Caught! (A Shamwell Tales Novel)
Bow ties are cool . . . but secrets, not so much.
Behind Robert Emeny’s cheerfully eccentric exterior lies a young heart battered and bruised by his past. He’s taken a job in a village primary school to make a fresh start, and love isn’t part of his plans. But then he’s knocked for six—literally—by a chance encounter with the uncle of two of his pupils.
Sean Grant works in pest control, lives on a council estate, and rides a motorbike. Robert is an ex–public schoolboy from a posh family who drives a classic car. On the face of it, they shouldn’t have anything in common. Yet Robert can’t resist Sean’s roguish grin, and passion sparks between them even after an excruciatingly embarrassing first date.
Too bad the past Robert’s hiding from is about to come looking for him. His increasingly ludicrous efforts to keep his secrets are pushing Sean away—but telling the truth could make Sean leave him for good.
(Note: This is a revised second edition, originally published elsewhere.)
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"Stop pushing! Mr. Enemy, she's pushing me!" George H. was crimson-cheeked and close to tears. Destinee had that hard look on her overly knowing face that meant she was guilty as sin, but she was ready to deny it to her dying day.
"Calm down, please, you two." I gave Destinee my sternest glare. "If I see any more of that, you'll be staying in at playtime and sharpening every single one of the colouring pencils. Yes, even the boring colours."
"But I didn't do nuffing!" Destinee whined at me, her pathetic tone belied by the evil glint in her hazel eyes. She was probably already planning her revenge, most likely by stabbing me through the heart with a fiendishly sharpened pencil. In sludge brown. We had a short face-off, which ended with her making a tactical withdrawal. I wasn't naive enough to delude myself into thinking it was a retreat.
All was peaceful for a moment as I carried on shepherding form 2E into St. Saviour's Church, tins and jars for Harvest Festival clutched in tiny hands. Thirty pairs of eyes (actually, twenty-nine and a half; Jodie was wearing a patch for her lazy eye) searched eagerly for sight of parents and grannies. I gazed out on the sea of female and/or wrinkly faces in the pews and wondered idly if there was any job in the world, anywhere, that was worse for meeting men than the average primary-school teaching post. Father confessor in a nunnery, maybe? Avon cosmetics rep? Or one of those poor sods who went round emptying the sanitary bins they put in ladies' loos?
I gave myself an internal nod of approval. I'd chosen wisely for my first proper job since Crispin —
An outraged squeal pierced my eardrums and reverberated around my skull. My head snapped around, and I winced as my neck cricked. Destinee was kicking off again.
With a wail of "I said stoppit!" George H. stumbled into Charlie, a sensitive young man whose mother was no longer in the picture and whose father, I'd realised, didn't quite know what to do with him. I was rather fond of the little chap. I was less fond of his father, who had, with criminal lack of forethought, loaded him up with an enormous, heavy jar of pasta sauce. Inevitably, the jar slipped from Charlie's startled fingers.
I dived for it without conscious thought, launching myself across the stone flags. Time slowed, the jar seeming to fall through treacle, giving me plenty of leisure for a flashback to a long-ago missed catch for the Loriners' first eleven. History repeating itself, oh, bloody hell. I wondered how many weeks it'd take them to scrub the red stuff off the pews — and me, come to that — and whether Charlie would have stopped crying by then.
Then a pair of hefty, leather-clad arms shot out and fielded the jar mere inches before it could hit the stone floor.
I slammed into said floor myself with an oof and narrowly missed knocking the blasted thing straight out of his grasp again. Bruised and panting, I stared at the saviour of St. Saviour's — not to mention my Harris tweed jacket — from my supine position six inches away on the flagstones.
He grinned back at me from his. "That was a close one!" Green eyes sparkling in a roguish, ginger-stubbled face, my opposite number leapt back up to his feet and handed the jar back to Charlie. "Here you go, mate."
And then he was gone, startling smile, freckles, and all. Charlie was by my side, clutching the precious burden tight to his chest and whimpering softly. I got to my feet, dusted myself off, and cleared my throat. "Right. Let that be a lesson to you, young Destinee. Now, carry on. We need to take our seats."
