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  • Pamela Belle

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX

What?” Rosie’s voice went up into a childish squeak, as it often still did when she was excited or astonished. “You mean your Dad isn’t dead?”

“No, he’s not.”

“But I thought ...” Her daughter’s voice trailed away as the implications began to sink in. “But I thought he was killed in a car crash when you were a kid.”

“So did I.” Jenna paused, thinking about what to say next, although she had spent most of the night wrestling with the problem. There was no possible way she could explain it to Rosie without painting her mother in an extremely poor light: nothing justified the deception. But she’d known, ever since learning of it herself, that her children would have to be told the unembroidered truth. She was sick of lies and secrets, and she couldn’t keep her father’s existence hidden from his grandchildren, because that would make her no better than Patricia. She owed it to him, to reunite him with his long-lost English family, and if it meant that her children were appalled by her mother’s dishonesty, then so be it.

She sipped at her second cup of Saskia’s excellent coffee, and added, “He fell in love with someone else – a teacher at his school, as it happens. My teacher, in fact.”

“Wow! Really?”

Jenna couldn’t help feeling that her daughter sounded as if she was discussing the latest implausible events in Eastenders, rather than a momentous and life-changing family drama. “Yes, really.” She took another gulp of coffee. “And they got married in Australia and had a son and a daughter. My half brother and sister - Bill and Jodi.”

“Wow, that’s amazing!” There was a pause on the other end of the phone, as if Rosie had realised that her reaction was slightly off-key, and then she added hesitantly, “Does that mean that Granny ...”

“Lied to me? Yes.”

There was another pause. Rosie said at last, “But that’s horrible. So for years and years you thought your dad was dead, and you missed him and grieved for him and all the while he was alive and well and living in Australia with a whole new family, and she never let on?”

“Yes.”

The silence at the other end went on so long that Jenna wondered if the connection had died. Then Rosie’s voice came suddenly, vehemently through the speaker. “You know what I think, Mum? I think you’d be quite justified in never, ever talking to Granny again.”

It was Jenna’s turn to be silent. At last she sighed. “I have to admit, I’m tempted. Sorely tempted. But the bottom line is that she is my mother, and I have to be grown up about this.”

“Really? How grown up has Granny been?” Rosie’s voice was now trembling with anger and distress. “How dare she do that? It’s – it’s despicable!”

“I know. Ok, my dad did wrong, he committed adultery, it wasn’t a good thing to do – “

“Well, I don’t blame him!” Rosie said hotly. “I wouldn’t want to be married to someone like that.”

Jenna said gently, “You didn’t excuse Dad’s adultery, did you?”

“That was different, Dad went off with some – some floosie!” Rosie uttered the final word as if she wasn’t quite sure what it meant.

“Floosie?” Jenna queried, trying to keep the amusement out of her voice.

“Yes, it was in an old film we were watching on Netflix, and I thought it was just exactly what Madison must be like, a complete airhead who doesn’t care about anything except her appearance.”

Jenna reflected that if Madison wasn’t the brainless bimbo that Rosie assumed, then sooner or later, Rick was in trouble. “Anyway, your granddad committed adultery too, so it’s not fair to excuse him and not Dad, whatever the reasons.”

“That’s completely different, you’re not a horrible person like Granny!”

“Well, I hope not, but that’s no reason. OK, Rosie, I know this is a pretty awful situation, but only if you just think about the past. If you look at the future ... well, you’ve got a granddad you didn’t know you had, and cousins you didn’t know you had, a whole family who are longing to meet you at last – because although we didn’t know about them, they knew all about us.”

“How?”

“The power of social media, what else? My dad had kept in touch with what we were doing via Nanna May. And he wasn’t very well last year, so he decided to contact me, via my brother Bill.” It was still a wonderful novelty to say the words ‘my brother’.

“Nanna May? You mean, she knew your dad was still alive and didn’t think to tell you either?”

