Thursday, 14 February 2008

A Different Kind Of Love/Part One

Cassie's Sheikh/Linda Sole/Red Rose Publishing

Below is a book I wrote that I am not sending out to publishers. I am going to post this in parts.

Here comes the first part. it consists of two chapters, with chapter headings - a big post so go right down to the bottom. I will post another chunk in a week or so. Linda

A Different Kind of Love/ Anne Ireland

'You should have stayed home today. I would have,' Beth Carter said looking fondly at her friend and business partner. 'It isn't every day that you reach your fortieth birthday.'
'Oh, you know how it is.' Anna Hanwell looked up from the intricate flower arrangement she was making, the sweet scent of carnations and roses wafting under her nose. 'We had this order to get out and Tom is taking me away somewhere on Saturday. I didn't want to leave everything to you, Beth. Besides, being forty is no big deal.'
Anna was an attractive woman, with clear eyes and hair that she wore in a neat shoulder-length style, it's colour not quite the honey-blond it had once been, but still thick and lustrous. She was a size fourteen these days; something that didn't please her when she looked into the mirror, and she dieted half-heartedly when she thought about it, but didn't worry too much, because she was happy and busy, and it didn't truly matter that much.
'No?' Beth was curious, a little surprised and then amused. She was three years older and already a grandmother. She was also a brunette and a generous size sixteen. 'Good for you! I spent half the day in tears when it happened to me.'
'You didn't!' Anna saw that her friend was laughing and smiled wryly. 'Well, I have felt a bit apprehensive about it all, because of all the fuss people make about that particular milestone, but I suppose that is stupid. I'm not really bothered deep down. Anyway, I shall leave at four to get my hair done. Tom says he is taking me to dinner this evening, but he won't say where. I don't even know where we are going for the mini-break either. He has been very secretive about it all.'
'I suppose he wants to surprise you,' Beth said looking down at the basket of freesias she was arranging because she knew more than Anna about Tom's plans for that evening. She finished her basket and reached for another one; they were preparing flowers for a wedding and they also had several orders to deliver for Interflora. The small business they ran together in the heart of the beautiful university town of Cambridge was thriving, the work coming in almost too fast. 'You're lucky that he bothers, Anna. When Gerry takes me out we have endless discussions about where we should go and in the end I have to decide – and he gives me a cheque for my birthday.'
'Well, that's because he knows how particular you are. You wouldn't want him to buy you clothes or fashion accessories, would you?'
Beth looked horrified at the idea. 'I should have to take them all back. He knows that if he does buy something he has to keep the receipt – but he could get me something small, to surprise me.'
'You mean flowers?' Anna asked innocently.
Beth laughed, because she recognized the mischief underlying that innocence. Anna had always possessed a wonderful sense of humour: that was a part of the reason they got on so well.
'Well no,' she admitted with a quirk of her lips. 'It would be like taking coals to Newcastle, wouldn't it? I meant special chocolates or a book I wanted. Oh, I'm being daft! I like things the way they are, but somehow the romance seems to have gone – you know?'
Anna nodded, sympathising though if she was honest, she didn't have the time to worry about things like that often. There was too much going on in her life. She had her work at the shop, for which she did six hours four days a week, which she enjoyed a lot, and then there was her home, husband and two children. Not a lot of time left over for soul searching!
Tom was the driving force behind a large medical supply firm, in which he was a partner, and which took him away from home quite often. Sometimes in the past Anna had gone with him if she could get someone to look after the children, though she hadn't done that so much since she and Beth had started the business. They had taken on a four lease with an option for a further ten-year period at the end. So far it had seemed to be a good investment; they weren't making huge amounts of money but they were paying their wages and a bit more at the end of the year, which was all they could expect for now.
In fact, everything was pretty good at the moment, Anna thought contentedly. Oh, she knew what Beth meant, of course. But you had to expect it, didn't you? The excitement, the passion…the intensity of the early years faded for everyone: it was replaced by family and work. She understood that Beth was feeling a bit low. It could happen to anyone at times.
For a moment Anna let her thoughts return to the time when she was sixteen years old and desperately in love with a youth at school. Harry Crabbe, that was his name: she still remembered it and him. Tall, dark haired, the best looking guy in his year, he had chosen Anna as his girl. She had thought their love would last forever, but then came the shock of her parents splitting up and her mother deciding to live somewhere else. They had come to Cambridge to be near her mother's elder sister and it was here in the lovely old city that Anna had gone to a secretarial college. For a while Harry had answered her impassioned letters, but then they stopped.
Anna had been broken hearted when she was forced to part from him. She had cried and clung to him, and sworn that she would never forget him. Wild thoughts of running away to be with him had rushed through her head, but somehow she hadn't quite had the courage. And by the time his letters stopped arriving, she had started to move on. Her life had been filled by new friends, new experiences, and, eventually, a new love. Since then she had hardly had time to look back. Looking after her home, Tom and the children had filled her days, and her nights. And now she had the business too.
'Gerry thinks the world of you,' Anna said, suddenly realizing that her friend was waiting. 'You aren't seriously bothered – are you? You're not thinking of an affair, are you?'
'No, I don't suppose so,' Beth said and laughed, pushing her thick dark hair back from her eyes. 'I've got it all, Anna. I'm not daft enough to risk what I have, but sometimes now that is just the two of us at home…well, you know. I want more but I don't know what it is I want.'
Anna understood. She missed Robbie now that he was at medical school, but she was happy that he was doing what he wanted, and of course she still had Susie at home. Susie was her beautiful fifteen-year-old who was so bright and talking about following her brother to university. And of course there was Tom, her hard-working, loving husband who had planned so many surprises for her birthday.
Anna smiled to herself as she bent over her work once more. She had a good idea what was going on, but it would spoil Tom's pleasure if she let on that she knew about the party.

