As agreed, after coffee the next morning, Charlotte, Billie and Elizabeth prepared to set off to visit the cathedral in the next town.
"We'll be back late this afternoon," Elizabeth said, kissing Sam goodbye. "Be good."
"Yeah, course I will," Sam said, flapping his hand at his mother, hoping no-one had seen the kiss. "I'll be nice to Alice 'cause her Mum's dead even though her Dad might shout at me again."
"Do you think he will shout at me?"
"No, probably not. Wait, what was the other thing you said?" Elizabeth asked, grabbing Sam by the shoulder as he ambled away from her.
"Ouch!" he squeaked, pulling away from her. "Alice said her Mum is dead. She died in a car crash when Alice was six. Hey, your friend Charlotte is going to drive properly isn't she?"
"Yes, Charlotte will drive carefully," Elizabeth said, her head suddenly swimming with this new information. Charlotte was calling her to leave, Ellen was waving goodbye, and as Sam ran to the pool, Elizabeth stood for a moment, completely stunned.
"Have fun," Ellen shouted. "And don't worry, stay out as long as you like."
"Thanks," Elizabeth muttered, and climbed into the back seat of Charlotte's car. She loved the scenery through which they drove, and enjoyed the banter and conversation with Charlotte and Billie, who were as interested as she was in art and architecture, yet so much more well informed. She loved Sam dearly, but sometimes she yearned for just this kind of adult conversation. Within the calm tranquillity of the cathedral, which they reached just after lunch, she sank onto a pew and sighed her thanks for being blessed with a beautiful boy, and at the same time couldn't help but reflect on William's situation. Although she knew no more than Sam had said, that was enough to make her ponder. She wondered how William was coping with single parenthood if it had been thrust upon him so violently, and how much heartbreak he had suffered at the loss of his wife. Now she could begin to understand him a little, perhaps - his awkwardness, his seeming lack of civility, his over-protective attitude towards the one precious person left in his life. She saw a man who hurt, and she regretted having shouted at him.
At the villa, the morning had gone smoothly, there was no awkwardness between Sam and William, and the children had begun another round of the volleyball championships carried over from a few days earlier. Ellen provided sandwiches for the children's lunch and once they had eaten, she took the little ones inside to read them a story and settle them for a nap. Tom and Michael were having a competition on the swings to see who could do the most pull ups on the bar. Richard snoozed on a lounger and William went indoors to make some coffee. Sam stood on the edge of the pool, about to dive, when Alice came out of the villa and saw him.
Alice's shout woke Richard, who opened his eyes in time to see the events that followed as if in slow motion, forever to be imprinted on his memory.
As Alice called, Sam turned, but having been about to dive he lost his balance and his feet slipped from under him. He fell, and with a sickening crack his head hit the side of the pool. Alice's scream brought Richard fully awake, and he leapt out of his chair. He ran to the pool, following Alice's pointing finger, and saw the unconscious boy half floating, the blood from his head spreading through the water. Richard jumped fully clothed into the pool.
"Get William, get Ellen, quick, Alice, run. Now!"
Richard scooped Sam into his arms and was struggling to get to the shallow end of the pool as William came running out of the villa.
"What's the matter? Oh, my God! Here, give him to me!"
Richard passed Sam's unconscious body to William, then scrambled out of the pool as William lowered Sam to the ground and knelt beside him.
"Sam! Samuel! Can you hear me?" William said, feeling helpless as he watched the blood seep through his fingers where he held his hand against Sam's cut head. Tom and Michael had run over to see what the fuss was about, and Richard gave them instructions.
"Michael, fetch me some towels. Tom, phone an ambulance."
Ellen ran outside and saw the men kneeling on the ground by the pool.
"What's happened?" she asked, then saw Sam. "Oh no."
"An ambulance will take too long, Richard, we need to get him to hospital," William said. "Is he breathing?"
"Give me one of those towels, Michael," Ellen demanded, feeling for a pulse and finding that Sam was still breathing. "Head wounds always look worse than they are really, because of the amount of blood," she said, holding a towel against Sam's head. "Keep him still."
"He's choking," William said as Sam began to splutter and heave. "What do we do?"
"Turn him, but do it gently," Ellen said, guiding the men's hands on Sam's limp body. "Keep his spine straight, but we have to tip him over so he doesn't choke on his own vomit."
Between the three of them they rolled Sam onto his front where with one heave he spewed what seemed to William to be a gallon of water. His eyes flickered open and he whimpered.
"Sam?" Ellen said, whispering close to his ear. "Sam, can you hear me?"
"Mmm," he groaned.
"You hit your head. Can you see anything?"
His eyes closed and he moaned softly.
"We need to get him to hospital now," Ellen said. "I think he's concussed."
"I'll take him," William said.
"It needs two of us, one to drive, one to be with him," Richard said. "I'll drive, I know the way. You sit in the back with him."
The boys stood open mouthed and shocked while Alice sobbed, unable to do anything but feel completely helpless.
"Is he going to be alright?" Alice said, crying. "I only shouted to him, I didn't mean for him to fall."
"It's OK, sweetie," Ellen said, putting her arm around Alice's shoulders. "It was an accident. We'll get him to hospital and he'll be OK." As she said it, she hoped fervently that it would be true. Richard ran inside and changed into dry clothes as quickly as he could, leaving Ellen and William to watch over the now semi-conscious boy. William and Richard fashioned some cushioning for Sam's head and neck out of towels, then carried him to Richard's car. As they drove away, Ellen had to stifle the cry in her throat and turn to comfort the children.
Elizabeth, Charlotte and Billie arrived back at the villa complex having had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon. Elizabeth led the way back to the poolside, laughing and happy, then froze as she saw a stern faced William rise from his chair. In an instant she knew that something was dreadfully wrong.
"Where's Sam? What's happened?"
"There's been an accident," William said.
He had read about people's colour draining away with shock, but he had never actually seen it happen before. But as Elizabeth stood in front of him, he literally saw her turn as white as a sheet. She felt as though her insides had turned to ice, and she stumbled towards him, her knees feeling as if they would give way at any moment. Instinctively he caught her and wrapped his arms around her.
"Sam fell and banged his head. We took him to hospital. Richard's with him."
"Where is he? I need to go to him!" Elizabeth cried, as Ellen came running out of the villa. She was red eyed herself and William ended up with two women in his arms.
"What can we do?" Charlotte asked. "Can we take anyone to the hospital? How is Sam, is he OK?"
"Sam fell into the pool and hit his head on the side as he fell. He was unconscious but then he came round. Richard and I took him to the hospital, they did a CAT scan and they said he's OK, but they want to keep him in overnight. Richard stayed with him, I came back here in a taxi to wait for you. Charlotte, if you could take us to the hospital, that would be very good of you."
Ellen had her arms around Elizabeth who was beyond sobbing. "I'm so sorry," Ellen said. "I was supposed to look after him, and .." she began to cry.
"Come on, it was an accident," William said softly, cradling each one of them. "He's a strong boy, he'll be OK."
"Have you seen him?" Elizabeth asked. "In the hospital?"
"Yes," William replied. "Richard and I took him in, and we waited while they did the scan. He came round quite quickly, but they've put him on an observation ward. Once we had him settled, I came back here to wait for you."
"Can we go now?" she whispered.
William looked at Charlotte, who nodded. "Come on, Lizzie, let's get you over there."
Billie took Ellen's arm. "Can I help you with the children?" she asked. "Let's go and see to them, while these three go to the hospital."
Billie and Ellen walked away while Charlotte helped Elizabeth into her car. She drove carefully, following William's directions, while he explained in more detail how the accident had happened. They pulled up in front of a large and modern looking hospital, and William led the way. The three of them walked onto a ward that was tranquil apart from the machines softly beeping by each bedside. They tiptoed to where Richard sat, holding vigil.
"Elizabeth!" he said quietly, and jumped up to embrace her. She looked over his shoulder and a sob escaped her lips. Sam lay in bed, his eyes closed and his head bandaged.
"He's sleeping," Richard said. "They gave him some painkillers, he had to have a couple of stitches, but he's going to be OK."
"Can I speak to the consultant in charge?" Elizabeth asked, her professional persona clicking into place as if it were some sort of defence mechanism. She slipped into the chair that Richard had vacated, and held Sam's hand while William went off to look for a doctor.
"Sam, it's me," Elizabeth whispered. "Mum's here. I'm right by you and I'm not going away."