“No, she didn’t,” Jenna said sadly. “And that’s what upsets me the most – that she lied to me too. Even when she was dying, she didn’t tell me the truth. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think she may have promised my mother that she wouldn’t say anything. And Nanna May was big on keeping promises. She did leave me a letter, though, which explained everything, but - ”

“Don't tell me. Granny got to it before you did, and binned it. How could she?"

"She told me she thought it was for my own good."

There was a very long pause before Rosie said, “Mum?”

“Yes?”

“I wish I was there to give you a hug.”

Jenna’s eyes prickled with tears. “Oh, Rosie darling, so do I.” She swallowed hard, and strove to keep the wobble out of her voice. “But anyway, please, do try to look on the positive side of all this. We’ve suddenly found we have a whole new family. And whatever else has happened, that has to be good news, doesn’t it?”

“Yes.” Rosie wasn’t quite so successful, obviously, at avoiding the wobble. “It is good news – the best. But Mum, I know you’re being very noble about Granny, but I’m not going to be. From now on, I’m going to ignore her. She always liked Tom and Joe better than me, anyway.”

Jenna was about to say that wasn’t fair, and then realised that it was true. Rosie went on. “What do they think, have you told them too?”

“They knew already, because my brother Bill got in touch with them first. Much the same as you, horrified at the deception, thrilled to bits that they have a new family. My dad lives in Sydney, so they’re going to meet up with them when they come back from Queensland. And Bill is getting married in the autumn – well, their spring, I suppose – and we’ve all been invited to the wedding.”

“Ooh, a wedding – in Australia?” Rosie’s excitement suddenly bubbled up, in the mercurial way she had. “Mum, can we go?”

“Of course we can go,” Jenna said, though she was wondering where the money for their tickets was going to come from. She’d have to save hard over the next few months. “It’ll be wonderful to meet them all at last.”

“I can’t wait,” Rosie said, with delighted enthusiasm. “And you’re right, mum – it’s a good idea to look forward because the view’s much better than looking back. But I still can’t forgive Granny, though, for what she did.”

Neither could Jenna, and she doubted she ever would, not truly. She stayed on the phone for another ten minutes, chatting to her daughter about her course, and the clubs she’d joined, and the friends she’d made, until Rosie said she’d got a lecture in half an hour and needed to find some stuff. Afterwards, she rang Fran. The call went straight to voicemail, and she left a message apologising for the short notice, but asking if he could pick her up from Woodbridge station that afternoon – if not, she’d get a taxi. Then the thought occurred to her that if she was going to the Australian wedding with Rosie, taxis ought to be a luxury. Hopefully, there’d be a bus and she wouldn’t have to wait too long.

Later, after an early lunch, she phoned the hospital to find out how Patricia was doing, and was assured that she was ‘comfortable’, and would probably be discharged in two or three days’ time. It didn’t tell her a lot, but at least she knew her mother was in good hands. It would be nice to think that she could use that time of enforced rest to reflect on what she’d done, but Jenna doubted it. Patricia didn’t do regret, or remorse, or apology.

She said goodbye, with many thanks, to Saskia, who’d taken the morning off to be with her – one of the advantages, as she pointed out, of running her own business – and set off home with a sense of profound relief. It was strange how quickly St Albans, her home for more than twenty years, had become, in the space of six months, a strange and almost alien place. No sea, no gulls, no fields at the end of the street, no sense of the vastness of sky, above all no wind. The pavement was hard and hurt her feet, she felt hemmed in by buildings, the traffic was noisy and although the shops were plentiful and enticing, they did not tempt her. The journey involved three changes and two and a half hours, but she didn’t mind, because she was going home, and she longed to be in her snug little house again, curled up on the sofa watching the telly, with a kitten on each shoulder purring in stereo.

It was raining when she reached Woodbridge, and dusk seemed to be approaching, even though she knew that sunset was still a couple of hours away. The little train, just two carriages, trundled off northwards, its ultimate destination Lowestoft, and Jenna pulled her knitted hat on, hoisted her overnight rucksack onto her back and looked round at the almost deserted platform. It was half term, so there were no crowds of teenagers making their way home from school in the town. Hopefully Fran would have got her message, although she hadn’t had any reply from him: if not, or if he’d been unable to make it, she’d have to get a bus. Assuming there was a bus, of course.