Anna looked at herself in the mirror as she changed into her new dress that evening. It was black and slinky and it smoothed over her hips, making her look a size smaller than she truly was at the moment – at least she hoped it did. She'd had her hair trimmed that afternoon. She wore it much as she always had, straight but shaped so that it framed her face and fell softly into the nape of her neck, just turning up at the ends. She was lucky that it had its own natural bounce, though she had noticed that the colour was darker than it had been; perhaps she ought to have it lightened soon? Her eyes were a greenish blue colour, which reflected her moods, and she was generally thought attractive rather than pretty. Tom had often told her she was beautiful when they were first married, though not recently.
Anna dismissed a faint pang of regret. She mustn't let Beth's restlessness rub off on her. Everyone got older, lost that bloom of youth. You couldn't expect to keep that first heady intensity of love forever, and she was very lucky. Tom had gone to so much trouble for her birthday.
First thing that morning, he'd given her a lovely card and a new watch, which she had been wanting for a while, and this evening he was taking her out – to dinner she had been told. However, Susie had let it slip a couple of days earlier and Anna had a fair idea of the truth.
When the taxi arrived, Tom gave the driver instructions for the Garden House Hotel, one of the best in Cambridge, and Anna wondered if she'd been wrong to think it was something more than just dinner. However, when Tom turned away from the restaurant towards the large room used for private occasions, she felt her heart give a little jerk. He had gone to so much trouble to arrange this party.
Even though it wasn't truly a surprise, Anna was overcome with emotion as she walked into a room overflowing with her friends and family. It had been decorated with flowers, balloons and banners, and there was a long table groaning beneath the sumptuous buffet.
'Oh, Tom, it's wonderful,' Anna whispered, her eyes stinging with tears. She hadn't expected to feel like this, but it was so special, so lovely that she was touched. 'I never imagined anything like this.'
'Good.' Tom looked pleased with himself. 'I wanted this birthday to be a happy memory, love.'
'It will be,' Anna said and kissed him swiftly on the mouth, to the cheers of their friends and relatives. 'I couldn't be happier.'
'I'm glad,' he said. 'I love you.'
Anna smiled. She didn't have time to tell him that she loved him or any of the things that she really wanted to, because a glass of champagne was being pushed into her hand and she was being urged towards the pile of gifts on the table by an impatient Susie.
Anna was astonished. She'd had a pile of cards through the door that morning, including one from her mother, but no presents other than the watch. She had been a little surprised that her mother hadn't included the usual small cheque, but now she knew why.
'Thank you, Mum,' she said and hugged her mother as she opened the tiny box containing a pair of pearl earrings. 'You've spoiled me as always.'
'I would have given you money, but Tom wanted it to be special this year.'
'This has all been a lovely surprise. I feel like crying.' Anna's throat was tight as she struggled to contain her emotions.
'You're a lucky woman,' her mother told her, a sharp note in her voice. 'Not many husbands would go to this much trouble for their wife.'
'I know. Beth was having a bit of a moan earlier.'
Anna saw her mother's expression, remembering that Sheila had been thirty-nine when Sam Buckden had told her he was leaving her for a young girl half her age. She had spent her fortieth birthday preparing a meal for Anna, Aunt Mary and herself. There had been no husband around to spring a surprise birthday for her, and she had never been abroad until Tom asked to come with them on a family holiday.
'You should make the most of it while it lasts,' Sheila Buckden said. 'The good times don't last forever.'
It was a sour note and Anna wished it hadn't been said, though she was used to her mother's complaining and put up with it because Sheila had no one else to listen to her troubles. However, she had no time to dwell on her mother's words. Robbie had sneaked home from medical school and Susie was with him. They had bought her a string of beautiful cultured pearls, which must have cost them far too much, unless Tom had chipped in, which he probably had.
She exclaimed over the gift and all the others she had been given. All their guests were enjoying themselves, drinking and eating the delicious food, and the disc jockey Tom had engaged was urging everyone to dance.
Anna danced with Tom first, her arms around him as they smooched to a soft beat, laughing up at him, her pleasure in his surprise making her eyes sparkle. Afterwards, she danced with Gerry, who was already into his third glass of wine and gave her a soppy look. She had always suspected he had a soft spot for her, though he never stepped over the mark.
'You look gorgeous, Anna,' he told her. 'This was a good idea of Tom's. I wish I had thought of it for Beth.'
'It's your wedding anniversary soon. You could take her abroad for a mini-break,' Anna suggested. 'Surprise her with the tickets.'
'I could,' Gerry agreed nodding eagerly, and then a look of alarm crept into his eyes. 'But supposing she didn't like the hotel? I'm not much good at picking these things: Beth always does it. If I pick France she might prefer Spain or…anywhere.'
The look on his face was comical, making Anna peal with laughter. 'Oh, Gerry, don't worry so much. You'll have to work out what Beth likes for yourself, though you know she is fussy so you want a four star hotel – but don't tell her. Make it a surprise!'
'I'll think about it,' Gerry said wearing the look of a martyr about to be taken to the fire.
'Faint heart never won fair lady,' Anna teased as their dance ended. 'Courage, my friend!'
Tom came up to her as she left Gerry and helped herself to another glass of wine. He smiled at her, seeing the light in her eyes and how lovely she looked.
'Enjoying yourself, love?'
'You know I am.'
It had to be one of the nicest parties she'd ever been to, Anna thought afterwards. And the very best part of her birthday treat was when they made love in the early hours of the morning.
Tom stoked and caressed her, kissing her breasts, cupping them in his hands as on impulse she urged him to lie back. Sitting astride him, she took control, the sensuous movements of her body as she came down on him making him shudder and cry out as he gripped her about the waist. As the desire raged hotter between them, he held her firmer and lifted her so that she drove down on him harder and harder until they were both gasping. Tom gave a shout of pleasure as he climaxed, and Anna leaned forward, her breasts against his face as she shuddered in her own climax. She wasn't sure whether it was the excitement of the evening or the wine she'd drunk that had made the difference but it was wonderful – much better than it had been for a while.
'I love you,' Anna whispered moments later as she lay against the firm, satin smooth hardness of his chest, his arm around her, breathing deeply as she tasted the salt of their mingled sweat. 'Thank you so much, Tom – for everything.' She meant loving her, caring about her feelings, the way life had been good these past years, as well as the party.
'The best is yet to come,' Tom whispered just before he fell asleep.
Anna lay for a while, thinking how lucky she was. For years she'd heard her mother complain about her father, about his lack of caring; the way he had left her, and she'd sympathised with her as much as she could.
'You're lucky,' Sheila had told her daughter often enough. 'Tom is good to you. Not all men are the same. You should thank your lucky stars that your husband is the way he is.'
And she had. She did, Anna thought as she drifted into sleep.