Sam turned his head slightly and his eyes flickered. "Mum?" he mumbled, his voice thick as he emerged from a deep sleep.
"Yes, sweetheart," Elizabeth murmured as tears rolled down her face.
Once the doctor had spoken to Elizabeth, she felt much calmer and reassured. Sam had suffered a slight concussion and had needed some stitches to a cut on the back of his head, but as far as anyone could tell there would be no lasting damage. As he had lost consciousness for a short time, the doctor wanted to keep him overnight for observation, and agreed that Elizabeth should stay with him. Charlotte, William and Richard got ready to leave.
"Are you sure you're going to be OK?" William asked. "One of us could always stay with you."
"No, I'll be fine, but thank you," Elizabeth replied, seeing deep concern in William's expression.
"I'll pick the two of you up in the morning," Richard said.
"Thanks Richard. Could you bring him a shirt when you come? He's only wearing his swimming shorts." Elizabeth handed her keys to Richard.
"Yes, of course. We rather forgot about his clothes in the panic! See you in the morning."
She waved them off and went back to sit with Sam, but was surprised when William returned, twenty minutes later, carrying a bag and a bottle of orange juice.
"There's a supermarket down the road," he said. "Got you something to drink, some overnight things, and we thought he might need something to sleep in."
Elizabeth opened the bag to find a baggy T shirt, toothpaste and two toothbrushes, and some freshwipes. She was suddenly overcome with emotion and put her hand to her mouth as she sobbed a thank you. William put his arm around her and she leaned on his shoulder for a moment.
"Don't cry, it's OK now," he murmured softly, feeling her relax as he held her.
"I think the strain of it all just hit me," Elizabeth said, sounding rather tired.
"It's the shock," William said. "Delayed reaction. It hits you as soon as you're over the worst and begin to relax. Are you sure you wouldn't like someone to stay with you?"
"Yes, I'm sure, and anyway you need to get back to Alice. If she thinks it's her fault, she's probably really upset."
"Yes, she'll be worried about him," William said. "I'll tell her that she'll see him tomorrow."
Their eyes met, and Elizabeth nodded. An unspoken agreement to put the past behind them seemed to be contained in that one moment.
"Well, better go, Charlotte's waiting where she shouldn't be parked, don't want to get her a fine!" William said, feeling slightly uncomfortable. It had been too nice, having his arms around Elizabeth. He wasn't just comforting her, he wanted to hold her, and he suddenly felt that his behaviour was inappropriate for this time and place.
Elizabeth watched him leave, and sat down by Sam, her mind racing. Something had changed, something inexplicable, but suddenly amidst the pain and fear she had felt warmth from a man that she hadn't experienced in a long time. The kindness that had been expressed in his embrace had made her aware of just how much she was missing.
Richard arrived at the hospital mid morning, having phoned to find out that Sam had had a good night and would be discharged later. When he got to the ward, Sam was sitting on the side of his bed, swinging his legs and looking fine, apart from the dressing on the back of his head.
"Well, you seem to have made a quick recovery!" Richard said cheerfully, thinking that in fact Elizabeth looked rather the worse for wear.
"He slept all night, woke up this morning saying he was hungry, and now he wants to go back in the pool!" Elizabeth said. "Can you believe this boy?"
Sam grinned. "I haven't got a headache, and I could swim without getting my head wet!"
"How are you, Elizabeth?" Richard asked.
"Exhausted and a stiff neck," she replied. "I'd forgotten how noisy hospitals can be sometimes. I dozed a bit but that chair isn't too comfortable."
"Let's get back, then you can have a quiet day, Sam, and your Mum can have a snooze."
Sam had a hero's welcome when he arrived at the villa. Tom and Michael wanted to know how many stitches he had, and whether they could look at his wound. Sophie had drawn him a picture, and although he couldn't quite work out what it represented, he thanked her anyway. Alice blushed slightly as she said hello and he grinned back at her.
"Does your head still hurt?" she asked.
"Only if I touch the bit that I hit," Sam said.
"Well, don't poke at your head, silly boy!" Elizabeth said.
"Come and sit down," Ellen said. "There's some coffee ready, and lemonade for Sam, if you want some?"
He nodded enthusiastically then grimaced as his head did still hurt a bit. He sat down and listened as Tom and Michael began to describe his accident to him in very florid and dramatic terms, as he couldn't remember what had happened. After a while, William noticed that Elizabeth's eyes were closing and her head was nodding.
"Why don't you go for a sleep?" he said, with kindness and warmth in his voice. "And Sam, you go indoors too, have a read or a rest."
"Can't I stay out here?"
"I think your Mum would like to have you nearby today," William said.
Richard passed Elizabeth's keys to William, and he led the way to her villa. Once indoors, he put a couple of cushions at one end of the couch, and found a blanket in the hall cupboard. Elizabeth was so tired that she was on automatic pilot, lying down and allowing him to cover her up. Sam fetched his book and curled into the chair next to her to read.
"There, you can keep an eye on each other," William said to Sam. "And if you need anything, you know where we all are."
"Thanks," Sam said, still rather surprised at this kindness and change of mood. Sometimes, he thought, adults are just too strange to work out.
By the end of the afternoon, Elizabeth felt much better for having had a sleep, and Sam was beginning to get bored. He was lying on the couch listening to a CD while Elizabeth had a shower, when Ellen arrived and tapped on the terrace door.
"Feeling better, Sam?" she asked. "Where's your Mum?"
"I'm fine thanks. Mum's having a shower to perk herself up."
Just then, Elizabeth ambled out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel.
"Hi!" Ellen said. "How are you?"
"Much better for a sleep and a shower," Elizabeth said.
"Well, we wondered if you'd like to come out with us tonight, we're going to a really nice restaurant that has a big terrace, and we just wanted to have a little party before you leave."
"I've got to pack, though and book a taxi for the morning, we have to check in at 7am!" Elizabeth hesitated.
"Richard has already said he'll take you to the airport," Ellen said. "Do come, please! I could do with some female company!"
"What do you think, Sam?" Elizabeth asked. "Do you feel up to going out?"
"Yeah, I'm fine."
"Great!" Ellen said. "Shall we see you on our terrace for a drink, around 6?"
"That would be lovely," Elizabeth said. "I'll sling everything in the cases now, then I don't have to think about it later!"
She packed the cases, still wrapped in a towel, leaving one dress out to wear that evening. While Elizabeth got dressed and did her make-up, Sam gathered his belongings and changed into a neat shirt and trousers.
When they walked across to Ellen and Richard's villa, William was already there and could hardly take his eyes off Elizabeth. She had spent most of the week wearing shorts and T-shirts, or her swimming costume, so he knew she had a good figure, but the summer dress she was wearing seemed to tease him by hinting at what was underneath without being revealing. She had put her hair up, rather than tying it back in a ponytail and she looked very alluring. He poured her a glass of wine in lieu of being able to say hello, because the power of speech had suddenly deserted him.
"You look smart Sam," Ellen said. "And you look lovely Elizabeth. I love your hair like that!"
"Thanks," Elizabeth said. She felt rather self-conscious because she had seen the way William had been looking at her as she walked over. She couldn't quite meet his eye, because she knew that if she did, she would be frozen like a rabbit in headlights. Richard appeared with Emily on his hip, and the spell was broken.
"Great, we're all here!" he said cheerily. "And how's the wounded hero?"
Sam grinned, enjoying being the centre of attention and feeling sure he would be able to get away with ordering the biggest ice cream on the menu.
Once more at the restaurant, the group was greeted warmly and shown to the terrace. Elizabeth couldn't help a rueful grin escape as she remembered her previous visit.
"Have you been here yet this week?" Richard asked her.
"Yes, we came on our first night," she said, catching William's eye and seeing him look embarrassed.
"We're regulars, it's one of the few places where we can all fit in!" Ellen laughed as she organised the children and handed out menus to the bigger ones. Jugs of sangria and orange juice arrived, and for a few moments there was relative peace as menus were perused and orders placed. The noise level grew as the children chattered and the adults relaxed, talking about holiday plans for next year.
"Will you come back again?" Ellen asked Elizabeth. "We're here for most of the summer, and we'll be letting the other villas again. The business is just getting going but this summer has been good."
"Yeah, can we come next year, Mum?" Sam said, overhearing the conversation.
"We'll see," Elizabeth said, wondering whether that was a hopeful look on William's face.
"It's always been just family before, for the main bit of the summer holiday," he said. "Richard decided to branch out this year."
"I hope you'll all come back," Ellen said, glancing between Elizabeth and William.
