad.