A few days later Cassie still hadn’t spoken to James. She’d sent him a couple of evasive texts saying how busy she was, but nothing more. She was still unsure, and by now she was pretty certain that she had left it far too long to see him again. Sue’s words rang in her ears – was she really letting her past control her present? The one thing she didn’t want!
Moodily, she put her glass of lemonade on the table and stretched out in the sun. Maria was napping, so she had a couple of hours to herself. Rather than bite the bullet and talk to James, she’d decided to try and relax in the back garden. It wasn’t working though. Her mind was a mess with everything, and she didn’t know where to start sorting it through. Rubbing her forehead, she noticed a figure coming down the stone steps onto the patio.
Oh god. James.
Standing to meet him, she felt a stab of fear in her stomach. She couldn’t read his perfectly blank expression. He stopped as she stood, looking her up and down.
‘Good. You are alive. And really rushed off your feet, I can see.’
Embarrassment ran through her. ‘James… I’m sorry…’
‘Why didn’t you call me, Cassie? Why didn’t you pick up the phone? I had a really good night, I really thought we had something… Look, if it was just in my head, I’d rather you told me now so I could stop waiting. You owe me that, at least.’
‘James… Oh god, look. I am sorry I didn’t call you. I was completely out of line. I’ve just had a lot on my mind, I needed some time.’
‘Well, thanks for letting me know Cassie. Did it not occur to you that this might be something that I needed to know?’
Cassie hung her head. ‘I’ve been an idiot.’
‘Yeah. You have.’
Looking up, Cassie was relieved to see a glimmer of warmth sneaking into James’ eyes. ‘Yeah, I have.’
‘Anyway.’ James kicked a loose stone away, clearly unsure of what to say next. ‘Give me a call?’
‘You know… It’s Maria’s birthday today. Mr. Stanislav and I were just going to have a birthday cake in the garden, keep it small, you know? But I’m sure he’ll be happy for you to stay. I know she likes you.’
A smile crept onto his lips. ‘Yeah, she’s a total sweetheart. Do, er… Do you want me to stay?’
‘Yeah! Of course I do!’
Beaming, James leaned forward and planted a kiss on Cassie. How on earth had she nearly let this slip away?
Little Maria was in her element as Cassie held her up to her candles. All the attention was on her, and she was basking in it! As the shaky chorus of Happy Birthday came to an end, Eric gestured for her to blow out her candles.
‘Come on, Ria! Time to blow them out!’
‘No! More singing! Sing about me, Dada!’
Cassie caught James’ eye and laughed as Eric tried to explain the birthday cake process to a disgruntled Maria, who wanted her name to be in more songs. Eventually, she was convinced after a minor threat of no slice of cake if she didn’t co-operate.
* * *
‘Thank you, Miss. Rivers!’
Cassie shook the warm hand of Jacob Shears. She was picking up Cassie from school, and Mr. Stanislav had asked if she wouldn’t mind delivering some more papers for him. Knowing now that James wouldn’t hit the roof she’d agreed to gladly; if nothing else she was getting a bonus for this! Eric had insisted, as the deliveries were not part of her job description, and she wasn’t about to argue with him! Waving as Mr. Shears walked away, she looked about for Maria.
‘Cassie! Up here!’
Startled, Cassie looked up to where the voice had come from, laughing as she saw Maria waving to her from the tree house. It was her favourite haunt; whenever Cassie picked her up from school she usually spent half an hour trying to coax her down from the clubhouse in the branches. Her Dad had offered to build her one in the backgarden, but that wasn’t good enough for Maria!
‘No, Dad. I want the one from Central Park.’
‘But sweetie, that’s on council land. It’s not for sale!’
‘I don’t care! I want that one!’
Since aging up, Maria had become ever more assertive. Having been called princess almost daily since she’d been born, she’d taken the role to heart! One of her many birthday presents had been a dressing up box, and she would live in the princess costume if she were allowed to!