"But no hospital dashes next year!" Richard said. "Eh, Sam?"
"That was a lovely meal," Elizabeth said to Ellen as they strolled up the hill later in the evening. She had enjoyed the food, but more than that had enjoyed the relaxed company and easy conversation. "I would like to come on holiday here again."
"I'm sure you'll be back," Ellen replied, with a little twinkle in her eye. "I think William rather likes you, you know."
Elizabeth smiled but chose not to answer, but after a few moments silence needed to ask a question.
"Can I ask you something?" she said quietly. "The other day, Sam said that Alice had told him about her mother. I just wondered ..."
"If it was true? Alice likes to shock people sometimes, but yes, if she said that her mother was killed in a car crash, it's true. You might even have heard of her, she was a model, Caroline Darcy. Very tall, quite striking looking, and I can't say much more because it's wrong to speak ill of the dead."
"What do you mean?" Elizabeth said, startled.
Ellen thought for a moment, wondering how much to tell Elizabeth. She had seen that William was attracted to her, and thought that the feelings were reciprocated, but felt that it was up to William to decide how much of his history to reveal. However, she decided that Elizabeth at least needed to know the basics.
"She and William had split up, when Alice was four. I think William thought that she would give up modelling when she had Alice, but she didn't want to. He wanted her to stay closer to home, not go zipping off all over the world at a moment's notice, but that wasn't Caroline. Putting other people first wasn't really her style."
Ellen paused, thinking she was perhaps going too far.
"I'm sorry, I said I wouldn't speak ill of the dead, didn't I?"
She smiled a rather sad smile at Elizabeth.
"Caroline had her own life, and towards the end of their marriage I'm not sure how much of it she shared with William. Shall we leave it at that?" she said, then continued to tell the tale. "The summer that Alice was six, Caroline left her with her mother, and went to Italy for a fashion shoot. There was a car crash on a mountain road, and she was killed instantly. William got custody of Alice, and has been on his own ever since, pretty much."
"Oh goodness," Elizabeth said. "Poor Alice. And poor William."
"It was a horrible shock, obviously, and awful for Alice to have to grow up without a mother," Ellen said. "But there was no love lost between William and Caroline when they split up, the marriage was over."
They walked for a while in silence, looking at the men who walked ahead of them with the children.
"I sometimes wonder whether I should've made more of an effort with Sam's father," Elizabeth said. "But he made it clear from the beginning that he wasn't really interested, and then he moved and I haven't known where he is for years. Never think about him any more, really."
"You're doing a good job, though," Ellen said. "And so does William with Alice, really, though they have their moments."
"Don't we all?" Elizabeth said, laughing.
They caught up with the men and children, and arrived back at the complex.
"We should set off by quarter past 6 if you've to be at the airport for 7," Richard said to Elizabeth, waving away her protests and refusing to concede to her insistence that she book a taxi.
"We'd better say our goodbyes now, then," Elizabeth said to the children, picking up Sophie for a hug. "You'll still be fast asleep!"
"Bye Sam," Alice said. "Hope your head is better soon."
"Thanks," said Sam, feeling suddenly rather shy. "See you, Tom. Get your Dad to bring you to Highbury."
"I'll give you a call when we get back," Ellen said to Elizabeth, giving her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. "It would be lovely to meet up."
"Yes, do come over for coffee," Elizabeth replied, noticing that William was looking as shy and awkward as Sam had. "Thanks for your help yesterday, William."
"Oh, it was nothing," William replied. He suddenly stepped forward and kissed her on the cheek. "Have a good journey home."
"Come on then, kids, time for bed," Richard said, leading his brood away. "I'll see you two at the crack of dawn!"
Later, falling asleep in their separate villas, both Elizabeth and William wondered how differently the week might have turned out, and felt pangs of regret. Elizabeth reminded herself that holiday romances never led to anything, and William wondered whether it was the heat that had contributed to his intense feelings of desire.
William rolled over in bed, opened his eyes and grabbed his watch. Focussing, he saw that it was 6:20am and he had either failed to set the alarm or slept through it. He jumped out of bed and ran out of the villa, but everywhere was quiet, and Richard's car had gone. He swore under his breath, and stumbled through to the kitchen to make coffee. There was no point going back to bed to try and sleep now; he was too annoyed with himself for missing the chance to say goodbye to Elizabeth.
As Richard drove to the airport next morning, Elizabeth told herself not to be silly for thinking that William might have got up to see them off, but just reflected once more on the perils of holiday romance and decided that she must have been wrong to think that he had been attracted to her.
"Thanks, Richard," she said, when he found a trolley and wheeled their bags into the departure hall. "You've been very kind."
"The least I could do," he said. "I feel dreadful about what happened to Sam, I should've been more careful, watched him properly. I hope he's OK now."
"He'll be fine, and it was an accident, I know that, and please tell Ellen I said so. No-one could've stopped him falling. Enjoy the rest of your holiday, and no doubt we'll see you around."
"Hope so, here next year if not before." He turned to Sam, and smiled. "And you look after yourself, no more frights for your Mum!"
Sam grinned and shuffled his feet. He'd had enough of being reminded how awful the head-smash afternoon had been for everyone. Richard waved good bye, and Elizabeth and Sam joined the queue to check in for the flight home..
Back in London short hours later, the weather felt cool and damp, so once back home, Elizabeth pulled a sweater on while she checked the post and listened to answerphone messages. She wrote a note to herself to phone the GP the next day to make an appointment for Sam, put the laundry in to wash, and called up the stairs.
"I'm nipping out to Sainsbury's for milk and stuff, do you want to come?"
"No, I'm on the computer," Sam shouted back.
Funny how quickly the effects of a week's holiday disappeared within a few minutes of getting home, Elizabeth thought as she set off for the supermarket.
The next week passed quickly as she and Sam spent the time searching for new school clothes when it seemed that every other mother in North London had to have been out to buy white shirts already. They managed to get him kitted out with a new bag and trainers, and eventually found a couple of shirts . On Sunday evening, a week after they had returned, the phone rang and she ran to get it.
"It's only me!" trilled the voice of her mother. "Just checking to see how you both are."
Elizabeth felt guilty at the pang of disappointment, told herself that she was being silly to expect anyone other than her mother to call on a Sunday evening, and settled down for a chat.
On that same Sunday, William and Alice drove to the airport and flew home, whilst Richard, Ellen and the children were due to drive to Santander on Tuesday and catch the ferry to Plymouth. They could do the journey in two days, which was hard work, but as Ellen pointed out, not as much of a nightmare as getting five children on a plane and at least this way they had all their toys with them for the long summer holiday. Just as William was packing the last bag into his car, Ellen handed him a slip of paper.
"Elizabeth's phone number. Give her our love when you speak to her."
William noticed that Ellen had said "when" not "if", and smiled. "Am I that obvious?"
"Yes," Ellen replied, and kissed him on the cheek. "Have a good journey, and come round for dinner soon."
"I will. Thanks. Bye Richard! Bye kids!"
Ellen waved them off, and smiled to herself as she remembered the number of times William had found some reason to drop Elizabeth's name into the conversation in the week since she had gone. One evening he had offered to help bathe the little ones, and she had gladly accepted his offer.
"You're very good with them, William," she had said.
"Don't sound so surprised!" he'd retorted, then had fallen silent for a few moments. "Actually I enjoy it. I loved it when Alice was a baby and I managed to get home for bath times. And now she's getting so grown up, with her make-up and magazines and so on, I regret how much I must have missed."
"It's not too late to have another family."
"At my age?"
"You're not 40 yet..."
"Not far off."
"Anyway, plenty of men in their forties find someone, settle down and have a family."
"I can't imagine finding someone else," William said quietly. "It's funny, when Caroline first left, I just assumed I'd get together with someone in due course, but it didn't happen, and then she died, and I almost feel disloyal even thinking about another woman. She has more hold over me dead than she did when she was alive."
"You're not being disloyal to Caroline if you think about a woman, you're not even being disloyal to Alice."
"What do you mean?" William asked, startled.
"Something Elizabeth said," Ellen said, deciding to take the plunge and bring her into the conversation since her presence was hovering around the edge of it. "She said that when Sam was a baby she never thought about dating because she was studying and looking after him, and had no time or energy. When she graduated, she was working hard, and giving all the time she could to Sam, and now I think she believes that if she sees a man, she's somehow abandoning him."
"But that's ridiculous, you only have to look at her to see how much she loves him, and what a great job she's done of raising him!"