Anna had thought their mini-break might be to Paris, but at the airport she discovered that they were flying to Rome and then taking the train to Venice. She hugged Tom in delight when he told her.
'You remembered that I wanted to go there!'
'Yes, of course,' Tom said with the engaging grin that had first captured her heart when she was fresh out of college and learning to be a legal secretary. Sometimes when he smiled like that, he had a boyish air about him, Anna thought. The years had been kind to Tom. He had kept his figure well, avoiding the thickening around the waist that caught up with many men of his age. He was four years older than Anna but looked younger.
Anna noticed a young and rather pretty woman looking at Tom as they went onto the plane. She stopped just ahead of them in the aisle, looking helpless as she attempted to place her heavy bag in the overhead compartment. Tom, being the gentleman he was, stopped and lifted the bag for her. She flashed her eyes at him, thanking him in a husky voice.
Anna saw the interest in his eyes. She felt a sharp pang of jealousy but quashed it at once. She had no need to feel jealous of a girl on a plane.
The flight went swiftly, because Anna slept for a while. When she woke she discovered that Tom had left his seat and was on his way back from the toilet. As he passed the seat where the pretty girl was sitting, she spoke to him, and Tom answered, a smile on his lips as he returned to Anna and sat down.
'What did she want?' Anna found it difficult to keep the note of irritation from her voice. It was stupid of her, she knew, but the girl was making a blatant play for Tom and it had got to her.
'She just asked if I would like her newspaper.'
'You mean she wanted to attract your attention!'
Tom looked surprised. 'She was only being friendly.'
'Too friendly.'
'Don't be silly,' Tom said with a slight frown. 'I don't know her. I shall never see her again, You don't need to be jealous.'
'I'm not,' Anna said shortly, but she was. She knew it was ridiculous but she couldn't help it. The small incident had somehow spoiled things. She wasn't sure why, but it nagged at her. She tried to put it out of her mind but it lingered.
Tom had done nothing to encourage the young woman. Anna was honest enough to admit it, but she had seen the gleam of appreciation in his eyes. She couldn't blame him for admiring the girl. She couldn't be more than twenty-one or two, Anna imagined. She was slender and pretty and sexy in her short skirt and long boots, with a skimpy top that didn't cover her midriff. It was a long time since Anna had dared to wear anything like that!
She was unhappily aware of her forty years. She was a shapely size fourteen and looked reasonably good in her cream slacks and navy shirt, but the girl was no more than a ten. Not only that, she was a pretty girl with a nice smile, and the look in her eyes had shown that she fancied Tom. Damn her!
Looking at herself in the mirror when they got to their hotel, Anna saw the difference between herself and the girl on the plane only too clearly. Even if she lost some weight, got down to the twelve she had used to be, she was never going to look as young and sexy as that girl.
It was the first time Anna had really been aware of the passing years in this way. She felt a pang of regret for her lost youth, but then common-sense cut in. She was being foolish. Tom was getting older too. Time didn't stand still for anyone. She couldn't blame him for looking, but that was all it had been.
There was no sign of the girl at their hotel in Venice, which was really special, because Tom had booked one of the best rooms, and they had flowers, fruit and wine to greet them when they arrived. And, as they wandered about the ancient city the next day, marvelling at the wonders of St. Mark's Square, and travelling the narrow waterways by gondola, Anna could begin to laugh at herself.
She was here in this beautiful place where she had often dreamed of being because Tom had decided that a second honeymoon was the best way to celebrate her fortieth birthday. How many husbands cared enough to do that? Anna doubted there were many, and, as the magic of the soft air, the wonderful old buildings and the pleasure of being alone with Tom seeped into her, she forgot all the stupid feelings of jealousy the girl on the plane had aroused in her.
Tom had brought the digital camera she'd given him for his last birthday, and they took lots of pictures of the Doge's Palace, the Bridge of Sighs and the famous granite columns with the winged lion and Saint Theodore on a crocodile. And they wandered round the shops, buying small gifts for Susie and Robbie, ending up at one of the many little cafes to drink coffee and watch the world go by.
There were several pretty girls amongst the crowds milling about the square, but Anna didn't envy them: it was just the way that girl on the plane had looked at Tom that had upset her – as if she thought she would like to go to bed with him.
'Better now?' Tom asked the first night they went down to dinner at their hotel.
'Yes, of course. This is wonderful, Tom. All I expected and more.' She blushed as she realized what a fool she had been. Tom had planned all this for her sake. He wouldn't have done that if he didn't love her. Why shouldn't he feel flattered by the look in that girl's eyes? She would probably have felt the same if a young man had given her the eye. Anna laughed inwardly as she took her seat opposite Tom, reaching across to touch his hand.
'Shall we go exploring in the rest of the city tomorrow?'
'That's why we came,' Tom said. His smile warmed her. She had been an idiot to imagine that he was remotely interested in that girl.
Tom made love to her twice that night. He was intensely passionate, and Anna responded to his loving with pleasure. They had always appreciated each other in a sexual way, and the passing years hadn't made any difference there. Anna had never had any hang ups about making love, and she was willing to try lots of different things, which was perhaps what had kept their loving fresh and new.
Afterwards, as they lay content in each other's arms, Anna knew that she had been foolish to worry about her age. Tom still loved her as she loved him. She wanted it to stay that way. She was having a glorious holiday, and she would be mad to let anything spoil it. She sighed as she nestled into his shoulder, enjoying the familiar smell and taste of him on her lips.
At that moment, she wished that they could stay in Venice forever, that she could hold the moment and never let it go, but of course that was nonsense. Time moved on. The thing was to move with it and not get stuck in a rut, she imagined. And yet she wanted to cling on to this moment, because she had an odd feeling that it would never come again.

Anna sighed as she put a load of dirty clothes into the washing machine. She wasn't sure why she was feeling down. The trip to Venice had been wonderful once she'd got over her foolishness about that girl. She ought to be glowing still, a few days later, but for some reason the blues had set in. And it wasn't just because it was pouring with rain outside.
It didn't often happen to Anna, because she was content with her life. She liked looking after her house and family, took a pride in all she did, just as she enjoyed her time at the shop with Beth. Life couldn't be all parties and second honeymoons. She was being a bit of an idiot but she couldn't help wondering if Beth and her mother were right. Were the best years over for her and Tom? Would it all be downhill from now on?
'You miserable wretch! You've just had a romantic trip to Venice. What more do you want?'
Anna scolded herself and then laughed outloud. How ungrateful could you get? After all Tom had done to please her! It was strange but she hadn't truly worried about turning forty at all until…she'd seen that look in Tom's eyes when the girl on the plane gave him the green light.
'Damn her!' Anna swore loudly several times and felt better for it. She switched on the washing machine. She would be all kinds of a fool, if she allowed such a small thing to get her down. Tom must meet a lot of pretty girls in the course of his work.
Did he look at other girls that way? Girls that he saw every day. Anna felt a ripple of unease. She had always trusted him implicitly, never even considering the idea that he might be unfaithful to her. Tom wasn't like that: he was too nice, too decent.
No, of course he wouldn't have an affair! Anna shut the wretched thoughts out of her mind. What was happening to her? Was she becoming neurotic? Was that what it did to you when you reached a certain age? No, of course it didn't have to be that way. She was just being stupid. Life couldn't be all sunshine and roses, and she wasn't sure she would want it that way. Maybe she was too lucky? Perhaps she was afraid that her luck would run out?
Suddenly, she laughed at herself. She wasn't going to start imagining things. Her life was good. Not perfect perhaps, but good. She would be an idiot if she let being forty years old get to her.
She would ring Beth and then go and visit her mother. Sheila complained and felt neglected if she didn't visit her on her free days from the shop.

