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  • Pamela Belle

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

“Hello, Jenna,” said Marcus King, when she opened the door to him at twenty past seven on Friday evening. “You look absolutely gorgeous.”

Considering the lengths that she had gone to in order to ensure that her appearance would send out the right signals – casual but not scruffy, attractive but not sexy, looking as though she’d made some effort but not over the top – Jenna thought that ‘gorgeous’ was not the word she’d wanted to hear. Nor was the look on his face one that she’d hoped to see. She would have to be very, very careful, and she was out of practice. The last person she’d gone on a first date with had been Rick, nearly twenty-five years ago, and she’d known him, and his family, for a while before taking the plunge. Marcus King was a totally unknown quantity, and she suddenly felt very nervous.

“Thank you,” she said, hoping she sounded suitably flattered. “Oh, are those for me? You really shouldn’t have.”

Marcus had produced a cheerful bunch of daffodils and narcissi from behind his back. “I should put them in water straight away,” he said.

Taking the hint, Jenna ushered him into her tiny hall, and through the living room, where the kittens were playing paws-under-the-door, to the kitchen. She got a blue and white jug out of the cupboard below the sink, filled it with water and put the flowers in. When she turned round, Marcus was looking at Artemis and Apollo with interest. “Are those the sandwich thieves?”

“Yes. Apollo is the blue one, and Artemis is his sister. They’re great fun to have around, when they’re not nicking my lunch.” She gave him a bright smile. “Shall we go? I’m starving.”

It was a very cold night, with a sprinkling of snow like ice dust in the air, but the pub was warm and cosy, with a blazing fire. They sat at one of the tables in the bar, and ordered fish and chips, which Jenna knew from past experience would be delicious. Her plate would probably represent her recommended calorie allowance for the entire week, but she’d always been slim, much to Saskia’s envy. She had a half of beer, and he had a pint. They made small talk for a while – she told him about working for Andrew, and they discussed the difficulties of making a shop profitable all the year round in a seaside town. She’d already decided not to ask him about his time in Afghanistan, thinking it was far too serious a topic for what was supposed to be a casual and light-hearted evening, and he didn’t bring it up, which was something of a relief. He asked her about the twins’ trip to Australia, and she was happy to expand on what they’d done, referring him to their blog. Their food arrived, and Jenna cast dietary caution to the winds, telling herself that she’d had a very light lunch knowing that she’d eat well in the evening. Gradually, her nervousness diminished and she began to relax. Marcus was a nice man and a pleasant companion. He was a bit too serious for the evening to be totally enjoyable – she had always taken life quite lightly until it decided otherwise – but at least she’d dipped her toe into the dating waters and hadn’t drowned. Yet.

“So,” he said, finishing the last scrap of batter and picking up a stranded chip, “tell me about your husband.”

This hadn’t been in the script. Startled, Jenna put her knife and fork together and stared at him. “Rick? He’s my ex-husband.” The divorce was well under way, so although this wasn’t yet strictly true, she could say it with confidence.

“Ex-husband, then. Do you mind talking about him?” He had very blue eyes, quite striking in his tanned face, and they were fixed on her with interest.

Jenna swallowed. “No,” she said cautiously, thinking that this was a rather strange thing to ask a woman on a first date, if date it was. If Marcus had been female, of course, this would have been an open invitation to dish the dirt on Rick, in the interests of feminine solidarity, and the evening would have continued with the ‘all men are bastards’ theme so beloved of Saskia when her love-life wasn’t going to plan. But she didn’t want to play the part of the stereotypical wronged and bitter divorcée. “There isn’t much to tell,” she said reluctantly. “We were married for twenty-three years, three kids, we grew apart and he met someone else. End of story, really.” And the essential truth of that struck her with sudden force. They had grown apart, they no longer wanted the same things, and their split was not the result of Rick’s sudden, seismic affair, but a subtle, almost organic process that had been undermining their marriage for years, a crack that, eventually, she had been unable to ignore, or to paper over.