"Goodness, William, something of a sea-change!" Ellen said, fully aware thanks to Elizabeth of the things he had said earlier in the holiday.
"OK, OK, OK, Ellen, how many times do you want me to say I was wrong?" he asked, smiling, for despite the serious topic the conversation was good-natured. "I misjudged Elizabeth, I jumped to stupid conclusions, and I was thoughtless about Sam."
"That'll do nicely," Ellen grinned, then turned a little more serious. "But I think both of you need to realise that having a relationship doesn't mean you love your children less. I'm sure it's trickier because you have to think about an extra person in the equation, but I think you'd both be silly to shut yourselves off to possibilities."
"You just want everyone to be as happy as you and my lucky sod of a cousin," William said, suddenly wanting to deflect this conversation before it became necessary for him to reveal any more of his inner thoughts.
"Yes I do," Ellen said smugly, and turned back to Emily and Daniel who were gurgling happily in the water. "Now, let's get these little monsters out of the bath before they turn into prunes."
Ellen watched the car disappear round the corner and turned to go back into the villa. She hoped that he would make the call, because she was sure she had seen at least a little spark of interest on both sides and felt that despite the differences between them on the surface, deep down they would be good for one another.
Three days later On Wednesday evening, Elizabeth was washing up and Sam was doing his homework, grumbling that he had so much already, when the phone rang. She was still telling him to stop complaining and finish his maths before he could watch television when she picked up the phone, and sounded more than a little distracted. William was slightly thrown off his stride by the exasperated tone in her voice as she answered.
"Oh, have I caught you at a bad time?" he asked.
"If you're trying to sell me double glazing, financial services or a new conservatory, then I'm not interested."
"I think you're confusing me with someone else. This is William Darcy."
Elizabeth squeaked down the phone, thankful that he couldn't see the stricken expression on her bright red face.
"I just thought I'd give you a ring. We all wondered how Sam was getting on, if he's better now."
"He's fine, thanks, back at school, no after effects," Elizabeth replied, trying to get her breathing and her voice under control. "Sorry, I'm just a bit fed up with these salespeople who always phone up at the worst moments, like just when tea's ready, or you're in the bath, or you're trying to make your son finish his homework."
Sam held up his book to prove that he had finished. "Can I watch TV now?"
"Yes, you can," Elizabeth said to Sam, glad that he was leaving the room. "Sorry, I'm talking to two of you at once, he's gone to watch telly now his maths is done."
"No, no, that's fine," William answered, grinning to himself as he got a little insight into Elizabeth's home life.
"I suppose with Alice at boarding school, you don't need to stand over her to make sure she does her homework."
"No, that's true," William admitted, not for the first time feeling a slight stab of regret at what he might be missing. "Anyway, the other reason I phoned is because I wondered whether you would have dinner with me. I know the first time I asked you, I made a hideous balls-up of the whole thing, but I'd like to try again."
"Wow," Elizabeth gasped, thinking that when a man like William decided to take the plunge, he didn't hang about. He was still talking too quickly on the other end of the phone, fuelled by nerves.
"I mean, if you still feel the same as you did, that you'd rather I didn't ask, then just say so, and I won't ask again."
"No, erm, thank you, well, I suppose, umm, yes OK," Elizabeth gabbled, knowing that she sounded crazy but unable to form a complete sentence.
"Great! I wondered if you were free on Saturday. I took Alice back to school today, so I'm on my own."
Elizabeth paused. Much as she had allowed herself to think favourably of William following the day of Sam's accident, and had wondered how they might have got on had they not had such a bad start, this wasn't going to be simple. William was attractive, but he was also a man who was obviously used to getting his own way, and Elizabeth wondered whether he was the right sort of man for her to go out with.
"I'm not," she said. "On my own, I mean. Obviously. I can ask Sam if he'd like to go to my sister's, but I'll have to ring you back."
"Oh." William hadn't thought of this potential set back. "Well, shall I give you my number? Then you can call me back and let me know what you decide."
Elizabeth wrote down William's number, promised to phone him the next day, and put the phone down feeling rather dazed. William put the phone down feeling very much mixed up. Although Ellen had been correct when she told Elizabeth that he had not had any real relationships since splitting up with Caroline, he had taken women out, often to official functions and dinners, and was not used to being made to wait for an answer. He knew that if he was going to become involved with Elizabeth, he was going to have to get used to quite a few things he had not had to deal with before.
Elizabeth made a cup of tea and went to watch TV with Sam.
"Who was that on the phone?" he asked.
"William. He wanted to know if you'd recovered from the bump on the head."
"Oh." He went on looking at the TV, waiting for whatever was coming next.
"And he asked if I'd like to go out to dinner with him."
"What did you say?"
"I said I'd see. It depends whether you fancy going to Aunty Jane's on Saturday night. If you don't want to go, I'll put William off."
"Nah, I don't mind. Do you think Uncle Charles will let me use the telescope?"
Elizabeth's sister Jane had married Charles Bingley, a successful city executive by day with a passion for astronomy at night.
"Maybe, if you behave. What do you think, then? Shall I ask her?"
"Yeah, I'll go if you want me to." "Sam..." Elizabeth paused, not quite knowing how to broach the subject uppermost in her mind. "I'm not trying to make you go."
"No, I know. But do you want to go out with him? Do you like him?"
"I'm not sure yet. I didn't, at first, but when you had your accident things seemed to change. He was very kind to us."
"Well, I think you should go and find out if you like him," Sam said in a very matter-of-fact way. "If you don't, dump him and we'll move house."
"That's what happened to Jack. He went out with this girl at school, and when he phoned her the next day she said she didn't like him, and next time he went past her house she'd moved."
Elizabeth burst out laughing. "I don't think it's quite the same when you're my age!"
Sam giggled. "And I don't really want to move."
"We won't move house, Sam, whatever happens," Elizabeth said, still laughing. "Right, I'll give Jane a ring, see what she says."
Sam watched Elizabeth leave the room. Some of his friends' Mums had boyfriends, and he had sometimes wondered why his Mum didn't. The thought of change made him a little nervous, but he was aware enough to realise that sooner or later, this sort of thing was bound to happen.
On Saturday afternoon, Sam stuffed a few things into an overnight bag and went downstairs to find Elizabeth in the kitchen.
"I'll go now," he said.
"Hang on, don't you want me to take you?" Elizabeth asked, startled.
"No, I want to go into Games Workshop and I'll get the tube from Angel."
"Well, if you're sure," Elizabeth said, doubtfully. "Tell Jane I'll pick you up in the morning."
Elizabeth heard the front door slam, and stood unmoving for a few moments. Much as she knew that Sam had to grow up, his independence still sometimes left her with a sense of loss for the little boy who had become so self-assured so quickly. She shook herself out of her reverie and carried on with the household paperwork jobs she hated doing.
After a while she admitted that she wasn't concentrating, and glanced at her watch. With the house to herself, she decided to have a long luxurious bath, and get ready in plenty of time. William had offered to pick her up, but she had said that she would see him at the restaurant, so she booked a taxi for later that evening, and went upstairs for her bath. Much as she tried to relax, she had to admit a small niggling thought in the corner of her mind that told her honestly just how nervous she felt.
William sat in a deep leather armchair in the foyer of the restaurant, glancing up every time the door opened. He couldn't recall feeling this nervous for a long time. He had felt almost giddy getting ready to come out, little twinges of desire plaguing him every time he thought about Elizabeth resting her head against his shoulder at the hospital. A waiter came over to ask if he would like a drink, and as he did so, Elizabeth arrived. William could not stop himself staring as she walked over to him. She wore a simple black velvet dress that clung to her hips and showed off the curve of her waist. An opal necklace rested below her throat, drawing his eyes towards the smooth skin of her neck and the barest suggestion of cleavage. She saw him and smiled. At that moment he was lost.
"Have I kept you waiting?" she asked as he stood to greet her.
"No, not at all," he said, feeling sure he must be stammering like a nervous school boy. "I was early. I remembered something someone told me once, that women don't like to walk into places alone and have to wait. And since you wouldn't let me pick you up, I thought I'd be here first."
Elizabeth smiled as she realised from his gabbling that she was not the only nervous person there. The waiter was still hovering, waiting to take the order, and coughed discretely.
"Oh," William said, startled out of his admiration of Elizabeth. "Drinks. What would you like? Shall we get a bottle of wine?"
Elizabeth nodded her agreement, and sat down as William ordered.