Heads had turned. More than that, the Head had turned. Thank God disaster had been averted. Losing two jobs in one year would probably begin to look like carelessness. With the uncomfortable suspicion my face must be as red as Charlie's ragù, I carried on herding the children into the pews and was grateful when I could finally slide onto a straight-backed wooden seat myself. And begin courting backache; apparently ergonomics wasn't yet in vogue when the pews were designed. Or maybe they were just the furniture equivalent of the hair shirt.
St. Saviour's was an old church, the present building dating roughly from around the time of the Black Death, when presumably ingratiating oneself with Him on High must have seemed like a jolly good idea. It was constructed on its exterior from the evocatively named Totternhoe clunch, a sort of indigestible porridge of flinty pebbles in mortar, and on the inside from large blocks of pale-grey stone. Thanks to a recent sandblasting, it was rather brighter and cheerier inside than you might expect of a medieval building. The sight lines, though, were dreadful; the chancel was crowded with massive stone pillars at least a couple of bear hugs in circumference and the side chapels were all but invisible to those not actually in them.
Not, of course, that I was in any way straining secretly (and in vain) for a glimpse of black leather, copper-coloured hair, and a ready smile. I wasn't that daft. Sworn off men for life, that was me. Or, well, maybe not life. Just the next twenty years or so. Maybe thirty, just to be on the safe side. I'd be in my midfifties; surely I'd have acquired a bit more discernment by then.
Was he a biker? I wondered. The man who'd saved us all from the Great Spaghetti Sauce Massacre, I meant. The leather jacket might just be a fashion statement. I frowned. Could he be a parent? I'd had a vague impression of someone around my own age, so yes, it was possible. If he'd embarked on parenthood when I was busy swotting for my A levels. I pursed my lips.
Charlie pulled my sleeve. "Mr. Enemy?"
"Yes, young Charlie?" I whispered back.
"Why are you making funny faces?"
I froze. "My nose itches."
He looked at me solemnly. "You should scratch it. Like this."
A grubby little finger plunged up an only slightly cleaner nose and started to move around vigorously. "Ah. Careful there, Charlie. You'll give yourself a — Oh dear. There we go." I pulled out my handkerchief and did my best to stanch the Niagara Falls of blood from Charlie's abused nostril. Then I glared at the children in the pew in front, who'd turned round to goggle at the poor boy. "Eyes front. Haven't you ever seen a nosebleed before?"
"Is Charlie going to die, Mr. Enemy?" Destinee asked in a tone of relish.
"We're all going to die, Destinee," I said firmly. "Some of us sooner than others. Now hush. We're supposed to be listening to the prayers."
The rest of the service went rather as expected — Emily J. forgot her lines, the reception class was adorable but inaudible, somebody's little sister had an unfortunate potty-training accident and Mrs. Nunn, Destinee's mum, got told off by the vicar for chatting loudly on her mobile phone. At least it hadn't been her daughter she'd called.
I pasted on a smile as I strode to the crossing to lead the little darlings in a whole-school rendition of St. Saviour's School's official harvest song, "I Like Baked Beans." I'd spent the last three weeks coaching them in it, and I was quite possibly never going to eat another baked bean ever again. I even dreamed about them, the song running through my head like a radioactive earworm. If it had gone on one more week, I'd have been at serious risk of having a nervous breakdown in the canned-food aisle in Tesco. I could almost hear the Tannoy announcement: Straitjacket to aisle seven, please.
Would a redheaded, leather-armoured knight of the road have appeared to save me as I gibbered among the groceries? I wondered, beating time with every semblance (I hoped) of enthusiasm. My gestures became more and more exaggerated as tiny attention spans dwindled and expired in a puff of bad behaviour. Destinee was blatantly not singing, her arms folded and her lips pressed so tightly together they'd turned white. Charlie, bless him, was bellowing out the words loud and clear in his wobbly treble, flat on the low notes and sharp on the high. The terrible twins were playing slapsies with each other, but as I'd had the foresight to place them behind a pillar, nobody would ever know.
As the last notes died away, I lowered my hands, and the parents burst into applause made riotous by their relief it was finally all over. Unless that was just me. I turned to take a quick bow, and couldn't resist scanning the congregation for a glimpse of orange.
