‘And dis is a squ… A squ…’
Cassie smiled encouragingly as she watched Maria try to pronounce ‘square’; she had triangle and rectangle sorted by now, but for some reason was struggling with what to Cassie seemed to be the easiest of the lot! Still, who was she to judge. What’s simple for one person is harder for another, and all that. She was resisting the temptation to give her the answer, trying to ignore the pangs of sympathy she felt for the little girl who sat before her, brow furrowed as if she were trying to work out the most complicated of quadratic equations. Ah, those days were to come!
‘Come on Maria, you do know this one! What’s it called?’
‘A squa… Dada?!’
Maria looked up in shock as she heard angry voices shouting from the floor below, Cassie jumped herself as the front door slammed shut with a loud bang. What on earth is going on down there she wondered, not entirely sure if she should go down and make sure everything was alright.
‘Wass goin’ on, Cassie?’ Maria’s face was falling, and quickly too. As the yelling moved from what Cassie guessed was the entrance hall to the sitting room, she saw the tears welling up in the young girl’s eyes. ‘Is Dada okay?’
‘I don’t know, honey… Look, I’ll go have a look for you, alright?’
Maria nodded, looking utterly subdued. As spoilt as she was she did love her father; Cassie knew at that point that once she was able to, she would do as much for him as he did for her. Leaving her to her blocks game, she headed downstairs, listening as the voices grew more discernable.
‘What the hell did you think you were playing at, Eric?!’
‘I don’t know what else you expected me to do, James!’
‘Yes you bloody well did! I expected you to take them yourself, you lazy old fool! Those were important bloody papers, the lawyers were relying on them turning up! If they’d fallen into the wrong hands -‘
‘But they didn’t!’
‘Yeah, thank gnomes, no thanks to you Eric! There’s me sat panicking away in Twinbrook, only to find out that you’ve got some bimbo nanny delivering them while you sit here twiddling your thumbs!’
‘Do you have to be so childish, James?!’
‘Do you have to be so stupid, Eric!!’
Cassie very quickly wished that she’d stayed upstairs with Maria, that she’d simply comforted the child and put on some music to drown out the shouting.
‘And what the bloody hell do you want?’
Eric turned to see what this James was sneering at. ‘I’d thank you not to speak to my staff like that, James!’
‘And I’d thank you to be more responsible with our paperwork in future, Eric! For the love of llamas, you know that bunch of criminal scumbugs are watching us like hawks! One slip up, Eric, and we’re grilled cheese!’
‘James, calm down, just -‘
‘No! I don’t want to hear any more! I’m out of here.’
Shoving Eric out of his way, James Brennan came face to face with Cassie. He stared at her with a look of what could only be described as revulsion, and jabbed a finger at her.
‘You, girl, are bloody lucky you didn’t deliver those to the wrong person.’
Giving her one last hate-filled stare, James stalked past her and out of the door, slamming it behind him as loudly as he had done upon entering. Cassie and Eric stood in a stunned silence as they heard the sound of his motorbike starting up; they listened until they heard its roar fade away into the distance.
Eric found his voice first, clearing his throat awkwardly. ‘I’m so sorry you had to witness that, Miss. Rivers.’
‘Who was that? Your business partner?’
Eric nodded grimly. ‘Yes, I’m sorry to say. He is usually a more mature man that you just saw, however… Well. He’s under a lot of pressure at the moment, and I can’t imagine getting stranded in Twinbrook will have helped his stress levels. I do apologise for the way he spoke to you, however, it was completely out of order.’
‘Did I do anything -‘
‘No! No, Miss. Rivers. You have done nothing wrong whatsoever. He just panicked, and lashed out at the nearest people. They happened to be us.’
* * *
‘And so Jimmy Sprocket sav… saved all the squ… squ… squishy stones from the evil frog witch and th… they all lived happ… happ… happily ever after.’
Maria clapped her hands together triumphantly as she finished yet another book. This was one little girl who was not going to struggle when it came to starting school!
‘I’m so proud of you, Maria! Your reading really is improving. Right, what are we going to do now?’