Anna knew that something was bothering her friend. She sensed it immediately when she walked into the shop one morning a couple of weeks later, and found Beth busy tidying up when it wasn't necessary, because the shop was already as neat as a new pin.
They had a string of customers first thing, and it wasn't until they sat down for a coffee later that Anna was able to ask her friend what was wrong.
'It's Gerry,' Beth said, a catch in her voice. 'I think he is having an affair.'
'Gerry?' Anna stared at her with mixed horror and disbelief. 'I can't believe that, Beth. Not Gerry…he wouldn't. He loves you.'
'Does he?' Beth looked so upset that Anna's heart caught with sympathy for her. She was very fond of her best friend; they had stood by each other through a lot of traumas over the years, and Beth was always the first person she looked for if Tom wasn't around. 'I'm not sure if he does anymore. I've bossed him around for years, Anna. It isn't that I mean to – it's just that I can do everything quicker and easier than he can. And I'm sharp with him sometimes. I know it and I'm sorry for it afterwards.' She caught back a sob. 'I still love him. He hasn't kept his looks the way Tom has but he is so nice. I think he would find it easy to have an affair if he wanted.'
Gerry was to put it kindly a little overweight, his hair beginning to recede just a little, but that didn't matter because he was as Beth said so nice. He was the kind of man who would cut his neighbour's lawn while they were on holiday without being asked, and change any number of light bulbs for old ladies down the street – but have a passionate affair? Anna couldn't see it.
'Gerry doesn't mind you being the boss,' she told her friend diplomatically, because it was true that Beth tended to tell her husband what to do and when. 'I think he rather likes it: some men do, you know. Besides, what makes you think he is having an affair?'
'He has been giving me odd looks recently,' Beth said. 'He has put the phone down twice when I entered the room recently – and he is guilty of something. I've seen it in his eyes. I know he is hiding something from me, Anna.'
'Have you smelled perfume on his shirts or found lipstick on a handkerchief?'
Beth shook her head. 'Nothing. I took his best suit to the cleaners, but there was nothing in the pockets. He usually leaves stuff in the jacket but this time his pockets were empty. Why did he make sure of that? He could be hiding things from me.'
'But why? Have you quarrelled recently?' Anna was puzzled, because Gerry was so easy going, so content with his life. It didn't seem likely to her that he would throw it all away for nothing.
'No, no more than usual anyway,' Beth said. She finished her coffee. 'You hear about women whose husbands walk out on them when they are in their forties, and you think they must have done something – driven the men away somehow. Do you think I've nagged Gerry once too often?'
'Have you considered that he might be planning a surprise for your wedding anniversary?' Anna asked, remembering what she had said to him at her birthday party. She felt a bit guilty as she recalled telling him to surprise Beth. 'It's next week, isn't it?'
'Yes. I thought we might go to a new restaurant I've heard of…' Beth stared at her, struck by her expression. 'You don't think he would? I know he was very impressed with what Tom did for your birthday. He kept telling me how clever Tom was at organising things for days.'
'Well, it may be my fault,' Anna told her with a smile. 'He said he wished he'd thought of something like that for you and I suggested he surprise you for your anniversary.'
'With what?' Beth demanded, looking wary. 'Gerry has no idea about these things. I hope he isn't planning to take me away for a few days. The last time he did that was years ago and it was a disaster: that's why he has always left things to me…'
'I shouldn't be surprised if he is planning a mini-break somewhere,' Anna admitted, because obviously Beth needed to know. 'I did sort of put the idea into his head, and I told him he should surprise you.'
'Oh, poor Gerry,' Beth said and grinned at her friend as the penny dropped. 'I've been giving him looks, you know. I was convinced he had found someone else. I almost accused him of it last night.' She put her hands to her face, convulsing with mirth as the relief swept over her. 'The poor darling. I bet he is at his wit's end trying to think of something I would like -–and he won't get it right. I should like to go to Paris again, but ten to one he won't remember. He will probably think Spain or the Cotswolds.'
'You won't say anything to him?' Anna looked at her, raising her brows. 'Why don't you let him surprise you for once, Beth? Don't spoil it after all his efforts. You wanted some romance back in your life – live dangerously.'
Beth stared at her for a moment, then nodded, clearly feeling much better than she had earlier that morning. 'Oh, poor Gerry! Yes, perhaps I should let him surprise me,' she said and laughed again. 'And if it is awful I shan't say a word. I'll just take it as it comes. I don't care if he has booked for Siberia. It's just such a relief to know that he isn't about to leave me for a young siren.'
'I don't think Gerry would feel comfortable with a siren.'
Beth met her eyes and they both had a giggle. 'I should think she would frighten the life out of him. Gerry likes his comforts. I wait on him hand and foot when he's home and he loves it.'
'Just try to be surprised when he gives you the tickets.'
'Oh, I shall,' Beth said and giggled. 'We are a couple of lucky girls, aren't we? You've got your wonderful Tom, who does everything so well – and I've got Gerry…' They looked at each other and started laughing again, because however well meaning, he did tend to make a muddle of most things.
'No, no, this isn't fair,' Anna said. 'Gerry tries to please you, Beth.'
'Yes, he does,' Beth agreed. 'And do you know, that's enough for me. It gave me one hell of a fright when I thought I might be going to lose him. Gerry isn't the most romantic man in the world, but I wouldn't be without him.'
'I know,' Anna said and winked as the doorbell rang and a customer came in. 'We are both very lucky.' She went to serve the man who had come to buy a dozen red roses for his wife's birthday, feeling pleased that there was still a great deal of romance left in the world. Her customer was seventy and he had told her that he had never missed his wife's birthday or anniversary once in all the time they had been together.
'She is very lucky,' Anna told him with a smile. 'I hope she will enjoy them.'
'Oh yes, she will,' he said and for a moment his eyes glinted with tears. 'She died last year you know, but I take them to her grave just the same, and I'm sure she knows.'
'Yes, I am sure she does,' Anna said, a lump in her throat. She watched him leave, feeling the pain twist inside her. To be loved the way he had loved his wife was quite something.
She told Beth as she went back to their workroom, and Beth looked sad. 'What a lovely man he must be,' she said. 'But it is terribly sad isn't it?'
'Very. It made me want to cry.'
'Yes.' Beth looked thoughtful as she returned to her bouquet, adding a perfect yellow rose. 'It makes you think, doesn't it? She got up as the bell went to serve the next customer.
Anna blew her nose hard and started making a basket for a young mother with pink and blue flowers. Beth was right: they were lucky, both of them.
Driving home later, Anna reflected that life was about as good as it got for her. She couldn't grumble about a single thing right now…