“You must have been very young when you married.”

Well aware that she was probably older than he was, Jenna said, “I was twenty four. Not that young. And Rick was thirty.” She gave him what she hoped was a light-hearted smile. “The older man. I knew his sister at uni, Jules was one of my housemates in Norwich.”

“Ah, so you were at UAE?”

“Yes, the place with the ziggurats – you know, those stepped halls of residence,” she added, seeing him look slightly bewildered. “Rosie – my daughter, you met her at the party – Rosie’s there now, she’s in her first year. And two of my other housemates were at the party too, Jon and Fran.” She decided to do some questioning herself. “Where did you go to uni?”

“Cambridge,” he said. “I did biology, then decided to try medicine, so I went on a graduate course. I’d been in the cadets at school, then at university, and it just seemed like a natural progression to join the army once I’d qualified as a doctor.”

“So how long were you in the army for?”

“Ten years. Then I decided I wanted a change, broaden my experience. My parents live near Sudbury, and they’re not getting any younger, so I looked for a GP post not too far away, and found one in Woodbridge. I’ve been there nearly five years now.”

“Isn’t it a bit, er, quiet after being in the army so long?”

He smiled. “You could say that. But it has its compensations. After shredded limbs, the prospect of a morning full of coughs and bunions seems positively restful. And Woodbridge is a much more attractive place than Camp Bastion.”

“I bet.” The waiter, a boy about the same age as Rosie with spots and a floppy haircut, had appeared to take their plates. “So,” Jenna added, as he offered her the pudding menu, “you commute from Orford?”

“Yes, it only takes about twenty minutes – longer, of course, if I happen to get stuck behind a tractor. Not an uncommon occurrence.” Marcus took the other menu and perused it, while the boy hovered, pen poised. “I’ll have the sticky toffee pudding.”

Jenna was feeling uncomfortably full after fish and chips and beer, and settled for a couple of scoops of ice cream. When the waiter had gone, she said, “So how do you know Ruth and Gary?”

“Oh, I met Gary on the Ness. I was interested in the Cold War relics, but he persuaded me to join one of his birdwatching courses. I’d only just moved here, so I think he and Ruth decided to take me under their wing. Now I can tell you more about avocets than you ever wanted to know.”

“I can believe that,” Jenna said, grinning. She had hoped that by now she would have begun to relax and enjoy herself, but she was still uneasily aware, every time he looked at her, that he might be making assumptions about the evening that she didn’t share. “Come the spring, I expect I’ll be persuaded to join one of his courses too. What with that and Jim’s promise of a sailing trip down to Shingle Street, my diary’s filling up very nicely.”

“So what made you move here? Ruth said you used to live near London.”

Once more, Jenna found herself explaining, in carefully neutral tones, the reasons for her radical change of scenery. Fortunately, Marcus knew St. Albans well, as one of his school friends had lived there, and he’d spent some of the holidays with him. From this, she deduced that he had been to boarding school: it fitted with his clothes, his voice and his career.

“But I haven’t been back there for years,” Marcus said, as their desserts arrived, hers looking rather small and apologetic beside the lavish, steaming heap of his sticky toffee pudding, accompanied by a lake of syrupy sauce and a dome of vanilla ice cream. “What’s it like now? Full of yuppies and hipsters, I suppose.”

“Some parts of it are, yes.” Jenna dug into her own ice cream, which was salted caramel, and absolutely delicious. “It’s the sort of place where you can buy a Gucci handbag or a matching set of Cath Kidston tea-towels, but not a cotton reel or a screwdriver – unless you shop on the market, of course.”

“Ah, yes, I remember the market, it was amazing. I suppose Marlborough’s a bit like that too – that’s where I went to school.”

Bingo, Jenna thought, and resolved not to hold it against him. “What was it like? School, I mean.”