They smiled shyly at each other in the silence, then both began to talk at the same time.
"Go on," William said, smiling. "You first."
"I was only going to ask how your last week at the villa went. If you and Alice enjoyed it."
"Yes, we did, thank you. It was much quieter without you and Sam."
Elizabeth held his gaze for a split second then started to laugh.
"Oh, why do I always have the ability to put my foot in my mouth as far as you are concerned?" William said, laughing. "I can't believe I just said that!"
She smiled as he continued. "No, seriously, we missed you. Sam's a really nice boy." William paused and gathered his thoughts. Now was the time to clear the air, he thought, if ever he was going to have a chance with Elizabeth. "Look, Elizabeth, I know I really hurt you with the things I said when we were on holiday, and I was really out of order as far as Sam is concerned. I made judgements I shouldn't have, and I'm ashamed now of what I said. I'm sorry. If we could, I'd like to start with a clean slate." He shrugged, not knowing what more he could say but longing for some sign that what he said had been accepted.
"I think tonight is a clean slate," Elizabeth answered. "Let's forget certain things and just remember good bits?"
William sat back and sighed with happiness. "Yes, I'd like that."
The waiter returned with the wine and menus, and filled their glasses while they began to choose their food. Elizabeth realised that there were no prices on the menu, and felt rather nervous. Going by the usual rule of thumb that if you had to ask how much something was, you couldn't afford it, this place was well out of her price range. It was so long since she had actually been asked out for dinner that she was no longer sure of the form. Should she offer to split the bill, or would William be offended? Would he be offended if she didn't offer? She was quite flustered when the waiter came back to take the order.
"Elizabeth?" William asked.
"Oh, I'm spoilt for choice!" she said. "I like the sound of everything."
"Well, gambereti or calamari are both good to begin with, and as a main course I usually ask for whatever's the recommended catch of the day."
"OK, that's what I'll have," Elizabeth said, relieved to have a way out of making a decision.
"Lemon sole today, madam," the waiter said.
"We'll have the gambereti and calamari to share, then, followed by two lemon soles, please, with seasonal vegetables and potatoes," William said.
The waiter nodded and left them alone once more.
"So," William said. "I have to admit, I've forgotten how to have a first date, but if we're starting from scratch we should at least do it properly."
Elizabeth realised with a start that he was teasing her. Whether it was the twinkle in his eye, or the way a dimple appeared when he smiled at her that gave it away, she wasn't sure, but whatever it was, he certainly looked very appealing.
"Well, I can't remember either," Elizabeth said. "Aren't we supposed to ask each other about our favourite films and books, and steer clear of politics and religion?"
"Something like that. So, what's your favourite film?"
The waiter returned to tell them that their table was ready to find them both collapsed in heaps of giggles. Any remaining ice completely broken by now, they settled down to eat and drink, talking continuously, until finally their coffee cups were cleared away.
"I can't believe this evening has gone so quickly," Elizabeth said. "And I can't let you get away with having "The Dambusters" as your favourite film."
"Well, in that case you can't have "Notting Hill", that is such a girlie cliché of a movie!"
"Perhaps I'm a clichéd girlie, then," Elizabeth retorted.
"Oh never, Elizabeth," William said, a serious note creeping into his voice. She was left to wonder what he meant as he turned to pay the bill, not for one moment having considered allowing Elizabeth to pay. She collected her jacket, and they left the restaurant.
"It's not too chilly," William said. "Would you like to walk a little?"
"Yes, that would be nice," she said, following him through a small square that led to the riverside. Across the water, the lights along the Embankment twinkled and reflected in the river. They strolled in silence for a while, each lost in their own thoughts, at ease with not needing to fill the space between them with chatter. Outside the National Theatre, they leaned on the wall and watched a juggler and a fire-eater perform.
"I haven't been down here for ages," Elizabeth said. "It's such a nice walk too."
"I like it because there's always something going on," William said. "Have you been to any concerts recently?"
"Nothing, I'm ashamed to say. Haven't been to the National, the Festival Hall, or the NFT in years, I'm afraid."
"Would you like to? We could pick up a programme and choose something. That is, if you want to come out with me again."
"Yes, I'd like that." She smiled up at him, and William thought he'd forgotten how to breathe. The only thought in his head was that he longed to kiss her. He leaned towards her slightly as she held his gaze, and slipping his arm around her waist, he pulled her towards him and gently touched his lips against hers. Elizabeth felt her lips tingle with anticipation and excitement, and reached out to hold his hand. Entwining her fingers in his, William kissed her softly once more, then broke away. Not feeling it necessary to speak, they continued their walk with their arms around each other's waists, each one smiling a small, secret smile.
Having picked up a programme from the Festival Hall, they strolled over the footbridge towards Charing Cross, discussing when they might be able to see a concert. Outside Embankment tube station, Elizabeth prepared to say goodnight.
"I've had a lovely evening, thank you," she said.
"Let me take you home," William said. "I'll get a cab."
"Tube is fine, thanks, it'll take ages to get a cab now."
"Then let me come with you. Walk you to your door, at least."
"You don't have to," Elizabeth said, haltingly.
"No, I know I don't have to. But I'd like to see you safely home." He walked into the station as Elizabeth followed, making it clear that there would be no dissuading him.
"Which stop's yours?" he asked.
"Northern line to Warren Street, then Victoria line to Highbury and Islington," she said. "Bit of a trek I'm afraid."
The tube at that time on a Saturday night was busy and noisy, and not conducive to talking, so William was relieved when eventually they emerged into the street. He followed Elizabeth across the road junction and onto a quieter side street of Georgian terraces.
"This is mine," she said, pausing outside one of the houses. William looked up to see a neat three storey terraced house, with steps leading up to a smartly painted black door. There was a long pause, as William didn't know how to begin to say good night, not really wanting the night to end, and Elizabeth felt unsure whether to ask him in. Her lips still tingled at the memory of his kiss, which had been soft and chaste, and yet so full of yearning.
"Would you like to come in for coffee?" she said suddenly, her impulsive action winning out over rational thought.
"Yes, thanks, that would be lovely."
"Ignore the chaos," Elizabeth said as she led the way up the steps and into the house. William followed her down the hall, wondering where the chaos was. She kicked a training shoe out of the way, and quickly hung Sam's jacket back up on a hook, but apart from that, all William could see was a cosy, homely place. In the kitchen, she switched the kettle on, and prepared to make coffee. William noticed the fridge magnets holding a whole host of school letters and lists, while the back of the kitchen door was covered in post cards, and certificates for swimming and football. A goldfish swam slow forgetful circles in a slightly grimy tank, and a light on the washing machine blinked its announcement that it had finished its load. He could not help but compare his own rather austere kitchen to this room which hummed with life. He picked up a photo of a young Sam, sitting on the knee of a girl who looked a little like Elizabeth.
"Is this you?"
"No, that's Sam with my sister Mary. She lodged with us when he was small, she went to UCL, partly so she could live with me, I'm sure!"
"And that's who he's gone to tonight?"
"No, he's at my oldest sister Jane's tonight, she lives in Hampstead. Mary's in Japan, teaching English. Sam misses her terribly. I couldn't have managed without her really. She moved in when he was five. I'd just bought this place, which was a complete dump, but the only way I could afford to buy a house was to buy a heap and do it up, her rent helped, and she looked after him sometimes too."
Elizabeth handed him a cup of coffee and led the way to the living room. Again, he couldn't help but feel how warm and lived-in it was, and brushed away her protests about untidiness.
"It's lovely, Elizabeth," he said, and sat down next to her on the couch. He sank in further than he had expected, and almost spilled his drink.
"Oops, sorry, should've warned you," Elizabeth giggled feeling a little embarrassed. "It's a bit saggy." She took William's cup from him and put it beside hers on the coffee table. "You didn't spill any, did you?"
"No, I'm fine."
She had kicked off her shoes and curled her legs under her, and looked so appealing that William simply could not resist. He reached up and brushed her cheek, gazing at her with his deep brown eyes. She put her hand over his, feeling that if her heart beat any louder he would surely hear it. No words were needed as he leaned towards her and touched his mouth to hers. She put her arm around his neck as he reached around her, pulling each other close as his tongue began to softly explore her lips. She opened her mouth and tasted him, feeling the heat and desire as their tongues and mouths explored new territory. Slowly, yieldingly, they gave to each other and took a heady sense of sheer joy, only punctuating their feelings with sighs and soft sounds of pleasure.