'Robbie!' Anna said as she emerged from her son's room with an armful of dirty clothes. 'That room of yours is a tip again. You know what I threatened last time – if you leave things on the floor I shall put them in the bin instead of the washing machine.'
'Sorry, Mum,' Robbie gave her his engaging grin, which was so like his father's that she laughed, as he had known she would. 'I promise I'll do some clearing up later, but can we talk? There's something I need to ask you before I leave this weekend.'
'Can you leave it until later?' Anna asked. Her tall, handsome, careless son was a joy to her and though she was annoyed with him sometimes, they both knew she wouldn't carry out her dire threats. 'I need to put this load in the washing machine and then run. I'm going to be late for work and we have a big order on today.'
'As long as I can talk to you before Dad gets home.'
Anna saw the anxiety in his eyes and realized it was important. 'I'll talk to you this evening. Your father won't be home until late.'
'Don't you get fed up with him working all hours?' There was a different look in his eyes now, but Anna ignored it. She wasn't going to complain to Robbie about Tom neglecting her, though she knew that her son had noticed how often she was alone of late.
'Yes, sometimes,' Anna said, 'but he says it is important so what can I do? Your father's work is important, Robbie, and he pays the bills.'
Leaving her son to the possession of the room that was still his despite his being away at medical school most of the time, Anna went down to the kitchen. It was a very modern affair in stainless steel and white high gloss, which had been put in just ten months earlier – for her forty-second birthday. Tom had been promising her a new kitchen since they bought the house ten years previously, but he had never got round to it, and she'd done a bit of nagging when most of the electrical stuff had packed up at about the same time.
It had cost a small fortune, Anna thought as she remembered all the shops she had visited, picking out the gadgets she wanted, going for the best. She'd given Tom two plans to choose from, one considerably cheaper than the other, but he'd picked the one she really wanted. It had made her feel slightly guilty, because she would have been satisfied with the other, but Tom had insisted that it was a good investment. He had said only recently that the new kitchen and a small extension they had done five years earlier, had put an extra fifty thousand pounds on the house. She knew that prices were rising fast this end of town, because everyone liked the south of Cambridge best, and houses sold quickly when they came up for offer. Was he thinking they might sell?
'No, of course not,' Anna answered her own question, as she sometimes did these days.
She didn't like to think about moving. She was settled here, only a street away from Beth and Gerry, and she liked most of her neighbours. She didn't get much time for the frequent coffee mornings anymore, but she knew she could go if she wanted, and they both went to most of the weekend barbecues given by their neighbours in the summer. Tom liked to barbecue food himself, and they always had one for his birthday.
His remark had been playing on her mind for a few days. Why should Tom have mentioned how much the value of the house had increased unless he was thinking they might sell it? She had a feeling of unease that made her go cold all over; it had happened a few times of late. She wasn't sure what was at the back of it, and if she did have a vague suspicion it wasn't something she wanted to admit.
No, no, she was wrong. Tom hadn't changed towards her in the past few months: he was just tired from all the extra work he had to do. And perhaps her expensive kitchen had contributed to that, because although they were comfortable, they weren't rich. Tom still had a few years left to pay on the mortgage. He would have a decent pension when he retired, but that was ages away. He wasn't fifty yet, and he had planned on working until he was sixty, she knew.
She loaded the washing machine and set it going, called goodbye to her son and went out to where her small hatchback was waiting in the drive. It was four years old now, and she would like to exchange it for a newer one, but couldn't really afford it at the moment. Tom had reminded her about the MOT test, but he hadn't said anything about changing it for her. Perhaps he was still paying off the kitchen.
She pulled her mind back to the present as she got in and started the engine. She would be an idiot to let small worries spoil things. Tom had been wonderful when her mother died three months earlier. It had been so sudden that Anna had felt as if someone had punched her in the stomach. One minute she'd been with Sheila, planning a family dinner at the weekend and then she'd had a phone call from a neighbour to say that her mother was in the hospital.
Anna had rushed there straight away, but it was too late. The heart attack had been massive and Sheila had been dead by the time she arrived at Addenbrooks Hospital. Beth had been so stunned at first that she couldn't cry, but when she started later that night she hadn't been able to stop. Tom had held her, rocking her gently in his arms until the tears subsided, soothing her, kissing her. The first tearing pain had gone now, but she missed her mother desperately, more than she would have expected. Sheila had had a sharp way with her, but they had got on well enough. Anna had always been able to talk to her, and she felt as if a part of her life had gone.
The worst of her grief was easing now, becoming a dull ache and a sense of loss, but it was still there like a black cloud looming on the horizon. Tom had been really good, organising all the stuff with the lawyers and the funeral, something Anna hadn't wanted to face. She had thought he seemed distant before her mother's death, and just lately it had been happening again. He was out to all hours working, taking business trips that lasted two or three days, and when he was home he didn't seem as if he wanted to talk. And he certainly hadn't wanted to make love.
'Oh Tom,' Anna muttered to herself as she negotiated the busy traffic. 'What is happening to us? Why do I feel as if I'm sitting on top of a time bomb that could go off at any moment?'
What was really bothering her, she realized, was that they hadn't made love for more than six months, and the last time hadn't really been right – not the way it had been once. Anna didn't like the feeling that they were drifting apart. Sometimes she remembered her fortieth birthday, how good it had been between them then, and she wondered what had happened to them. What had gone wrong? Had she done something to drive tom away? She had wracked her memory but couldn't think what she could have said or done that would make her stop caring. Or perhaps it was just in her mind. She couldn't deny that Tom had been wonderful when her mother died, so maybe all the rest was just her imagination.
She parked her car at the rear of the shop, thinking how lucky they had been to get these premises with the little yard at the back: plenty of room for their cars and the small van that did the deliveries. Not all the shops had them, which was why the landlord was probably going to ask for a higher rent soon. They had taken a four-year lease, which was due for renewal in the summer. She hadn't mentioned it to Beth yet, but she wanted to renew. The business wasn't huge, but they both earned a few thousand a year above the wages they drew each week, and that came in very handy. Anna enjoyed having her own money. It enabled her to give Susie and Robbie the things they wanted without asking Tom, and it allowed her to buy the kind of clothes she liked. And of course there was the new car she needed. She would miss earning money now if they had to give up the shop.
When she went in, she saw that Beth was already at work; it was her turn for the early morning and she had opened up before beginning to work on some orders.
'Am I late?' Anna asked when Beth didn't call out her usual cheery greeting. 'Robbie's room was in a mess again, and I stopped to put a load of his things in the machine.'
'You spoil him,' Beth said without smiling. 'He's old enough to do more for himself. I stopped clearing up after Joe when he left school, and it paid off. He keeps the flat he shares with his girlfriend as neat as a new pin, which is just as well, because she isn't interested in cleaning.'
'You don't like her much, do you?'
'She's all right,' Beth said. 'But no, I don't like her much. I think she takes advantage of him.' She frowned as she cut the stem of a beautiful rose to the required length but didn't say anything more.
Something was wrong with her. Was she angry or upset? Anna had noticed that she had been a bit quiet for a few days, but Beth hadn't responded to her attempts to discover what was wrong. Usually, Beth told her everything, but this time she was holding back.
'Have you decided when you want to take your holiday this year? Tom said something about wanting to try a different kind of holiday, but I'm not sure what he meant by different. We haven't planned anything. I wanted to consult you first.'
'Oh, I don't know,' Beth said sounding odd. 'Make your own arrangements and we'll fit in. We might not go away this year.'
'But you always do.' Anna stared at her in surprise. Beth was usually full of ideas about what she wanted to do for her holiday. She loved exploring France and often booked a small cottage so that they could explore a new region.
'Julie is having her second baby this summer. I might give her some money instead; she can do with it. Her husband was made redundant, as you know. He found another job but it doesn't pay as much. The holiday can wait…'
Anna nodded. Julie was Beth's youngest daughter and she tended to worry about her more than her son and the elder daughter Alice, who was single and a highly paid secretary in London. And yet she wasn't convinced that Beth was being entirely open.
'Is something the matter?' She couldn't help feeling that Beth was down about something.
Beth hesitated, and then shook her head. 'No…I'm not sure. I'll tell you when I am ready.'
Anna remembered that Beth had been worried about Gerry having an affair a couple of years earlier, but it had turned out to be nothing, just the surprise trip he was planning. He had taken Beth to Austria, and as it happened they had had a wonderful time. She had spoken about her suspicions openly at the time, and she usually told Anna about the things that bothered her, about her children or her home - but she was keeping this to herself, whatever it was.
Anna knew better than to push. Beth would tell her when she was ready, but she suspected that it might be serious. It just wasn't like Beth to be so quiet. She was usually full of it, and when the shop bell rang she let Anna answer the call, almost as if she couldn't be bothered whether they sold anything or not.
Anna sold a small bunch of irises and a tall glass vase, and then went back to Beth, joining her at the workbench as they made up the exquisite baskets and bouquets that would be delivered later that day.
'Are you sure there's nothing wrong?' she asked.
'I don't know, maybe,' Beth said and looked at her. She sighed, staring at the perfect bloom she was cutting to fit into a large basket of spring flowers. 'I'm going to the doctor later this afternoon. I don't want to talk about it, all right?'
'Yes, of course,' Anna said, frowning because she hadn't expected anything like this. Beth couldn't be ill, surely? And yet looking at her, she saw that her skin was paler than usual and there were shadows beneath her eyes, as though she hadn't been sleeping. 'But you know I'm here if you need to talk or if there's anything I can do.'
Beth didn't smile or look at her and Anna felt a coldness at the nape of her neck. Beth was clearly upset, and very worried. She must suspect that she was ill, because she made nothing of a cold or her a headache. Oh no, no! Please don't let there be anything seriously wrong with Beth!
Anna didn't speak the prayer aloud but it was loud and clear in her mind. She sensed that her friend was really worried, and she was afraid for her. Having recently lost her mother, Anna felt that she couldn't bear to lose Beth. She wanted to say so much, to tell her that she loved her, cared for her, but she couldn't because Beth wasn't ready to talk about whatever it was. But from the look in her eyes, Anna was afraid that it was something nasty.