He grinned. “Enormous fun. I enjoyed every minute of it. I’d recommend boarding to anyone. You have to work, of course, and bloody hard it was, but I did all right. And the army’s not so different, to be honest. What school did you go to?”

“You won’t have heard of it,” Jenna said. “Just a bog standard comprehensive.” She nearly added the words “I’m afraid,” and then thought defiantly, why should I apologise for being one of the 93% who haven’t had an allegedly privileged education?

Marcus laughed. “Nothing wrong with that,” he said, and she hoped she hadn’t detected a slightly patronising note in his voice. “I seem to remember John Holland said something at the party, about you being an expert in mediaeval history?”

“Good grief, no, I just did my degree in it. Then I taught primary kids until I had kids myself. Mind you, I knew all the things to point out when we did a castle visit. Garderobes were particularly popular.” She caught his rather bemused expression and grinned. “Mediaeval toilets. Guaranteed to appeal to eight-year-olds. My classes would have loved the castle here – we had to make do with Berkhamsted, which is far less spectacular. Have you been up to the top? You get a fabulous view over the marshes.”

He shook his head. “No, to my shame, I haven’t. Perhaps you could show me round sometime when the weather’s better, give me the guided tour?”

That seemed pretty harmless, so she smiled and nodded. “Yes, I’d love to, though I warn you, you may end up knowing far more about twelfth century castles than you ever wanted to know.”

“Well, after the avocets I’m game for most things. Thanks, Jenna, I’ll look forward to it.”

They finished their desserts, and when the infant waiter asked them if they wanted coffee, Jenna said yes, hoping that it would resolve her dilemma about whether to ask Marcus in. By now, the pub was filling up with evening drinkers, busy and noisy, and the cosy, intimate atmosphere was fast disappearing. A track came on the sound system, barely audible above the chatter, and she recognised it as the one Fran had written for the boy band, Love You All My Life. She’d always liked it – one of the ‘guilty pleasures’ on her YouTube playlist – and now, knowing who had written it, she couldn’t help feeling a frisson of delight.

The coffee came, just the right thing to round off the meal, and they chatted about food, and the range of good restaurants in the area. Marcus confessed to being , in his words, a ‘rubbish cook’, a devotee of what he called the ‘hurl-it-and-stir-it method’. “Which is why I didn’t invite you over for dinner,” he added, with a disarming smile.

“I’m sure you’re much better than you give yourself credit for,” Jenna said, sipping her coffee. “So, what do you like to cook?”

“Stews, casseroles, oven chips. I’m not brave enough to go in for baking, much though I’d love to.”

“Do you watch Bake-Off? It’s either inspiring or terrifying, I’m not sure which.”

“I’ve seen some of the last series – it got quite addictive. But living on my own, I don’t feel justified in making a cake or a loaf of bread just for me.”

“You could take something to your parents,” Jenna pointed out.

“Oh, my mother would keel over with shock. All the food gifts go the other way. Every time I visit, she presses something on me, ‘just a little something to keep the wolf from the door.’ As if I’m in danger of starvation, or haven’t got anything in the fridge bar cans of beer.”

“And have you?”

“Milk, yoghurt, cheese, eggs, ham, orange juice, lots of veg, salad, and half a quiche,” said Marcus, with evident and endearing pride.

“I’m impressed,” said Jenna. “Especially as you can’t have had much opportunity to cook, being in the army.”

“Oh, Suzanne did all the cooking.” He saw her look of surprise, and added, “My wife – or should I say, my ex-wife. Unfortunately, she decided that army life was not for her.”

Jenna suspected that this very brief explanation was as severely expurgated as her own description of her divorce had been, and let it pass. She was curious enough to add, though, “Have you got any kids?”

“No. In fact that was one of the bones of contention – she wanted them, I didn’t. Just not the paternal sort, I suppose. She met someone else a while later, and she’s got three sons now, so it worked out OK for her, which is good.”

That’s just as well, Jenna couldn’t help thinking, because I strongly suspect my child-producing days are numbered. She decided to steer onto safer ground. “Have you got any brothers or sisters?”