‘Sandp – Hiya, Brenny!’
Cassie looked over to where Maria was waving to and saw James Brennan walking down the stone steps with a serious expression on his face. Her heart dropped. This was one man she definitely did not want to see again!
Reluctantly, she stood up to face him. ‘Um. Hello.’
Disgruntled at being left on the ground, Maria tugged on the leg of James’ jeans. ‘Brenny. Present?’
A smile breaking through his stony features, James reached into the pocket of his jacket and produced a multicoloured lollipop, which a delighted looking Maria began to devour immediately. ‘Just you be careful near the pool, right? I need to have a word with Cassie.’
‘Be nice, she’s lovely.’
‘I’m sure she is.’ Cassie felt her cheeks begin to burn red; he had said that last sentence looking directly into her eyes with an odd intensity about his face.
‘Look, James, about before…’
‘Cassie, I was completely out of line. I’ve come to apologise.’
‘Yeah. I… I was a total jerk to you earlier. Well, more than a total jerk, I went entirely over the line and you hadn’t done anything, really. I can be a bit hot headed sometimes; the company’s going through some difficult circumstances at the moment and it’s making it worse. I flew off the handle. I do admit when I’m in the wrong though, and today I most definitely was. Would you please forgive me?’
Cassie was stunned. She’d already made her mind up about James the second he’d stormed through the door; the look he’d given her had sent chills running down her spine and she’d pretty much decided that this was a person she would happily never see again. Yet here he was, looking utterly apologetic, ruefully running a hand through his hair… Cassie felt her stony heart start to melt.
‘…Yeah. Yeah, it’s fine. Shall we just… Start over?’
‘Sounds good to me.’ James smiled, his face the complete polar opposite to the one he’d had on only hours earlier. ‘I really am sorry, though. I felt terrible once I’d calmed down. It was a rubbish first impression to make, especially on someone so new to Sunset Valley! We’re not all as irritable as I am, trust me on that!’
Cassie laughed. ‘Oh, I don’t know… Have you met Mrs. Appleby before?’
‘The old witch who runs that shabby B&B? Oh god, I had nothing to worry about if you’ve met her and lived!’ James joked, his deep brown eyes twinkling and holding Cassie’s gaze practically hostage. She couldn’t take them off him.
‘Listen, Cass… I’d completely understand if you said no to this, but… I was wondering… Would you maybe like to go out with me sometime?’
* * *
‘So! What did you say!?’
Cassie couldn’t suppress her grin as Sue’s intrigued face leant over the bar, totally immersed in the story she’d just been telling her. As soon as James had left she’d driven straight over to the bar to ‘debrief’ the situation with her friend, having put Maria to bed first. She’d needed someone to talk this over with!
‘I didn’t know what to say! I’ve met the man twice in my entire life, both times today. The first time he’s a screaming maniac who looks at me like I’m a piece of chewing gum stuck to the bottom of his shoe; the second he’s all apologetic and asking me out…’
‘So what did you tell him?’
Cassie leaned onto the bar. ‘I said I’d think about it.’
‘You’d think about it?’
‘Yeah! How pathetic is that?’
Sue laughed. ‘It’s not at all! You barely know the guy, and he’s shown polar opposites to his personality within the space of a few hours!’
Cassie smiled, in spite of how confused she was feeling. ‘I just… I don’t know which is the real him, you know?’
Sue pondered this for a second, playing with the hem of her apron. ‘You say Maria already knew him?’
‘I guessed so. She called him “Brenny” and he brought her a lolly, so she clearly likes him.’
‘That’s a pretty good character reference. Y’know, you haven’t said anything about how he… you know…’
‘Well… How does he look?’
Cassie blushed, her face flushing pink as she remembered his eyes gazing into hers. ‘Pretty damn gorgeous, actually!’
Sue laughed out loud; several of the customers turned to see what was so funny.
‘Well then, what’ve you got to lose? You go for it, girl! If nothing else, you’ll be seen in the Valley with a handsome fella on your arm!’