She went out to the car park, looking for a timetable, and to her delight saw Fran’s dark blue Golf just pulling up. He waved, and she ran over and scrambled in. “Oh, thank you so much! I wasn’t sure whether you’d got my message, and it was a bit of a cheek to even ask, but – “

“Cheek, to do a favour for a friend?” Fran said teasingly. “I don’t think so, hen. Especially on a miserable day like today.”

“Well, it’s much appreciated,” Jenna said. She wriggled out of her rucksack and jacket, and turned to put them on the back seat. A thought struck her. “Where’s Flora? Off on a jolly with some of her mates?”

“No, she’s in London with Krystal, hitting the shops.”

“But I thought Krystal was in LA for the foreseeable future!” Jenna stared at Fran in surprise. “What’s she doing over here? Has the show finished early or something?”

Fran shrugged. He looked tired, and tense. “She wasn’t very clear, but I gather her co-star has had to have an emergency operation – appendicitis, I think, so not too serious, but he’ll be out of action for a few weeks and filming has been put on hold while he recovers. So she thought she’d take the opportunity to fly over and see her daughter for a few days.”

His voice was carefully neutral, but Jenna wasn’t deceived. She said carefully, “I expect Flora was thrilled.”

Fran grimaced. “Actually, she wasn’t. One of her friends has a birthday party coming up, with cinema visit for the latest Disney, followed by a session at Pizzaland. It seems that given the choice between a posh London hotel and unlimited spending at Harrods, or Ava’s party with all her friends, she preferred the party and the friends.”

A girl after my own heart, Jenna thought. “I suppose Krystal was a bit startled.”

“You can say that again. She looked at Flora as if she’d changed species. And Flora got mutinous, which made things worse. I managed to calm everyone, but it took some doing. So they went off yesterday afternoon, and won’t be back until Saturday.” He grinned suddenly. “That is, if murder hasn’t been done in the meantime. Krystal’s always found Flora a little too ... independent minded, and Flora’s always found Krystal a little too ... controlling.”

“Well, I can relate to that,” Jenna said wryly.

Fran turned the car round, and then glanced at her. “So, how are things with your Mam? Is that where you’ve been?”

“Yes, but I warn you, it’s a long story.”

“Longer than the twenty-five minutes it’ll take to drive you home?”

“Probably yes, but I couldn’t let you go without at least offering you a cup of tea and a kitten cuddle, could I?”

Fran laughed, and the Golf began to move out of the car park. Jenna waited until he’d turned onto the road which ran along the river bank towards Orford and Aldeburgh, and then embarked on the tale of Patricia’s misadventure with the car in Berkhamsted High Street.

In fact, she’d come to the end of the story before they reached home. Stated in plain words, her suspicions about her mother’s ‘accident’ seemed completely ridiculous and melodramatic, and she felt ashamed of them. Fran, however, said seriously, “You could well be right. She may not even have been thinking very clearly when she stepped out in front of that car. Perhaps she didn’t consider what the consequences might be, just thought something like, ‘My daughter doesn’t care about me any more, but I’m going to make her care.’”

“I don’t know. And I’ll never know, because the last thing she’d give me if I asked her straight out, would be an honest answer. But once I’d realised it was a real possibility, I decided I wasn’t going to do what she wanted, I'd refuse to put my whole life on hold to minister to her self-inflicted needs. Stuart, brave man, stepped up willingly, so I let him take the responsibility. Which is probably wicked, and ungrateful, and undaughterly, and un-lots of other things, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.” She glanced at him as he drove into Orford. It was raining harder, and so prematurely dark that the street lights had already come on. “And I feel so, so guilty.”

“Don’t be, hen. I know she’s your mother, but have you forgotten what she did? She’s the one who should be feeling guilty, not you.”

“I don’t think Mum’s ever felt guilty in her whole life. She’s always got what she thinks is perfectly reasonable justification for what she does.”