“A younger brother and an older sister. Both of them have offspring, so at least my parents are happy about that. How about you?”

“Oh, I’m the only one. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to have siblings.” She sipped her coffee thoughtfully. “Most of the people I know well seem to have lots. Rick was one of four, my friend Cathy has two, and I’ve got three kids myself. It’s nice to think they’ll always have each other, whatever happens.”

“As long as they get on. My siblings aren’t on very good terms with each other, unfortunately. Long and boring story to do with a legacy from our grandparents. I suppose your twins are close?”

“Very, though they’re like chalk and cheese.”

“Not identical, then?”

“No, they don’t even look particularly alike. It’s amazing how two simultaneous dips into the same gene pool came up with people so different. But they’ve always been mates, ever since babyhood, and they’re very protective of their sister, though she really doesn’t need it, and tells them so at every opportunity.”

“Oh, my sister always made it very clear that she was the boss – but then she is six years older than me, and ten years older than my brother. We’re a very spread out family. My father was away a lot, he was in the army as well. What did yours do?”

“He was a teacher, but he died in a car crash when I was twelve.”

“That’s terrible,” said Marcus, with evident sincerity. “What an awful thing to have to deal with at such a young age. What happened?”

“I don’t really know,” Jenna said, realising how lame it sounded. “Mum had been in the car with him, she was hurt, though not very badly, but she had some sort of breakdown – I was sent to live with my grandmother for a year, and when I got back home I was told not to ask any questions as it’d upset my mother too much. So I just sort of accepted that it was off limits.”

“Didn’t your grandmother tell you anything?”

Jenna thought back to those confused, frightening days when she was still trying to accept that she would never see her father again, and unable to understand why her mother wasn’t coming home, even though her physical injuries had not been serious. The gaps in her knowledge had been filled by lurid imaginings that refused to let her sleep, and even Nana May’s reassurances had failed at first to soothe her. It had been more than six miserable weeks before she had begun to relax, to realise that life with her grandmother might be an improvement on the past, and to discover that it was possible, even in these circumstances, to have a little fun. Patricia, obsessed with outward appearances and ‘what people might think’, had not been a parent who thought highly of fun.

“Not much, but remember that I was only a child and I suppose they wanted to protect me. And of course I had all sorts of questions – was it quick, did he suffer, that sort of thing – and I felt I couldn’t ask them, because they’d just have fobbed me off with platitudes. Even my grandmother, who was usually very blunt and to the point.” She smiled at him, seeing his evident concern. “But kids are pretty resilient, and even at twelve, you’re incredibly selfish and live in the moment. And it didn’t take me very long to discover that I much preferred living with Nanna May to living with my mother. I was devastated when I had to go back. And it’s awful to say it, but I really didn’t think much about my poor mother at all, and how she must have felt, losing her husband in such traumatic circumstances.”

“Well, like you say, you were just a kid. Do you remember much about your dad?”

Jenna shook her head. “To be honest, no. He was a very busy man, he was head of a big primary school in north London, and he worked long hours and had a lot of stress to put up with.” And my mother, she added mentally, thinking sadly that some of the clearest memories she had of Keith Clarke involved the furious rows he’d had with his wife. She’d had no idea of what they were about, she just remembered hiding under the bedclothes while the angry voices went on and on downstairs, and putting her hands over her ears to try and shut them out.

“Though I do remember the last holiday we had together,” she added, caught by a sudden vision of her father on the beach at Perranporth, flying a kite, with his trousers rolled up and the sun glinting on his fair hair. “It was in Cornwall, and I spent quite a lot of time with him, because Mum wasn’t well and stayed in bed.” She grinned. “We both loved strawberry ice-cream, and swimming in the sea. It was a really happy time. And then a couple of weeks later, he was dead.”

There was an awkward pause. Her right hand lay on the table next to her coffee cup, and suddenly Marcus put his own over it. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “It must have been terrible.”