Robbie walked into the kitchen as Anna was preparing their evening meal. He stood watching her for a moment, and then came straight out with it.
'I want to take a year off from my course and travel,' he said. 'I'm thinking maybe Thailand for a start and then Australia.'
Anna paused in her work, feeling stunned. 'You can't mean it? I thought you were doing so well at university?'
'I am – but I want to take a break.'
'Don't you like what you're doing?'
'Yes, of course I do. I would have left before this if I didn't – but I think it would be a good idea to take a few months off. I've crammed so much into my head that I feel as if it can't take much more. I shall continue to study and work on my laptop, Mum. But I want to get out of med school. I need to see some life – take a breather. It doesn't mean I'm not going to be a doctor. It's what I want more than anything else – but not just yet. I need a little time for me.' He looked at her. 'Can you understand that?'
Anna was silent for a moment, and then she smiled. 'Yes, I think so, love – but I am not sure your Dad will.'
'I know he will think I should stick at it,' Robbie said and frowned. He looked so much like Tom that her heart caught. They argued a lot, and it was because they were so much alike. 'But if I don't take a break I might not make it through, Mum. Some of my friends have already dropped out; they couldn't take the pace.'
'I see,' Anna said, though she didn't really. But she did understand that he wanted this break, and although she felt disappointed, she wanted him to be happy. There was no point in forcing him into a career he didn't enjoy; a man's working life was too long for that. Much better to give him space to think and make up his own mind. 'What about money?'
'Well, the lawyer said I would have three thousand pounds from Gran…'
'Yes, when the probate comes through. Both you and Susie get the same. I get about eight thousand pounds, or that is what the lawyer expects, and the cottage that your great grandmother left to Sheila and Aunt Mary. Aunt Mary used to let it out for them, look after everything for them both. She was good with things like that. The property came to my mother after my aunt died, but she just left it to the lawyers to sort out. She never went near it after my Gran died. I think an agent let it for her until just after Christmas. He said it needed some urgent repairs before it could be let again, and Mum didn't want to be bothered with it. I told her I would see to it, but she wasn't interested. I don't know what sort of a state it will be in. Your father says we should just put it on the market as it is and take what comes.'
'Is that what you want to do?' Robbie looked at her questioningly.
'I'm not sure. I may have no choice – but I shall think about it. I haven't been down yet. I thought I would wait for probate before I decide.'
'When will that be?'
'Another few weeks I should think.' Anna saw his frown. 'You want to go now?'
'James and Mark are leaving at the end of this month. I should like to go with them.'
'How much do you need? I have about eighteen hundred I can spare – if that is enough?'
'That's great, Mum!' Robbie's face lit up. 'I've got about two hundred of my own saved. It should just about see me through – and I can probably work to pick up a few bob here and there. I don't think the others have much more. I'll pay you back when my inheritance comes through.'
'Yes, I know,' Anna said. Whether she would take it was another thing, but it wouldn't harm him to think he had to pay it all back. 'But you'll have to square it with your father. It has cost him a lot for your education, Robbie, and he isn't going to like this.'
'I know…' Robbie broke off as his sister came into the kitchen. She looked incredibly sexy in her short shirt and school blazer, her tie removed and it made him frown, because he knew what the youths that hung around her were thinking. 'Hi, glamour puss! Where have you been until this hour?' He consulted his watch. 'Not hanging round with that bloke I saw you with yesterday I hope?'
'Tell him to shut up, Mum,' Susie said scowling at her brother. 'I love Jack and he loves me. Just because he works as a bricklayer doesn't make him a bloke! He's really nice and he's clever. He just likes working with his hands and he's good at it.'
'Yeah, and I'm the Queen of Sheba,' Robbie said. 'You want to be careful of that sort, Susie – or you will end up getting married with a baby on the way. I thought you were going to college next year?'
'I'm going upstairs,' Susie said glaring at him. 'I'll come down when supper is ready, Mum.'
'You really shouldn't,' Anna said to her son as his sister clattered up the stairs to her room. 'She is a bit touchy these days. I asked her about college the other day and she said she wasn't sure she wanted to go. I shan't force her if she doesn't want it, Robbie.'
'It's because of that bloke,' Robbie said sounding just like his father. 'I've seen her with him, Mum. He's a big blond haired, handsome guy and he works for his uncle as a brickie.'
'Well, there are worse jobs. We all need houses,' Anna said. She saw Robbie reach for his jacket. 'Don't you want any supper?'
'I'll get some chips later. I'm going round to James's house. We're going to plan what we’ll do when we get out there.'
'All right, if that is what you want,' Anna said and sighed. 'It will be just me and Susie for supper then, because Tom won't be home until much later. I might as well do just a salad, because Susie won't eat anything else.'
'Typical girl,' Robbie said and grinned. 'I like girls to look like girls, Mum. Susie is a stick insect.'
'Don't you let her hear you say that,' Anna admonished and laughed as he took himself off. Robbie was such a joy to her these days. Susie was going through an awkward stage, but no doubt she would grow out of it.