Fran stopped the car outside Wisteria Cottage. To Jenna’s sensitive eyes, it looked sad and bereft in the wet half-light. The rain pattered briskly against the windscreen, and in the headlight beams, she could see gusts of wind moving the puddles in the road ahead. He grinned at her suddenly. “Ready for the mad dash for the door?”

“Wait till I’ve got my coat on – OK, ready!”

They arrived under the overhanging wisteria together, breathless and laughing. “Watch out for kittens,” Jenna said, as she shoved the key in the lock and turned it. The door opened with a familiar creak, and she switched the hall light on. The sudden illumination showed her Artemis, sitting half way up the stairs with what she guiltily supposed to be a look of hurt indignation on her brown face. There was no sign of her brother, but a sudden demanding miaow came from the direction of the kitchen where, presumably, he was waiting in hopes of being fed, and she only just shut the door in time before Apollo appeared at a run, tail up, purring ridiculously loudly.

“First things first,” Jenna told him, dumping her rucksack on the floor. “Tea?” she added, to Fran.

“Of course.”

The heating hadn’t yet come on, so the house was quite chilly. She went into the sitting room, where the wood burning stove was of course dark and cold, and opened the doors, hoping for some stray embers that she could use to light it again. “I’ll do that,” Fran said behind her. “You sort the tea.”

Ten minutes later, the cottage had entirely lost the feeling of desertion Jenna had sensed when she had opened the front door. She and Fran were sitting on the squashy sofa in front of a newly leaping fire, with two steaming mugs and a plate of biscuits on the small table. Apollo and Artemis, hunger appeased, were industriously washing themselves on the rug, and the radiator ticked gently as it warmed up. She’d drawn the curtains against the rainy dusk, and the room felt snug and cosy. She picked up her mug, cradling it in her chilly hands, luxuriating in the heat, and gave a long sigh of relief.

“Home?” Fran said sympathetically.

“Home. Wonderful home. Thank you for coming to get me, I’d probably have had a very long wait for a bus.”

“The least I could do.” His phone went off, a gentle but insistent sound that urged response. “Sorry – that could be Flora. Yes, it is. Hi, lass, how’s things?”

A faint squawking noise came from the other end. Fran grimaced, and gave Jenna a significant look. “If I were you, I’d give it a bit more chance ... you’ve only been there a day. What have you got planned for tomorrow?”

More squawking. Then Fran said, “Really? Well, that sounds like a lot of fun.”

Slightly less enthusiastic noises emanated from the phone. “You’ll love it, it’s great.” He mouthed ‘Matilda’ at Jenna, who grinned: that musical should be right up Flora’s street.

“Lucky girl,” she commented, when Fran ended the call a few minutes later. “Unlimited shopping, a top West End show – I hope she’s enjoying it.”

“I think she’s enjoying it despite herself,” Fran said. “She really didn’t want to go – I thought we were going to be treated to a massive tantrum on the doorstep – but I told her to stop being a wee besom and have fun. I’m not sure Krystal is, though. Flora being mulish and contrary is more than a little full-on.”

“I wonder who she gets that from,” Jenna said mischievously.

Fran laughed. “Oh, no, not me. It came straight from my Da, skipped me, and burst into full bloom in Flora. I have to say, though, that she’s not nearly as confident as she appears. It’s all a bit of an act, but then you could say the same about most of us. Confidence is like the layers of an onion, isn’t it? You start out with a little childish blob and gradually you build up the shells of experience and lessons learned and skin thickened, until you give the impression of being a fully functioning grown up, even though you’ve still got that little quivering fearful blob at your heart.”

“Some people seem to have got rid of the blob completely,” Jenna observed. “I bet Jon’s confidence goes right through him, like writing on a stick of rock.”

“You could be right. Krystal’s too.” Fran picked up his own mug and sipped the hot tea appreciatively. “But my blob is alive and well and quivering as I speak.”

“I’d never have guessed it. Mine is too, and never more so than when in the presence of my mother.”

“Which is why you should try and keep your distance from her – whatever she does to try and get you back.”