“Yes, it was at the time,” Jenna agreed, thinking that he was making a bit too much of this. “But it was over thirty years ago, after all, and I’ve moved on, to coin a cliché.” Patricia hadn’t moved on, of course, but it must have been far worse for her. She resolved, guiltily, to be a bit more accepting of her mother’s neediness, when she returned from her cruise.

Marcus removed his hand, and smiled at her. “Of course, that’s understandable. As you say, children can be very resilient.”

Jenna finished her coffee, unsure as to how she ought to respond. At last she said, “I don’t want to sound callous, but now it really doesn’t seem that big a deal. To be honest, I think me splitting up with Rick has had a far bigger effect on my children than Dad’s death had on me. After all, my father had no choice. Rick, emphatically, did.”

“Well, he was an idiot,” Marcus said warmly.

She was saved from having to reply by the approach of a tall woman of about her own age, greeting him with a cry of delight. “Marcus, my dear, how are you? I haven’t seen you in such an age. Are you well? You look well.” He rose, and she kissed him extravagantly on both cheeks, before turning to Jenna, who had also got to her feet. “A new friend? Do introduce me!”

Her voice had a touch of shrillness, and though she was smiling, her eyes, assessing every detail of Jenna’s appearance, were sharp, almost hostile. Marcus didn’t seem to have noticed anything: he said, “Camilla, this is Jenna Johnson. She’s just moved here. Jenna, this is Camilla Clifford, she lives in Snape.”

“At the Maltings,” said Camilla. She was beautifully dressed, in a slinky dark blue dress that clung to her rather sparse figure, and her blonde hair was artfully styled and highlighted. Beside her, Jenna couldn’t help feeling dowdy, dull and unattractive. “Wonderfully convenient for concerts, of course, though it does get a little busy during the season. Marcus, you haven’t seen Anthony, have you? We were supposed to be meeting for a drink, but he seems to have vanished off the face of the earth.”

“No, I’m afraid I haven’t. Would you like to sit down? Can I get you anything?”

“Oh, how kind of you! A dry white wine, please.” As Marcus threaded his way over to the bar, Camilla pulled up an adjacent chair and settled herself elegantly upon it, slinging an expensive-looking black coat over the back and placing her handbag, which bore the tell-tale Mulberry bronze oval and had probably cost well into four figures, on the table next to Marcus’s empty coffee cup. “So,” she said, turning her beady gaze back to Jenna, “what do you do?”

“Not a lot, at the moment,” Jenna said, her hackles beginning to rise. “I haven’t been here very long. I used to be a teacher.”

“Oh, really?” said Camilla, with eyebrows disdainfully raised: as if, Jenna thought with annoyance, she’d just admitted to a career as a drugs mule. “And will you go back to it? Those long holidays and short hours must be very tempting.”

“I’m afraid the job’s not like that these days,” Jenna said. “It’s very hard work, but of course it can be very rewarding.”

“And of course there are all those feral children running riot.” Camilla smoothed the already immaculate line of her dress. “So, what does your husband do?”

“I’m in the middle of divorcing him for adultery,” Jenna said, not without some mischief – she wanted to see the other woman’s reaction.

Really?

There was no mistaking the look of hostility now. Jenna decided to go on the attack. “And what about your husband?”

“Oh, Anthony’s in finance,” said Camilla. “He spends the week in London or Frankfurt, and the weekends down here. Orford’s such a lovely place, isn’t it? Especially if you sail. Do you sail?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Oh, don’t you? What a pity. We love it. Anthony’s just bought a new boat, we’re planning to go over to Holland in the summer. Marcus sails, don’t you, darling?”

Marcus had reappeared with a glass of wine, which he handed to Camilla with a smile. “Sometimes. I’d like to do more, but I really haven’t got the time at the moment.”