'I can't understand what you're thinking of,' Tom's voice rose to an angry pitch that Anna could hear in the kitchen as she was preparing a traditional Sunday lunch. 'You want to bunk off your course and go back packing for a year, and you expect me to pay for it! Well, I shan't, Robbie. I've funded your studies and that's it as far as I'm concerned.'
'You're not listening, Dad. I'm not asking for money, just your understanding.'
Robbie's voice sounded remarkably calm to Anna as she put the Yorkshire pudding into the oven. She wondered whether she ought to go into the sitting room and have her say, but decided against it. This was between Tom and his son, and she had best stay out of it.
'You're not thinking of using your grandmother's money?' Tom sounded furious as he made the connection. 'Don't be such a fool, boy! Don't throw it away on this nonsense. That money could help you to get a house of your own one day.'
'I'm not bothered about that yet,' Robbie said. 'I'm not giving up medical school, Dad. It's just a few months out, that's all. A gap year, though I might be back before then. Everyone is doing it these days.'
'It is damned ridiculous,' Tom said. 'If you had passed your final exams I could understand you wanting to take a couple of months off – but you're in the middle of your course.'
'I can continue to do the theory on the laptop, go over the stuff we've done and really get to know it instead of rushing on to the next part. It's something I need to do, Dad. I thought you might understand. You do pretty much your own thing don't you? I shan't let you down. When I come back I'll be ready to finish the next part of my training.'
'Well, I can't stop you…'
'No, you can't,' Robbie said a note of bitterness in his voice now. 'And Mum says it's all right as long as I promise I'll go back to the hospital and resume my studies when I return.'
'If they'll have you!'
'I've already sorted that side of it out. I'm not the only one to take time off, Dad.'
'If you're expecting me to say it's all right you're way off, because I shan't. I don't approve.'
'Fine. I'll go without your approval. Tell Mum I am going to James's house for lunch. At least his father understands.'
Anna had lurked at the kitchen door to hear the quarrel clearly. She went into the sitting room as the front door slammed behind her son, looking at Tom as he helped himself to a glass of whisky. It was much too early to start drinking spirits, but she kept her thoughts on the subject to herself.
Tom turned round and looked at her, his eyes angry. 'I suppose I've got you to thank for this,' he said unfairly. 'You've agreed to lend him the money, haven't you?'
'I would rather he had money to fall back on,' Anna said. 'He would probably have gone with a few pounds in his pocket otherwise, and what he could borrow from his friends.'
'I should have thought you would be totally against this,' Tom said, a harsh note in his voice. He was still angry and Anna felt hurt that he should blame her for Robbie's decision. 'Why aren't you like normal mothers? Most women would be wringing their hands and weeping over their precious sons going off to a dangerous part of the world.'
'The way your mother did when you bought your motorbike?' Anna looked at him, the hint of a smile about her mouth. 'It didn't do Vera a lot of good, did it? I remember you told me that you came off it the third time you rode it and broke your arm.'
'That's different,' Tom said and then just a glimmer of a smile flickered in his eyes, because he knew it was true. 'Well, I knew what I was doing and it was just an accident. Robbie is too young to be going off like that with his friends – none of them have an ounce of sense in their heads. It's dangerous for youngsters out there, Anna.'
'James is very sensible,' Anna said. 'I like him, Tom – and Robbie knows better than to take risks. He isn't a child anymore, and he has never been into drugs. I can't see him starting now just because he is in a foreign country.'
'Aren't you worried about it?' He raised his eyebrows at her.
'I am trying not to be.'
'And I'm not helping.' Tom sighed. 'It is expensive paying for his education. I shall be very upset if he wastes it all.'
'I am sure he won't,' Anna said and smiled at him. On impulse, she went and put her arms around his waist, gazing up at him. 'Don't be angry, Tom. We don't want to have bad feeling in the family, especially when he is going away.'
For a moment as she looked up at him she thought he was going to kiss her and that all would be well. There was a look in his eyes that she hadn't seen there for a while, and then they heard the back door slam and Susie's voice calling for Anna. Tom moved away from her impatiently.
'How long before dinner? I've got some work to do.'
'About ten minutes. I should leave it for later if I were you.'
'I want to watch the Grand Prix this afternoon. I'll probably work this evening.'
'I'll call you when it's ready,' Anna said smothering a sigh as she went through to the kitchen. For a moment she'd hoped Tom would show some interest in her, but as always of late he had seemed to draw back at the last minute. Why? The only reason she could think of was that he didn't fancy her anymore. And there had to be a reason for that – a reason she didn't want to know about, because it would be too painful if she was right.
'Is dinner nearly ready?' Susie asked, taking a banana from the bowl on the dresser and peeling its skin. 'I'm starving, and I'm meeting someone this afternoon.'
'Would that be Jack?'
'Yes – why?' Susie gave her a challenging look. 'You don't want to take any notice of Robbie, Mum. Jack is really nice and he cares about me.'
'I have no opinions one way or the other. Your friends are for you to choose, Susie – but if there is anything serious going on I should like to meet him. You could bring him to tea or supper one evening if you wish. Sunday lunch is a bit formal, but we could have some supper in the kitchen if you like.'
'Why does Jack get the kitchen when Robbie's friends are invited to dinner with all the trimmings?' Susie demanded, her eyes flashing with temper. 'He has table manners even if he is a brickie!'
'I didn't mean it that way,' Anna said. She had been trying to make things easy for her daughter by suggesting a casual meal, but it seemed that whatever she did she couldn't be right today. 'Of course I didn't. You can bring him home whenever you like. Surely you know that?'
Susie bit into her banana and left the room without answering.