“I can’t imagine what she’d think of next. A mugging? Poisonous mushrooms? Fake terminal illness? Oh, God,” Jenna said, with sudden vehemence, “I think I’d be more than happy if I never saw her again.” And to her own horror, she burst into the tears she had spent the past twenty-four hours trying not to shed.

“Oh, hen,” Fran said, and leaned over to hug her. Jenna, feeling all the pent-up anguish repressed for too long, leaned back against him and let herself weep. It was so comforting just to release it all, and she knew she could totally rely on his support.

After a few minutes, she began to feel better. She sat up and gave him a rather feeble smile. “Sorry. I don’t usually let it all get on top of me.”

“Don’t apologise. We all need a safety valve once in a while. Anyway, what are friends for, if not a shoulder to cry on in times of need?”

“Thank you.” Jenna scrabbled in her jeans pockets, then in the sleeve of her jumper, without success. “Have you got a tissue anywhere?”

“No, but I can see a box on the windowsill. I’ll get some for you.”

She blew her nose vigorously, wiped her face and took several deep, calming breaths, of the type she’d learned long ago in yoga classes. Fran sat down again beside her, with a gap of about six inches between them. “Sure you’re OK?”

“Sure.” Jenna turned to look at him, the damp tissue still scrunched in her hand. His eyes, that strong rich colour, were fixed on her face with an expression of concern, heightened by the slight frown between his brows. She had known him, off and on, for thirty years, and yet suddenly she felt that she hardly knew him at all. Friendship, trust, laughter, memories, music, they shared all those things, but his deepest thoughts were a mystery to her. Was Saskia right? Surely she couldn’t be right?

“Thank you,” she added. “You’re such a good friend – I don’t deserve you, I really don’t.”

“Oh, yes, you do – stop selling yourself short, hen. You’ve always done that, ever since I’ve known you, running yourself down, thinking you’re not good enough. And in fact, you’re the best and strongest person I know.”

“Bet my quivering blob is bigger than your quivering blob,” Jenna said rather shakily, not daring to meet his eyes again.

“Not a chance. Ow!”

At first, she didn’t realise what had caused his sudden cry of pain. Then, inch by dogged inch, a pair of blue-grey ears made their appearance by his knee, followed by the rest of Apollo, determinedly shinning up his leg. He reached Fran’s thigh with a look of smug triumph, sat down and surveyed the new landscape, obviously with a view to climbing further. She looked down, and saw Artemis approaching the sofa. “Oh, no, you don’t, Art, you little fiend!”

It was a mistake. The other kitten, scooped up and deposited without ceremony on her lap, saw her brother and launched herself at him. Instantly, Fran’s lap was filled with a yowling, spitting frenzy of brown and blue fur. Fearing damage, Jenna swept them back off onto the floor, where they continued to do battle until Apollo, ever the wimp, extricated himself from his sister’s fury and fled into the hall. Within a few moments, a thundering above their heads indicated that she’d chased him upstairs.

“Amazing how five kilos of assorted kitten manages to sound like two tons of elephant,” Jenna commented. There was a long scratch across the back of her hand, and it was beginning to bleed, and smart. Fran proffered the tissue box again, and she took one and dabbed at the wound. “Thanks. Are you OK?”

“Fine, thanks to your timely intervention. No wonder you called her a fiend – she’s a piece of work, isn’t she?”

“She bullies poor Polly unmercifully. He’s a big greedy softy, not the sharpest knife in the box, and she’s got the heart of a lion wrapped up in that tiny body. I think she’s making sure he’s under her claw now, to save any rebellion in the future. And I bet you that in five minutes they’ll be curled up on my bed, washing each other and purring as if they were the best friends in the world.”

“Art and Polly? That makes them sound as if they’re an old married couple, bickering in the pub. What do they think about being called that?”

He was grinning. Jenna said, “They don’t seem to mind at the moment, but I’m sure that once they’re grown up, and very conscious of their dignity, they’ll have an opinion about it.” She looked at the tissue, which was liberally spotted with blood. “I don’t know which of them that was.”

“Do you want some cream on that, and a plaster?”

“Don’t fuss! I think I’m going to live!” Jenna said, laughing suddenly. “Honestly, I don’t need to be wrapped up in cotton wool, you know.”