Eventually, they broke apart, and William pulled Elizabeth towards him so that her head nestled on his chest. He stroked her hair as he composed himself. "Your hair is lovely," he murmured. "I had to force myself not to do this in the hospital, when you were upset about Sam."
"It would've been a surprise if you had," Elizabeth conceded. "But nice."
"Would it?" William asked. "Nice, I mean, you would have thought it nice? I was sure by then that I'd done everything to make you dislike me."
"I thought we'd agreed to a clean slate," Elizabeth said. "But, yes, at that point I think I started to like you."
He held her closer and sighed deeply, feeling suddenly overwhelmed with happiness. With Elizabeth in his arms, he knew what had had been missing for so long, and had so very nearly missed through his own blindness. He pressed his face against her hair and breathed deeply, trying to commit the deliciously womanly smell to memory. Elizabeth turned to him and slid herself up his body a little, capturing him in a kiss that rapidly became deep and passionate as her fingers tangled in his curls and held him tight. The feeling of her pressed against him was driving William to distraction, and abandoning all rational thought he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her hard against him. She felt his hands roaming over her back, and dissolved in the intensity of his passion.
The passion slowed as they slithered down to lie side by side on the couch, arms and legs entangled, tenderly stroking each other's faces and planting small kisses on cheeks and lips. Almost an hour passed with hardly a word passing their lips apart from quiet endearments and murmured encouragements. Neither had felt this degree of contentment in a very long time.
Finally William had to move. Elizabeth was lying over his arm and he had terrible pins and needles in his hand.
"Sorry!" Elizabeth said, as he flexed his fingers and grimaced. "Goodness! Have you seen what time it is?"
William was startled when he looked at the clock to see just how late it was. "Oh! I'd better go."
"No, I didn't mean ... I wasn't saying it to make you leave," Elizabeth said.
"No, I know," William said, taking her by the hands and pulling her back towards him. "But I had better go all the same, before it becomes even more difficult to leave."
Elizabeth blushed, understanding his meaning exactly. Much as she wanted him to stay, she knew that a crucial point had been reached, and if he didn't leave now, a Rubicon stood, beckoning to be crossed. He stood up, pulled her to her feet and hugged her.
"I've had a wonderful evening," he said quietly. "Thank you. Shall I phone you about a concert, or a play?"
"Yes, please," Elizabeth replied. "I'd like that."
She followed him to the front door. "Shall I call you a cab? The tube has finished now."
"No, I'll walk for a while," William said. He kissed her once more, then left, waving once as she closed the door. As he strolled down the road towards Upper Street, still busy even at this time of night, he smiled broadly and hummed happily to himself, as content in his heart as he had ever been. Elizabeth stood in the hallway for a moment once he had gone, touched her fingers to her lips and smiled. As she turned to go upstairs and get ready for bed, she let out a satisfied sigh, and was still smiling as she fell asleep.
William woke on Sunday morning wondering why he was smiling, then remembered the previous night and smiled even more. He had not felt this happy, this alive, in many years, and could hardly remember the last time he had felt such a strong desire to just be near someone. He got up and wandered through to his kitchen to make coffee, looking round as if with new eyes at the clean clear surfaces that had so recently appealed to him, wondering how he had lived with so bare a life for so long. He hummed to himself as he switched on the coffee maker and found milk in the fridge, and tried to imagine what Elizabeth was doing.
Elizabeth woke with a start at half past ten, listened for sounds in the unnaturally quiet house, then remembered that Sam wasn't there. When he stayed away from home it took her a while to stop listening for him. She noticed the time and jumped out of bed to get showered, dressed, and drive over to Hampstead. Although she hadn't specified a time to pick Sam up, she thought that they might all go out for lunch if she was there in time.
"Didn't expect you yet!" Jane said cheerfully as she opened the door to Elizabeth's knock.
"Really?" Elizabeth answered. "It's not that early."
"Thought you might fancy a lie in, since you didn't have Sam but were having a late night."
"He didn't wake you at the crack of dawn, did he?" Elizabeth said, following Jane down the hallway to the kitchen.
"No, he's been fine, as he always is," Jane said, automatically putting on the kettle and preparing to make coffee. "So, how was your night out?"
"Very nice, thanks."
"Must've been. You've got stubble burn."
"What?" Elizabeth replied, startled, putting her hand to her chin as Jane burst out laughing.
"And even if you hadn't, you obviously feel guilty."
"I've nothing to feel guilty about," Elizabeth replied, blushing and feeling as if she was digging herself into an ever deepening hole the more she spoke.
"Good," Jane replied. "So you're still a member of the born again virgins club."
"I don't know why I ever come round here," Elizabeth said, laughing. "All I get from you is stick, and the sure and certain knowledge that you and Charles are deliriously happy and want to infect everyone else with your gooeyness!"
"And why not?" Jane said, smiling. Despite their vigorous teasing, the two sisters got on very well. Jane took as many opportunities as she could to have Sam to stay, and Elizabeth knew that this was because despite many years of trying, Jane and Charles had not managed to have children of their own.
"Where are the boys?" Elizabeth asked.
"Up in the space loft," Jane said. "I thought Charlie was going to have to work this weekend, but he hasn't, which is nice, so they're up there looking at planets and things."
Elizabeth climbed the stairs to the loft, which Charles had kitted out with a telescope to point through the Velux window, and had also plastered the sloping walls with charts and posters.
"Hey, guys, how are you?"
"Hey Mum, we saw this constellation last night, it was clear enough, did you notice?"
"Yeah, it was pretty clear last night wasn't it?" Elizabeth said, a small secret smile creeping across her face.
"Hi, Liz!" Charles said, turning from his charts. "We saw some good stuff, even with the street lights. We were thinking, me and Sam, about a trip into the country one night so we could get away from city lighting and get a really good view of the stars, what do you think?"
"Yeah, why not?" Elizabeth said, once more bowled over by the enthusiasm of her brother in law. "Let me know the date and I'm sure it'll be OK."
"Thanks, Mum!" Sam said, finally giving in to his urge to hug her.
"So, show me what you saw last night," Elizabeth said, settling down to pore over charts with Sam and Charles.
Eventually the three of them emerged from the loft and at Jane's prompting went out for lunch. Much as Jane wanted to quiz Lizzie about the date, with Sam and Charles there it wasn't too easy to have a conversation. They ended up agreeing the dates for a star spotting weekend for Sam and Charles, and a meal for Elizabeth's birthday later in October, but no more was said about Elizabeth's date the previous night. Sam and his mum went home, both quite satisfied with how the weekend had gone.
William spent most of the next few days staring at the phone. His staff noticed that he was somewhat distracted, and commented on the fact that he wandered down the corridor for a coffee at approximately a quarter of the speed he would normally walk. He had his hand hovering over the phone several times a day, desperate to call Elizabeth just so he could hear her voice say "hello?" in that slightly hesitant, husky, voice she had on the phone. He hadn't quite got to the point of phoning her knowing she was out in order to get her answerphone and hear her voice, but it was a pretty close run thing.
He wanted her. The sound of her voice, the recollection of her leaning against him in the hospital in Spain, the feeling of his hands roaming over her body, his tongue pushing insistently and the taste of her lips, her mouth, the heat that enveloped him when he thought of his body next to hers on the sofa .... he could almost feel his eyes spin backwards in his head as he tried to stop himself imagining what it would be like to sleep with her.
Elizabeth, meanwhile, was very busy at work. Her new job was quite demanding, and she was very keen to make a good impression. It was Thursday by the time she began to think that it was odd that so many days had gone by without hearing from William. She reminded herself that bloke-time was different to girl-time, and that he was probably very busy, and it was absolutely no use staring at the phone to try and make it ring.
After tea on Thursday when Sam was upstairs playing on his computer and the phone finally rang, Elizabeth's heart jumped in her chest as she answered it. She was slightly disappointed to hear a female voice on the other end, then she felt bad for feeling disappointed as she realised that it was Ellen.
"Hi, Ellen, how are you? How's the gang?"
"We're fine, thanks. The children are grumbling about being back at school, Richard is grumbling that he has so much paperwork after being away for so long, so everything is perfectly normal here! How about you? Is Sam OK?"
"Yes, he's OK, busy with school and football. I'm busy at work but the new job's great."
"Oh good! Well, I'll get to the point quickly, it's nearly bathtime here so I'm rushing. We wondered if you and Sam wanted to come over at the weekend, we've got the holiday photos back, William's coming, so we thought we'd have a big lunch on Sunday. I know it's short notice, but can you make it?"