“I was telling Jennifer about Anthony’s new boat. She has six berths, so we’ll have plenty of room for passengers, if you’d like to come along with us.” This invitation was directed entirely at Marcus. “Do you know what he’s called her? So sweet - Camilla Jane. Oh, look, there he is. Anthony! Anthony! Over here! Look who I’ve found!

A large man with florid cheeks and thinning dark hair was making his way over to them. Once more, introductions were performed, hands shaken, and Jenna, feeling increasingly uncomfortable, smiled politely and wondered how soon she could make her escape. She didn’t care for Camilla, who despite the presence of her husband seemed to regard Marcus as her personal property, and Anthony had all the charm and charisma of a blowfish. She glanced at her watch and said brightly, “Lovely to meet you both, but it’s getting late and I think I’ll be off home now. I’ll settle up at the bar, Marcus.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he said at once. “My treat. And you must let me walk you home.”

“It’s only fifty yards.” Jenna shrugged herself into her jacket and picked up her handbag. “No, honestly, no need to bother.”

“Rubbish, I insist.”

“You must come back and join us later,” Camilla drawled. “So nice to meet you, Jennifer, I’m sure we’ll see a lot of each other.”

God, I do hope not, Jenna thought, as the other woman air kissed her in a waft of Chanel. After a mild dispute at the bar, which was resolved by her insistence on paying half the bill, Marcus escorted her outside. It was freezing after the warmth of the pub, and snowing again. She took two steps, discovered the pavement was more slippery than she’d realised, and would have fallen if he hadn’t grabbed her in time. “Thanks,” she said breathlessly, her heart pounding. “I nearly went over then, and I’ve only had half a pint of beer.”

“Just as well I was here,” Marcus said. He still had hold of her arm, and it didn’t seem as if he was going to let go. “Slowly and carefully does it. Ruth would have something to say to me if you broke your leg on our first date.”

Together, slowly and carefully, they made their way up Quay Street. Occasionally a car would come cautiously along, its headlights illuminating the glittering dust of the snow, and its wheels leaving tracks down the road. “It doesn’t look as if the gritter’s been out,” Jenna said, as they paused opposite Wisteria Cottage, waiting for an enormous Land Rover to pass.

“Well, Orford’s not on the way to anywhere, so it tends to get left till last. OK, I think it’s safe.”

It should have been pleasant to be looked after like this, but something inside Jenna was protesting that she was a strong and independent woman, thank you very much, and not some fragile porcelain doll. And she really must put him right about the ‘first date’. They crossed the road and made their way up the path to her front door, obliterating their ghostly footprints from earlier in the evening. She fished her key out of her bag and turned to find him bending towards her. His arms were pulling her close, and then, before she could react, he was kissing her.

Given that she’d been expecting, and dreading, this all evening, Jenna was quite pleased, afterwards, that she didn’t flinch away from him. With what she considered to be commendable self control, she gently but firmly disengaged herself. “I’m really sorry, Marcus,” she said. “But I’m just not ready for this, not yet. It’s much too soon – Rick and I only split up a few months ago.”

In the light from the light above the door, she could see acute disappointment on his face, but what had preceded it, gone so quickly she couldn’t be sure whether she’d imagined it? Had it been a flash of anger? She added, “But thank you for a lovely evening. It was nice to get out.”

“Good,” Marcus said stiffly. “And I quite understand. I’m sorry if – if I presumed too much.” He paused, and then added, “I hope that we can still be friends.”

“Of course we can,” Jenna said, relieved: she must have imagined it. “I wouldn’t want anything else.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed this evening. Perhaps we can do it again some time.”

“Yes, I’d like that.” She smiled at him. “Thanks for walking me home. You saved me from an embarrassing tumble.”

“No problem.”

“Well ... good night, Marcus.”

“Good night.”

She put the key in the door and opened it cautiously, hoping that the kittens weren’t on the other side, preparing to make a dash for freedom. The hall was empty though, and with a last wave for Marcus, she quickly shut the door behind her and breathed a sigh of relief. Her instincts hadn’t been wrong, but she hoped she’d let him down gently.