Fortunately her school only allowed fancy dress on charity events, and even if her father would let her there was no getting past her stern head mistress! Cassie had wondered how Maria would react coming up against true discipline for the first time, but she’d handled it surprisingly well.
‘Of course I did. Princesses don’t throw temper tantrums,’ she’d replied when Cassie had complimented her on it. At least she took the role to heart in it’s entirety!
Eric had been out at work when the pair returned home; Maria had been talked down from the treehouse after only twenty five minutes and so Cassie had decided to go to diner for their teas as a celebration. She was surprised to see a ruffled looking Vita Alto stood on the doorstep. She let Maria into the house with strict instruction to get started on her homework before turning to address the haughty woman.
‘Is Mr. Stanislav not in? It is he I wish to speak with.’
‘No, he’s gone to work I’m afraid. Is there anything I can help you with?’
‘Well. Perhaps. My husband did not return home from work last night.’
Tutting, Vita rolled her eyes and gave Cassie a cold look. ‘You heard me perfectly well, girl. I cannot get through to him on his mobile. I wondered if Mr. Stanislav might have any idea.’
‘Why would he?’
‘Well, they are colleagues! Honestly girl, do you know nothing of your employer’s work?’
* * *
‘One more, one more!’
‘No, Maria please, I really have to go! I’m meeting James!’
Beaming, Maria performed a perfect pirouette. She’d been enrolled in ballet classes for some time now, and had decided that she was going to be a ballerina princess when she grew up. She was completely obsessed!
Applauding, Cassie took a sneaky look at the clock on Maria’s bedroom wall. ‘That’s brilliant, Maria! You’ve really come a long way, haven’t you? Now, I really, really have to go…’
Maria stamped her foot crossly. ‘Honestly, Cassie. You spend more time with James than you do with me! You’re supposed to be my nanny, not his!’
Laughing, Cassie ruffled Maria’s hair. ‘Come on now, be fair! You know that’s just not true! Besides, I’ll be seeing you later, won’t I? I’m dragging him along to your recital!’
Her face lighting up, Maria grinned. ‘Seriously? You promise you’ll be there?’
‘Of course I will!’
‘At six on the dot?’
‘At six on the dot!’
Cheering, Maria pulled Cassie into a hug.
‘Okay, now go! And remember what I told you!’
Cassie laughed. Maria had got it into her head that James was going to ask Cassie to marry him, and she’d already decided that she would be their bridesmaid. Cassie wasn’t sure how she’d break the news to her that the bride was usually the centre of attention on a wedding day; Maria still wasn’t used to playing second fiddle!
She met a tired looking James on the beach front. He had a package at his feet.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Of course I bloody am, why are you asking?’
Cassie was taken aback. ‘Calm down, you just look a bit knackered is all.’
James rubbed his eyes. ‘Sorry, hon. Just a few problems at work. Plus I was supposed to deliver this half an hour ago, but Liv’s running late.’
‘Is it her birthday?’ Cassie gestured down to the package, which was decorated with a red bow.
James frowned. ‘Yeah. Yeah, her birthday. Thank god, there she is…’
Waving over at a hawknosed woman who was coming towards them, relief etched itself into his crumpled features. ‘Liv! Hi!’
He quickly put on his business face as he shook her hand. ‘Oh, this Cassie, my girlfriend,’ he pointed to Cassie stood a short way behind him. She didn’t want to get involved in anything technical.
‘Hi, Liv! Happy birthday!’
Liv looked at her for a moment. ‘Thank you, Cassie, was it? Now then, James! What have you got for me!’
Forcing a smile, James picked up the box and handed it over. ‘Here we go! Just as promised.’
‘It’s heavier than I thought it would be, you know.’
Wondering what was in the package, Cassie turned to go to the bar. She was shocked to see a police officer stood behind her; she recognised him as Hank, who’d drunkenly tried it on with her during her jobsearch. He had a stern look on his face.
‘James Brennan, Cassie Rivers, I think you’d better come down to the station, don’t you? You’re under arrest.’