"Yes, that'd be great!" Elizabeth said, wondering at the same time how she was going to deal with William being there. "What time shall we come?"
Elizabeth wrote down the time and Ellen's address and rang off, laughing, as Ellen had to end the call rapidly to deal with what sounded like a minor war breaking out in the house. She fastened the note to the fridge with a magnet, wrote "to Ellen's" on the calendar and put the kettle on to make coffee. Her thoughts about the lunch were mixed. She wanted to see Ellen again, but was not so sure about William. After Saturday, it seemed strange that he should lose interest in her so quickly, but given that he hadn't phoned her, that was the only conclusion she could draw. She was disappointed, as she had felt that they had got on so well that evening. Her stomach gave her a little jolt as she remembered the feeling of being wrapped in his embrace, kissing him. "This is stupid," she muttered to herself, deciding that this convention that the woman had to wait for the man to ring was ridiculous. She had to know how he felt before she saw him, and now she had a reason. She flipped through her diary to find his number, but before she could dial, the phone rang.
She picked up.
"Hello, it's William."
She felt as though she was going to drop the phone as a rush of adrenalin down her arms caused her to shake.
"Oh! I was just about to phone you!" she blurted.
"Really?" William asked, unable to stop himself grinning broadly and feeling pleased. "Why?"
"Ellen's just invited me and Sam over for Sunday lunch, and I was going to ask you for a hint about what sort of wine they like best."
Once she said it, her carefully planned sentence sounded rather silly, and she wondered whether it was obvious to William that she had been looking for an excuse to call him.
"Well, if they're doing one of their famous Sunday lunches, something robust and red, I'd say, and don't plan to drive home afterwards!" William replied, laughing. "In fact, I was phoning you for a similar reason. I wondered whether I could pick you up, then that would save you driving."
"No, we'll be fine, thanks," Elizabeth answered, wondering whether it had occurred to William that promising to phone then waiting nearly a week before phoning with the offer of a lift might seem a little odd. "We'll probably go on the tube anyway."
"That's crazy, it'll take you ages to get to Richmond. I'll pick you up just before 12, and we'll be there in good time. Oh, and the other thing, I tried to get tickets for the concert we both fancied, but it's sold out, and I wasn't sure what else you might like, so I haven't actually booked for anything. Sorry."
"Oh." Elizabeth was now completely muddled. She felt bulldozed into having a lift whether she wanted one or not, whilst listening to him tell her he wasn't asking her out. She couldn't work out whether he wanted to see her or not. William, for his part, was sure he was doing something wrong from the tone in Elizabeth's voice, but couldn't quite work out what that might be.
"So, do you want to pick something else?" he asked, feeling that this conversation was floundering and not knowing how to get it to where he wanted it to be.
"Umm, what kind of thing were you thinking of?"
"Well, music, theatre, anything really. Look, why don't we have a drink after work tomorrow and go through Time Out until we find something?"
"I can't do drinks after work," Elizabeth said. "I need to get back for when Sam gets home from swimming."
"Of course," William said, feeling like slapping himself for being insensitive, then suddenly realising where he was going wrong. "I really want to see you, Elizabeth, I had hoped to be able to phone you with a perfect plan but then I was annoyed that I couldn't get tickets, and I just should have phoned anyway. Sorry. And it's not easy trying to make arrangements on the phone anyway, is it?"
Elizabeth was stunned by the declaration. "No, it's not."
"So, Sunday then? If you're busy with Sam on Friday and Saturday?"
"Why don't you come over here on Saturday for a drink?" Elizabeth asked impulsively, giving in to her wish to see him once he had declared himself. "Sam's got a football tournament but we'll be back mid afternoon. Come over at 5ish."
"Yes, OK, that would be great," William said, grinning broadly. "See you on Saturday."
"OK, see you Saturday. Bye."
Elizabeth made coffee, operating on autopilot as her mind was racing through the conversation she had just had, running over what had been said and what exactly was meant. She realised that he too had needed a reason to phone, and thought it both funny and slightly ridiculous that two grown adults should feel so teenage and uncertain. She couldn't help a smile escaping as she made her drink and went to sit in the living room to read papers for a meeting the next day.
Returning from the football tournament late on Saturday afternoon, Elizabeth was unable to get the parking spot directly outside her house, so parked her car a little way down the street. As she and Sam walked towards the house, William got out of his car, which he'd parked further along from her house, and walked towards them.
"Hi!" he called.
"Oh no, are we late? Have we kept you waiting?" Elizabeth said, checking her watch and seeing that it was a little after 5.
"Not really, I was a bit early, that's all," William replied, and turned to Sam, who was wearing muddy football kit and had a medal on a ribbon around his neck. "How did you get on, Sam?"
"We won!" he said, beaming and holding out his medal. "Look!"
"Hey, that's great! Did you score any goals?"
"Yeah, I scored one in the semi-final, and set one up in the final!"
"Come on, boys," Elizabeth chided. "Let's get inside. Sam, you need a bath, and I need a cup of tea, I'm freezing."
Once inside, Sam kicked off his boots and ran up to the bathroom. William followed Elizabeth into the kitchen. She put the kettle on and turned to see him staring at her.
"What?" she asked, puzzled.
"This," he said, stepping towards her, trapping her against the worktop and kissing her. The kiss was intense but quick, and the suddenness with which they both felt passion flare surprised them.
"Better not, Sam might come in," Elizabeth gasped, trying to regain control.
"He's gone for his bath, hasn't he?" William said, still standing close to Elizabeth.
"He'll get it running then come down for hot chocolate," she said, and sure enough a sound like a small herd of baby elephants was heard from the hallway as Sam came running down stairs. William stepped away and sat down quickly at the kitchen table.
"Kettle's on, hot chocolate will be ready in a minute," Elizabeth said as Sam burst into the kitchen.
"Great, are we going out for pizza tonight?" Sam asked. "You said we could if we won."
"Yeah, the other day, you did, honest! Are you coming with us?" he asked, turning from Elizabeth to William.
"Well, I don't know," William said, glancing at Elizabeth. "That depends on what your Mum says. She hasn't said yes to pizza yet."
Elizabeth laughed and shook her head at the two beseeching faces in front of her.
"It doesn't look as if I have a choice," she said, smiling. "Yes, we can go for pizza, Sam. Would you like to come with us, William?"
"I'd love to, thank you."
Sam took the hot chocolate that Elizabeth made for him, and disappeared to get cleaned up and ready to go out. Elizabeth sat opposite William at the kitchen table, handing him a mug of tea.
"Do you want pizza tonight?" she asked, thinking that it hardly compared to the sort of restaurant William was accustomed to, if the previous Saturday was anything to go by.
"Yes, if you both want me to come," he replied. "I don't want to intrude on anything, though."
"No, you're not intruding. It's just ... well, it might not be your normal style," she finished lamely, knowing how noisy and boisterous the restaurant was going to be.
"You mean it won't be like last Saturday?" he said, grinning.
"Far from it."
"I think I'll cope," he said, reaching over the table and taking her hand in his. "It's just nice to be with you."
Elizabeth blushed and looked away, unable to hold his gaze. Sometimes he was just too intense for her to be able to handle, and besides she was unused to compliments and felt embarrassed. William realised that she felt awkward, and reached into his jacket pocket.
"Here, I brought Time Out," he said, opening the magazine at the start of the listings pages. "What do you fancy? Music, a play?"
"Umm, not sure," she answered, flipping through the pages. Although she had said she would go out with William, and she wanted to, she hadn't answered in her own mind how she was going to deal with Sam. She had never had a regular babysitter as she had never really needed one. Either Jane or Mary had looked after him, or she had done things with friends who had children and therefore Sam came too. But if this involvement with William was going to turn into dating, into a relationship, she would feel as though she was imposing on Jane to ask her to have Sam as often as she thought William might want them to go out. Besides, she didn't want to leave Sam with other people. Too many conflicting thoughts were racing round her head as she stared unseeing at the pages in front of her.
William sipped his tea, content to sit and watch her while she pondered the delights on offer. He knew that he would go to whatever she said she wanted to see. Elizabeth was still putting off making a decision when Sam reappeared in clean clothes with a shiny face and damp hair.
"Ready?" he asked eagerly. "Can we go now?"
"Hang on, Sam, let us finish our tea," Elizabeth said.
She finished her drink, stood up and reached for her bag.
"I'll just go and tidy up a bit," she said.