In the sitting room, the kittens were curled up together in front of the woodburner, which was still glowing. Jenna went through to the kitchen and made herself a mug of the expensive hot chocolate she kept for occasions like this. There was something very heartening about the rich taste and the way it slid, smooth as warm silk, down her throat. She curled up on the sofa and sipped, thinking about the evening. It was no more or less than the truth – she really wasn’t ready for another relationship, not when Rick’s betrayal was still raw and fresh in her mind. It had been less than four months ago, after all, that dreadful moment when he had dumped her by phone, after twenty three years of marriage. She needed time to recover, to make a new life here and discover her real identity, before trusting herself to someone else.

And would that someone be Marcus King?

Something touched her leg. Jenna looked down and saw Artemis, gently patting her with a reassuring paw. “Come on, then,” she said, and the kitten made a valiant leap and arrived beside her on the sofa. She gave the mug of chocolate a curious sniff, and then climbed up her front to settle down, purring ridiculously loudly, on her shoulder. It was not long before Apollo noticed that his sister had disappeared, and followed her. Having one on each side, whiskers tickling her neck and rumbling in stereo, was enormously comforting. “Well?” Jenna said aloud. “What do you two think? Is Marcus a possibility for the future?”

Artemis sneezed, and began to wash herself, tickling even more. Jenna laughed. “I’ll take that as a no, then. What about you, Polly?”

If the other kitten felt himself slighted by the indignity of this nickname, he gave no sign: indeed, if anything, he purred louder. “And you say yes. OK, I’ll think about it.” But somehow, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t imagine herself and Marcus as an item. He seemed to take himself too seriously, and although his interest in her was flattering, it couldn’t be based on anything other than physical attraction: he knew too little about her for it to be anything else. And during that brief kiss, she had felt not the slightest spark that might prompt her to forsake her current state of celibacy and hook up with him.

Her phone announced that she had a text message, making her jump. It was lying on the coffee table in front of her, which meant that she had to lean forward carefully, without dislodging the kittens, to pick it up. As she’d suspected, it was from Saskia. “How’d it go?”

Jenna finished the rest of the chocolate and put the mug down beside her on the sofa. She hadn’t meant to tell her friend about her date with Marcus, but in their last phone conversation she’d made the mistake of saying that she was going out this evening, prompting Saskia to demand who with, and she hadn’t wanted to lie, even for the sake of peace.

“OK, but told him I wasn’t ready,” she texted back. “Not sure if he’s for me anyway.”

“U turned him DOWN???”

“Yes.”

“Ijit. Pass him on to me.”

“Thought u scared him?”

“Moi?”

“Yes, u. Off to bed now, speak in the morning.”

“Will do. Nightie night, darling.”

“Night.” She gently removed the kittens from her shoulders, switched the phone off and put it back on the table. “Time for bed, you two. And thanks for your advice.”

They gazed up at her with wide, innocent eyes that were beginning to change to their adult golden colour. Jenna laughed, picked up her mug and went into the kitchen. One of the advantages of living on her own was that there was no-one to complain (as Rick had been in the habit of complaining) about washing up left in the sink, or assorted belongings strewn untidily in the living room. She peered through the window. It was still snowing, and the garden glimmered with a faint, ethereal radiance. Hopefully it would still be there in the morning. Jenna loved snow, and the way it transformed even the most ugly or mundane surroundings into a magical landscape of mystery and enchantment. And, better still, she didn’t have to go anywhere: her job at Andrew’s shop started next week, and she hadn’t heard back from Fran yet, about when he wanted her to come over to tutor Flora. If she was snowed in, it didn’t matter, she could just enjoy it – perhaps she could wrap up warm and take Sammy for a walk over the marshes, or even regress to childhood completely and build a snowman in the back garden. She could do exactly as she pleased, and the thought was at once alarming, and invigorating.

Smiling to herself, she went upstairs to bed.

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