“I wouldn’t dare to. But it’d be nice, hen, if you let me care. Just a wee bit.”

There was a sudden silence, both in the room and upstairs. A log shifted inside the stove, with a soft sigh. They looked at each other. Jenna saw something in his face that she had never noticed before, or had refused to recognise for what it was. She said, her heart thumping suddenly, “I’m sorry – I didn’t know – “

“Would you please stop apologising, hen?” He sounded exasperated, but his eyes were bright with laughter, and obeying an impulse she’d resisted for far too long, she leaned forward and kissed him.

For an instant she thought she’d made a catastrophic, humiliating misjudgement. His lips were warm against hers, but unresponsive. She’d never kissed a man with a beard before, and it tickled slightly. What if Saskia got it wrong, what if I’ve got it wrong? she wondered wildly: and then his arms went round her, drawing her to him, and his mouth opened on hers, and suddenly it felt so easy, so natural and right, that she couldn’t imagine why she’d ever resisted.

It was a long kiss, gentle, exploratory and loving. When they finally drew apart, Jenna took a deep, rather ragged breath: but before she could speak, Fran said, “If you apologise for that, mo leannan, I won’t be responsible for my actions.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” said Jenna, wondering what ‘mo leannan’ meant, and which language it was – though she thought she could guess. Was she ready for a relationship? She’d spent the last few months, after all, combating Saskia’s hints and suggestions and insinuations, adamant that the last thing she wanted or needed was another man.

Then she realised that she was asking herself entirely the wrong question. She shouldn’t be wondering if she was ready for a relationship – instead, she should be wondering if she wanted this relationship. And the answer, emphatically, was yes.

Obeying yet another wild impulse, she said, “How long have you carried a torch for me?”

Fran looked at her, and smiled slowly, while the expression in his eyes was doing interesting things to her heart rhythm. “What makes you think that?”

“The song about Marino’s, mainly,” said Jenna, unwilling to admit that Saskia had pointed her in the right direction: she didn’t want him to know that they’d been discussing him behind his back. “And you haven’t answered my question.”

There was a pause, and then Fran spread his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Ok, hen, I admit it. ‘Sat like Patience on a monument, and never told my love.’”

“Is that Shakespeare?”

“Sort of. I did Twelfth Night for Highers, can’t remember much of it, but somehow that quote stuck.”

“Are you telling me,” Jenna said, as full realisation began to strike, “that you’ve loved me for more than thirty years, and never said anything? That’s awful! What a waste!”

“You’re forgetting,” said Fran. “Thirty years ago you were a confident young woman who could have her pick, and you certainly wouldn't have picked a wimp like me.”

Was I? That’s not what I remember being. And by the way, you're emphatically not a wimp.”

“Well, that’s how you seemed to me. And I was a shy kid who’d never had a proper girlfriend, and got on better with his guitar than he did with people. Admit it, you never gave me a second glance, not in that way.”

Jenna flushed, because it was true. She said, slightly defensively, “We were all so young, just starting out, we none of us really knew about life at all, whatever we might have pretended.”

“It’s OK, I don’t mind – I didn’t even mind too much then. I thought unrequited love was good for my songwriting and poetry.”

“And was it?”

“Up to a point.” He grinned. “Adolescent bed-sit misery tends to pall after a bit. And I began to realise that you weren’t the only girl on the planet. Other nice young lassies were available. I knew I couldn’t compete with Jon, even though he – well, let’s put it this way, he didn’t treat his girlfriends the way I’d have treated them. So I crept out of my shell, learned how to play the field, and tried to forget you.”

“But you couldn’t,” said Jenna. She felt like crying. What on earth had she done, to be the object of such feelings? And why, oh why, hadn’t he plucked up the courage to do something about it at the time? Though that callow boy, gawky and tongue tied and awkward, had never aroused any romantic interest in her: he was too shy and immature, and she’d always preferred men who were confident and self-assured.

Thinking of Jon and Rick, perhaps too confident: probably ‘arrogant’ was a better word. But Fran, though he had now acquired that ease with himself that she’d always liked in other men, was very far from being arrogant.