All I saw were Edward C.'s pumpkins and Emily G.'s basket of tangerines. Good, I decided. I was safe. And at least Harvest Festival was over for the year.
As was apparently traditional, the parents formed a sort of honour guard along the path for the children as they came out of church, although I noticed one or two sloping off guiltily as soon as they'd been let out. Destinee's mother was back on her mobile already, her highlighted hair tucked behind one multiply pierced ear as she texted with one hand and lit up a cigarette with the other in a rather impressive display of multitasking.
The Catcher in the Aisle, however, was waiting expectantly by the path. Seen for the first time in the light of day — not to mention in a vertical position — he proved to be tall and lean, although nicely broad shouldered. He was wearing a turquoise T-shirt that made his green eyes glow and washed-out denim jeans that looked as soft as velvet and fit him perfectly. His unruly red hair sent a warning — or a promise — of danger that was only enhanced by his battered black biker jacket. He was definitely at least in his midtwenties, I thought, although perhaps a few years older than me. He had a slightly weathered look about him. An outdoorsy type.
I realised he was looking straight at me, a smile curving at the corner of his lips. Oops. He must have caught me staring at him. I stepped up to him before my better judgement could talk me out of it. "Excellent catch, there! Are you a cricketing man?"
He shrugged. "Nah, football's more my game." I could have kicked myself. My better judgement offered to put on a pair of steel-toed boots and join in. Men who wore scuffed motorbike jackets and embarked on fatherhood in their teens generally had other things to do on their Sundays than don flannels and step up to the wicket on the village green.
Suddenly his face broke into a wide grin that just about took my breath away. I found myself smiling back helplessly and then felt like an idiot as I realised he was looking straight past me. "Wills! Harry! Great singing, lads!" Two redheaded terrors — the terrible twins themselves — threw themselves upon him, squealing "You came!"
"Course I did. Wouldn't miss this, would I? Good to hear you're still singing the old song. 'I like baked beans, Brussels sprouts, and tangerines . . .'"
I slipped away. I had a class of six-year-olds to shepherd back to school. Goodness knows what I'd been thinking, talking to the man like that.
At lunchtime, I sat in the staff room and stared gloomily at my tuna-and-horseradish sandwich. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time. The time in question having, of course, been the moment I looked into my fridge and realised I'd neglected to go shopping. Again.
Rose Wyman came and plonked herself down next to me, which cheered me up a bit. Rose was short and pretty in a well-padded sort of way, with curly fair hair and large blue eyes. She taught year three and was, I thought, a few years older than me. Possibly even six or seven. I didn't like to ask, though. I'd already put my foot in it three weeks into the job when I'd commented on her no longer wearing her engagement ring. Although she'd been fine about it really, once she'd stopped crying. She'd offered to return my handkerchief next day, wonkily ironed and smelling of cheap fabric softener, but, having very little confidence in my ability to avoid future verbal cock-ups, I'd suggested she keep it.
I could see this job really eating into my handkerchief stocks. Maybe I should alert Mother to buy me some more for Christmas.
"Robert?" Rose nudged me, grinning. "I saw you chatting up Sean Grant earlier."
"Sean Grant?" The name didn't ring a bell, although the accusation touched a guilty nerve. Which was ridiculous. Obviously. "Who's he?"
Rose arched an eyebrow. Archly. "The one with the red hair and the cheeky grin? You know. Saved us all from smelling like an Italian restaurant for the rest of the day."
"Oh, him." I tried to sound airy. I had a sneaking suspicion I only managed wheezy. "He's the terrible twins' dad, I take it?"
William and Harry Curtis — and really, what were their parents thinking of, with those names? I supposed if they'd been girls, they'd have been christened Diana and Camilla. Although, then again, maybe not. They'd been oddly quiet today, considering how much they usually disrupted lessons. I wasn't sure if they were borderline ADHD or just reacting to their mother's illness. I didn't know any details, but her tired, drawn appearance at the classroom door at the end of the school day, not to mention the headscarves she always wore, were something of a giveaway.