It was a relief to go to work on Monday. Susie had eaten about a third of her Sunday lunch in a mood of belligerent silence, leaving straight afterwards and not coming home until Anna was in bed. Tom had worked late into the night, getting into bed after she was asleep and up again before she was awake. She worried that he worked too hard and didn't get enough rest, but when she mentioned it he didn't answer.
'I shall be late home this evening,' he told her before he left. Anna had given up looking for a kiss before he went, because he never gave her more than a peck on the cheek and she didn't consider it worth asking. He went out without having spoken to either his son or his daughter, as far as she knew.
'What's the matter with him?' Susie asked pulling a face at her mother. 'I've got games practice this evening, and I'm going out later – so don't bother getting a meal for me, Mum.' She picked up her school bag and left in a hurry.
Anna heard the roar of an engine outside, and glanced out of the window in time to see her daughter get into what was clearly a builder's van. So Jack was taking her to school now. It looked to be serious, but Susie had had plenty of boyfriends before. And she was nearly eighteen. She would be leaving school at the end of that term, Anna hoped for college but she wasn't at all sure that her daughter had that end in mind.
'Looks like you will be on your own again, Mum,' Robbie said, 'because I'm going to a lecture this evening. I shall fetch my things from the bedsit tomorrow – could I borrow your car?'
'Yes. I can walk into town for once,' Anna said. 'Has your father said anything more to you about the gap year?'
'He has given me the silent treatment,' Robbie said, a glint of mutiny in his eyes. 'Maybe I deserve it for springing it on him like that – but why is he being so odd with you, Mum? You haven't done anything. All you ever do is look after us, and go to work. It must be months since he took you anywhere nice.'
Anna avoided her son's eyes. If Robbie had noticed, she wasn't imagining things, but she didn't want him to worry about her.
'Your father has a lot of work on,' she said and smiled despite the ache in her heart. 'He hasn't had time to think about me recently.'
'Well, he should,' Robbie said and came to her, putting his arms around her and giving her a hug. He smelled of soap and some gel he had put on his hair to make it stand up in spikes. 'You're the best, Mum. Dad is a fool if he doesn't know it.'
'Yeah, yeah, I know,' Anna said and gave him a gentle push. 'Have you tidied your room yet? Don't forget what I said about things thrown on the floor.'
She'd had to make a laugh of it, because she'd been close to tears. Robbie was more loving than Susie, who was going through a rebellious period for some reason. She loved all her family, but there was no doubting that at the moment Robbie was the only one who showed her any affection. She was going to miss him like hell when he went off abroad with his friends. He wasn't around all the time, of course, but he came home sometimes when he got a few days free, and he was always phoning her – often because he wanted something, but that was par for the course. And it was the reason she worked, because she enjoyed giving her children all the extras that Tom might have questioned.
Not that Tom was mean, he certainly wasn't. He came through for all the important things, but just lately he hadn't been as free with his money as before. Robbie's education was taken care of, part of the money in an account that their son could draw on so much a month, the rest in a joint account that Tom had to countersign, which covered his fees. It was the extra things that had gone by the board. He needed a new car, his usual habit to change every two years, but his present car was due for an MOT soon and he hadn't mentioned getting a new one.
Could the business be in trouble? Tom hadn't said anything, but she couldn't help wondering, because he seemed so tired and worried…yes, he was bothered about something.
Anna was still thoughtful as she drove to work that morning. Tom was working too hard, and Susie was resentful about something, though she couldn't think what it might be. Parking her car, she went into the shop and found Beth in the back room. The moment she saw her, she realised that she had been crying, because her eyes looked red and her face was puffy.
'What's wrong, love?' she asked, going to her friend immediately. 'Don't tell me it's nothing, because I can see there is something.'
Beth sniffed. 'I went for a routine mammogram a few weeks back,' she said. 'The results came back ten days ago. They asked me to go for another one at the hospital, which I did last week on my day off from here. They took some fluid in a syringe and the consultant told me I should need further investigation– and my doctor rang me this morning.' She drew a shuddering breath. 'They think I have cancer…probably early stages, he said, but I've got to go in for a further biopsy, an operation this time to remove a couple of lumps they found.'
'Oh, my God, Beth, that's horrible for you. When?' Anna asked, a spiral of fear curling through her stomach because she didn't want to lose her friend. 'Don't worry about the shop, love. I can manage. Did he say any more…about the operation?'
'He thinks within a few days,' Beth said and looked frightened. 'I don't know much about it yet, except that they may just take tissue or…' She broke off on a sob. 'If they have to I may end up with part of my breasts removed. It depends how far it has spread.'
'Oh, Beth love,' Anna said and put her arms around her friend, holding her as she felt the sob run through her. 'I am so sorry you have all this worry. I know that doesn't help much, but I feel so much more than I can say.'
'At my age I shouldn't be bothering about that part of it,' Beth said and tried to smile. 'If they can keep me alive for a few years that's all that matters – but I can't help wondering what Gerry will think if I'm mutilated like that.'
'Have you told him yet?' Beth shook her head. 'You must, Beth. If I know Gerry, all he will be concerned about is you. He won't care if they take your breast as long as you're still around.'
'He has always been a breast man,' Beth said. 'I've been lucky in that department, never lost my shape even after the kids – but now…' She caught her breath on a sob and looked desperate. 'I feel so scared…'
'Don't be, love. They can do things to help these days,' Anna said. Like most women who hadn't been through it, she was a bit hazy about exactly what could be done, but she had heard and read things. 'Besides, Gerry loves you. You've got to tell him.'
'I shall tonight,' Beth said. 'I've been keeping it all inside, but I suppose it has to come out. I just don't want him to feel sorry for me, Anna. I should hate that.'
'Yes, I know how you feel,' Anna agreed. She felt sick inside at the thought of all the pain and distress her friend was facing. 'But I think Gerry is bigger than that, Beth.'
'Maybe you're right,' Beth said and moved away as the shop bell went. 'Can you get that? I don't feel up to serving anyone today. I'll get on with the orders.'
Anna nodded and went through to the shop. It was a man she had served often before; he bought his wife flowers regularly, and that day he wanted something special because it was their wedding anniversary. She spent half an hour with him discussing the various flowers, and making up a beautiful bouquet from the flowers in the shop. He preferred to chose them himself rather than order a standard basket, because his wife enjoyed making fantastic arrangements herself. He seemed to know exactly what he wanted, picking each stem carefully, taking his time. He spent fifty pounds with them, and Anna was pleased as she went back through to the workroom.
Beth had her head bent over the bench. Intent on her work, she didn't look up or ask what Anna had sold, which meant she was still feeling low. Anna felt sick herself. What did you say to someone who was facing the trauma that Beth had to face?
'Would you like me to come to the hospital with you?'
Beth shook her head. 'I expect Gerry will take some time off work,' she said. 'It's a bit of a nuisance for him, because I know they are busy in the office just at the moment, but I am sure he will want to take me in.'
'Yes, of course,' Anna agreed. 'If there is anything I can do – and you know I shall take care of things here.'
'Yes…' Beth hesitated. 'I've been meaning to talk to you about that, Anna. The lease comes up for renewal in a few months time…I don't think I want to take it on again.'
'Not continue the business?' Anna was stunned. She hadn't thought of that side of things. 'But you needn't do much towards it, Beth. We could afford to have some help part time until you are over this…' She saw the look in Beth's eyes and her stomach clenched. 'You want out altogether?'
'We should be able to sell the lease option for a couple of thousand, perhaps considerably more' Beth said. 'I spoke to the agents and they said they had people waiting for these shops. He said he could get at least two and perhaps as much as five if we would consider selling soon.'
'Are you bored with it?'
'Not exactly,' Beth said, 'but I should like more time at home – and the way things are…' She looked at Anna awkwardly. 'I'm sorry. I didn't think it would be so time consuming when we took the shop on, and I've been getting very tired recently. It may be because of…but I would rather sell now, Anna. The agent said that if we let him know by the end of this week he can arrange it all quickly.'
'The end…' Anna was shaken. She could hardly believe what she was hearing, and she didn't much care for the way Beth had gone to the agent without consulting her. 'Supposing I wanted to carry on – what do you want for your share of the lease?'
'Two thousand,' Beth said. 'The agent seemed to think he could get nearer five if we let it go now, because he has people waiting – but do you really want it? You will be tied here most of the time. Splitting it between us wasn't too bad, but even if you employ someone you won't truly be free any day.'
'I don't know what I want yet,' Anna said. 'This has all been such a shock. I need a little time to think about it.'
'Perhaps I should have told you before. I was going to and then this other business came up…'
'So it isn't just that then?'
'No. It has made everything worse – but I wanted to sell the lease before I knew about the test results,' Beth said. 'I've enjoyed having the shop, Anna – but I want to be free to help Julie with the children. And Gerry was talking about taking more time off soon. We might get a little place in Spain with the money he's due from an insurance policy that comes out next month. He has always wanted to do it, and perhaps we shall if…I can.'
'I see.' It looked as if it was all done and dusted. Anna felt a bit hurt and annoyed too, but she couldn't show it. Beth was her best friend and she loved her. She was worried about her, and the shop came a long way down the list of her priorities at the moment. 'Well, leave the agent for the time being. I'll talk to Tom and hear what he has to say about me taking the shop on. I'll let you know as soon as I can.'
'Don't take too long,' Beth said. 'We want as much as we can get for that lease if the agent sells it for us…'
Anna turned away as the shop bell rang. Beth might have told her how she felt sooner, given her time to think about things. The business was building nicely and she would miss it if she had to give it up, for more than one reason. She had enjoyed the work, meeting people and the money. She had promised Robbie the money for his trip and she wouldn't go back on that, which meant that she would have to ask Tom for the two thousand pounds Beth wanted. She would need a bit more for stock, which would make it nearer three and… she put it out of her mind as she went to serve the customer who was looking for some materials for flower arranging. Anna spent several minutes helping her to decide what she wanted, and they had a pleasant conversation about what kind of flowers lasted well in arrangements.
Anna felt a pang as the customer left. She had put an awful lot of work into this business and she felt let down, mostly because Beth had made up her mind long before she'd told Anna what she was thinking. All she could do, Anna realized was ask Tom how he felt about becoming a sleeping partner in the business. Once upon a time she would have had no doubt that he would agree, would probably make her a gift of the money she needed, but she wasn't so sure now after the way he had been behaving recently.
It wouldn't be the same without Beth, of course. Sharing the shop and working together had made it fun. If she was forced to carry on alone it was going to make everything so much harder. But the alternative didn’t hold much appeal, because she spent too much time alone as it was.

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