"Mum!" Sam groaned. "You look alright. I'm starving!"
"I've been standing on a touchline for hours, I probably have a red nose and hair that looks as if it's been dragged through a hedge backwards!" she said, glancing at William.
"You look fine to me," he said, grinning as Sam hopped from foot to foot with impatience.
"Alright, I give in," Elizabeth said. "I'll brush my hair in the car."
William got his car keys out as Elizabeth locked the front door of the house, and walked to his car, followed by Sam.
"Shall we go in mine?" he said.
"Yes!" Sam exclaimed when he saw the car. "Wow, this is cool!"
He scrambled into the back of the car then leaned over the front seats, gazing at the control panel which lit up like a flight deck when William turned the ignition on.
"Put your seat belt on, Sam," Elizabeth said, as she got into the passenger seat. She was almost as impressed as he was, knowing that this was probably the most expensive car she had ever sat in. It smelt clean and new, unlike her car which at the moment at least resembled a muddy mobile skip.
They arrived at the restaurant, and Elizabeth could see through the windows that it was already busy with families out for a Saturday teatime meal. Sam pushed the door open, and a wave of heat and noise washed over them. Elizabeth hoped William wasn't wincing, and went ahead. They were shown to a table and given menus. Sam read his menu then announced that he was ready to order.
"That was quick!" William said.
"He doesn't need a menu, he always has the same thing," Elizabeth said, grinning. "Dough balls and garlic butter, American Hot pizza, large Diet Coke."
"I like it!" Sam protested. "Anyway, you always read your menu for ages then you still have a salad and Neptune with extra cheese every time."
"Right, this time I'm having something different!" She looked at William who was smiling. She smiled back as she thought how much things had changed in so short a time, how different this night was to the first night she had ever seen him. She returned to perusing her menu, hoping that he really was as relaxed as he looked. When the waiter came to take their order, Sam asked for his usual choice as predicted, William chose a Marinara pizza, and Elizabeth hesitated then chose a Neptune.
"Mum! You said you'd try something different!"
"I know, but I like that one!"
"So, what position do you play, Sam?" William asked. "Is it the school team?"
"Yes, I'm an attacking midfielder," Sam replied enthusiastically, launching into a detailed description of the matches they had played that day and the goals he had scored. Elizabeth had a chance to sit back and observe. William laughed at something Sam said, and she noticed that he had dimples and that his eyes crinkled in a most appealing way. He was really listening to Sam, taking a genuine interest, and Sam's response was clear - he was glowing with pride at being asked to talk about his exploits and with William's encouragement was explaining tactics, drawing imaginary moves on the table with his fingers.
She glanced round the restaurant, and saw that the clientele was almost all family groups - Mums and Dads, babies, teenagers and everything in between, families with one child, families with three or four. On one table there was a lone Dad with his son and daughter, and she wondered whether he was a weekend Dad or just happened to have taken his children out to give his wife a break. She wondered how people saw her when she was out alone with Sam, and turning back to Sam and William, realised that to anyone in the restaurant doing what she had just done, they were to all appearances a perfectly normal family.
"So, what do you think, Mum?"
"You were miles away! I knew you weren't listening!" Sam protested.
"Sam said he'd take me to Highbury," William said, grinning.
"Did he?" Elizabeth laughed. "And do you want to go?"
"I thought I'd ask Richard tomorrow whether he and Tom want to come. Boys day out."
"And what do I do while you boys are yelling yourselves hoarse at a football match?"
"You can go shopping," Sam said. "I know, you can go in the bookshop and read all the books before you buy them, you like doing that."
"You cheeky monkey!" Elizabeth said. "You're giving away all my secrets."
She looked at the two of them, and felt uneasy for a moment. This was too good to be true. She had heard enough stories over coffee breaks at work, and read enough magazines, to know that getting together with a new partner when there were children involved was supposed to be a nightmare. This was going too well, and as happy as she was, she could only wonder how long it could last.
The food arrived so conversation stalled a little as they began to eat. Sam picked up a dough ball and blew it, then tossed it from hand to hand.
"Sam! Don't play with your food!" Elizabeth admonished, glancing at William to see how he was reacting to Sam.
"It's too hot!" Sam protested, dipped it in the butter and bit it, then immediately took a gulp of Coke to cool his mouth.
"I burnt my mouth at a buffet at work," William said, sympathising with Sam and trying to put Elizabeth at ease as he felt that she seemed a little on edge. "I bit a pastry thing and the filling was too hot."
"At least it was hot," Elizabeth said. "Buffets are a nightmare for food poisoning."
"Oh Mum, not work talk," Sam groaned, as William looked puzzled.
"Sorry, it's part of my job, I have to investigate outbreaks of food poisoning," she explained. "Never go to a buffet with a public health physician, they walk behind you going, 'ooh, filter feeders, wouldn't touch them' when you fancy a bit of seafood!"
At this point William's pizza arrived and he began to laugh as he noticed the topping.
"Oh, don't let me put you off," Elizabeth said. "Those mussels and things will be properly cooked."
She looked at him and began to giggle. "Sorry, I should shut up really. No more work talk."
"Phew!" Sam said, letting out a huge theatrical sigh in response, and settling down to eat his pizza.
After the meal, they strolled back to William's car. He had to resist the impulse to put his arm around her, unsure how to behave when Sam was there and not wanting to make Elizabeth feel uncomfortable. He already had a sense that she was perhaps not entirely relaxed, and it was making him uneasy.
"Everything OK?" he asked as they reached the car, but before Elizabeth could answer, Sam spoke.
"Are we getting a film?" he asked. "Can we have Lord of the Rings?"
"Again?" Elizabeth sighed. "It's three hours long!"
"Alright then, Thunderpants," Sam said. "Jack said it's pretty funny. Or Men in Black, that's good."
"Great, a choice between aliens or fart jokes," Elizabeth groaned, turning to William. "Do you mind if we call at the video shop before you drop us off?"
William was momentarily startled. He hadn't really thought it through but had just assumed that he would go back home with Elizabeth. This was obviously why she had seemed uneasy in the restaurant, if she didn't want him to be there.
"Umm, no problem," he mumbled, as they climbed into the car and drove away. It wasn't far to the video shop, and she pointed out to him where he had to pull over.
"I'll go!" Sam said, scrambling out of the car and running to the shop.
"This is just so he makes sure he gets his choice! I sometimes wonder if I'd get to watch the films I like if I'd had a girl," Elizabeth said, sighing but smiling indulgently. "A nice gentle Jane Austen adaptation or a soppy chick flic."
William smiled and nodded, reflecting on how many times he'd had similar thoughts about whether life would be different if he'd had a boy.
"But she'd probably be upstairs," Elizabeth continued. "Refusing to talk to me and playing very loud music while wearing unsuitable clothes. At least boys stay babies for longer."
She looked out of the car window to see how much longer Sam was going to be. Asking William to come in to watch either of the films that Sam might choose was just too ridiculous to contemplate, she thought. He would think she was crazy. Sam ran back, clutching his films.
"I got Men in Black, but there's a special deal, you could get two for a fiver so I got Bridget Jones for you 'cos you fancy Colin Firth, don't you, Mum?"
"Sam, shush!" Elizabeth protested as William burst out laughing and set off to drive the short distance back to Elizabeth's house.
"Well, thanks for the lift," Elizabeth said as they pulled up.
"You're welcome. Bye Sam," William replied as Sam said goodbye and jumped out of the car.
"Umm ...I ..."
They both stopped and gazed at each other, stumbling over their words and suddenly too afraid to ask what the other one was thinking or say what they each wanted.
"Hurry up, Mum, it's cold!" Sam shouted from the top of the steps.
"I'd better go," Elizabeth said, wishing for a repeat of the kiss in the kitchen.
"OK," William said, longing to kiss her as he had earlier that evening. "See you tomorrow?" he asked, hoping that she'd ask him in.
"OK," Elizabeth said, wishing that he'd said he didn't mind watching whatever film Sam had chosen. "About 11:30?"
"On the dot," William said, forcing himself to be cheerful, resigned to not being able to kiss her.
She got out of the car and waved as he drove away. As soon as the tail lights had disappeared round the corner, she could have kicked herself for not being more direct and asking him in. She sighed and went indoors, thinking that perhaps this relationship business was just too difficult.
William drove home, put the car in the garage and went upstairs to his lounge. He switched on the TV, poured himself a whisky and sat down, the news washing around him as he stared unhearing at the flickering picture.
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