“No,” he said, his eyes still on hers. “No, I couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried. At the back of my mind, there was always you.”

“But when we met again, why didn’t you say anything then?”

“You were married, remember? And then going through a messy divorce. You wouldn’t have wanted me butting in. ‘Hi, Jen, here I am, all ready to take you on because guess what, I’ve been in love with you since we were kids!’ Creepy or what? But I could be your friend without pressuring you, and you let me, and that’s meant a lot.”

“I’m glad, because it’s meant a lot to me, too.” Jenna took a long breath. “But are you sure it’s not just nostalgia for a happy time in our lives?”

“I’m sure,” he said quietly. “Because when I met you again, you’d grown up too, and what you’ve become is even better than what you were. We’ve all grown up, we’ve learned and matured and benefitted from experience, good and bad, and we’re comfortable in our skins.”

“But our essence doesn’t change,” Jenna said. “We’re still much the same underneath. We’ve all still got the same quivering blob inside, that we had when we were young. I’m still geek girl, happy with old books and long ago events. You’re still the boy who turned his emotions into words and music, and made them sing.” She grinned wryly. “And Jon is still Jon.”

“Even if he’s mellowed a bit, had a few corners rubbed off.”

“And I suspect that being in a relationship with Saskia will knock off even more corners. She’s pretty no-holds-barred when it comes to her men. He may well find he’s bitten off more than he can chew.”

“Don’t worry about it – it’ll be good for him.” Fran studied her, his face serious. “Listen, Jen – all we’ve done so far is kissed. We don’t have to take it any further. Are you absolutely sure you want this?”

“Oh, you idiot! I wouldn’t have made the first move if I didn’t! Sometimes,” Jenna said, in mock exasperation, “that quivering blob gets more importance than it deserves.”

With stupendously poor timing, her last words were interrupted by a loud knock on the front door. They looked at each other, and Jenna added ruefully, “I suppose I’d better answer that. It’s probably Ruth, and if I don’t, she’ll think we’re burgling the place – and she’s got a key.”

It was Ruth, and she did indeed look relieved when she saw who was opening the door. “Oh, sorry, Jenna, I saw the light was on and wondered if you were back – thought I’d better check to make sure.”

“That’s OK, better safe than sorry,” Jenna said. “And many thanks for feeding the kittens.” Aware that they might decide to make a dash for it, despite the inclement weather outside, she pulled the door to and stood on the step.

“That’s fine, any time,” Ruth said. “They’re lovely, aren’t they? And very lively. I could spend hours playing with them.”

“I think Burmese kittens are normal kittens magnified to the power of ten,” Jenna said with a grin.

“And how’s your poor mother? Is she OK? Though of course you wouldn’t be back so soon if she wasn’t.”

Ruth of course knew nothing about all the shenanigans with Patricia, and Jenna had no intention of enlightening her, certainly not now, and probably not for a very long time, if ever. She said brightly, “Oh, she’s OK – a bit bruised and shaken up, but no bones broken, fortunately. It wasn’t nearly as serious as I’d feared – she’ll be fine. They’re keeping her in hospital for a few days, then she’ll be going home.”

“Well, that’s good news,” Ruth said. “So when will you want me to come in and feed the kittens again?”

Jenna hesitated. “Not sure,” she said at last, hoping she didn’t sound too dismissive. “I’ll let you know, anyway, and I’ll try and give you a bit more notice next time. And thank you so much for your help.”

“What are neighbours for? And at least it was one less thing for you to worry about. I’m glad your mum seems to be OK. You can do without that at her age.”

Ruth couldn’t be that much younger than Patricia in years, but in attitude was probably the same vintage as Jenna. She said, “It could have been a lot, lot worse.”

“I know. Well, I’m here if you need me. Enjoy your evening.”

Jenna thanked her again, and watched her sturdy figure striding briskly away down the path. Then, mindful of kittens, she cautiously slipped back inside the cottage.

Enjoy your evening, Ruth had said cheerily, and she intended to.

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