"He's their uncle, actually. Surprised you haven't seen him before. Mind you, their mum's been a bit better since the summer, hasn't she? S'pose this means she must be feeling worse again, him being here and not her. He's been great, looking after them when she's poorly." She glared at her own lunch, which, as far as I could see, had done nothing to deserve it and was a perfectly nice pasta salad. "Their dad's been no help at all. Don't think he's even seen the twins since they were in nappies."
"Oh. Um. I didn't get around to introductions. And I wasn't chatting him up either. Chatting, yes. But there was no up." I took another bite of my frankly revolting sandwich, gagged, and swallowed as quickly as I could. "Do you, um, know him well?"
Rose shrugged. "Not really. But he seems nice." She forked up some pasta salad, and I winced as my stomach gave a loud, involuntary rumble.
Maybe if I peeled the top layer of bread away from the filling really carefully, it'd be just about edible . . .?
Rose laid a hand on my arm. "Want my banana?"
I nodded gratefully. "Thanks. You're an angel." She even looked a bit like one, with those blonde curls and big eyes. Well, perhaps more in the cherub line. Whatever, she was lovely. I wondered what on earth had possessed that idiot fiancé of hers to call it off.
"You know, you really ought to eat more," Rose said as she handed over the yellow lifeline. "One of the mums called you a manorexic the other day."
Perhaps it had been the nagging. I frowned. "That's not even a word. Or is it, these days, along with chav and well jel? Anyway, it's ridiculous. My diet is perfectly adequate."
"For a supermodel, maybe. Or a reality-TV star. Not for anyone who's actually human." She narrowed her eyes. "And it's making the rest of us look bad. Tell you what, let's get a takeaway."
"What, now? I've got register in thirty-seven minutes."
"Not now. Tonight, if you like. Or whenever you're free."
"Oh. Er, yes, okay. Tonight would be lovely." It was only half a lie. Her company would be lovely. The food, I suspected, not so much. "Your place or mine?"
"Yours, obviously. Seeing as I live six million miles away from the nearest takeaway, and you've got one down the bottom of your garden."
"It's not down the bottom of the garden. It's twenty yards up the road. And you only live just up the hill."
"Same difference. It's a big hill. Anyway, I'll come home with you, we can do our marking, and then we'll get an Indian. I want chicken passanda. Oh, and lamb jalfrezi."
I raised an eyebrow. "Do I get to choose anything?"
"Based on your sandwich choices? No. Oh, all right, you can choose the veg. And the rice. As long as it's pilau."
* * * * * * *
My house, or rather the one I was renting, the Old Hatter's Cottage, was one of the oldest houses in the village, and bang slap in the centre. It was just down the road from the Chinese takeaway, which used to be a bank and before that was a pub, and next door to an estate agent's, which used to be a bakery. And before that, a pub. Next door on the other side was just a house, which had never been anything else as far as I knew. But it could conceivably have been a pub once upon a time.
"Did you know there used to be twenty-one pubs in the village, back in 1901?" I asked as Rose and I ambled up the road after a strenuous round of marking wobbly handwriting. The warm, sunny day had turned into a mild evening, which, at seven o'clock, was still not fully dark, although the nights were closing in fast on us. "That was around one for every twenty-five households."
"How do you even know that? You've only just moved here."
"I have a 'satiable curiosity."
Rose frowned. "If that's a quote, I haven't seen the film."
I tsked. "It's from a book, actually. Call yourself a teacher, woman? Rudyard Kipling, the Just So Stories."
"A book? That's so old, it's practically a stone tablet."
"It's a classic."
"You mean one of those books everyone's heard of and nobody wants to read? Ooh, look — isn't that Sean Grant up ahead? Looks like he's going for a Chinese too."
My stomach went tight. There was a streetlamp right by the takeaway, and the flash of red hair above that black leather jacket was unmistakable as the lean figure disappeared into the old bank building. Then I frowned. "What do you mean, too? I thought we were going to have an Indian."
"I changed my mind. Got a sudden craving for crispy duck. And prawn crackers." She grabbed me by the arm and practically dragged me along the street, past the bright-red lights of the Indian and towards the old bank building.
I had a sinking feeling this would not end well.