‘How are things between you two?’
‘Home is hell.’ Caroline answers Kelly’s question with words she never thought she would use to describe her marital home. The home where she created a family with her husband. But they are the most apt words. ‘We walk around on egg shells, put up a front with the children and behind closed doors I think we hate each other. I don’t know. He’s been sleeping in the guest room and I on the floor of my closet because I cannot bring myself to sleep on our marital bed. It feels strange. And wrong.’
‘My darling I’m so sorry you have to deal with that.’ Kelly says the only words of comfort that comes to her. ‘I know there’s nothing I can say to make this all okay, because nothing about this is okay or fun, but I’m here if you want to talk my ears off about anything.’
‘I know and thank you for being there.’ Caroline says appreciatively. Since her arrival at the Colony she hasn’t been able to make friends, not for lack of trying, so it feels good to have one fighting her corner. Unlike Edward, her brother, making friends never came easy to her so she made them and dropped them as she moved through life or as life got in the way of those friendships. She lost her secondary school friend to geography when she followed her heart to the States, so they only keep in contact via emails and once a month hour long phone calls which is two months overdue. She lost her university friend to an unfortunate accident ten years ago. So she is grateful for Kelly’s friendship.
‘How are things on the work front?’
‘Hectic. I still can’t believe I got the Alpine account. I didn’t even give a final presentation.’
‘If there’s one thing I know about Lady Alpine, its that she is a feminist first but it also helps that Dennison is an arse.’
That makes Caroline laugh.
‘Got you to laugh. That’s good.’ Kelly says with glee.
After coffee with Kelly, instead of going home, Caroline stops by Harvey Nics for some retail therapy and to lose herself in the in-store display. This one is a Carnival of some sort, with the models dressed up as clowns at a very high fashion circus. Who knew a circus could be so fashionable? After going through all the floors and being mesmerised by the divine displays, she stops in the handbag department on the ground floor prepared to do some fiscal damage. It’s either this or go home to ticking time-bomb. The Alexander McQueen section seems a friendly zone.
‘That’ll be £12,000 Mrs Darling.’ The cheery assistant informs Caroline after ringing up her purchase.
‘Thank you.’ Caroline hands over her credit card inwardly laughing at herself. £12,000 for three handbags, very Knightsbridge wife of her, something she’s always thought herself apart from. The Knightsbridge wife buries herself in diamonds to hide her sadness and uses shopping as a form of therapy to deal with her issues. And if its not shoes, its bags. Retail Therapy. ‘I get it now.’ Caroline says out loud.
‘Beg your pardon Mrs Darling?’ The assistant asks.
‘Oh nothing. I was just thinking out loud.’ Shopping takes her mind off everything albeit for a moment because she is sensible enough to know spending money isn’t ever the answer to anything and nothing will be resolved unless she and Xavier talk or shout about it. For now, shopping works and she gets the allure of its therapy. This cold war brewing between herself and Xavier is bound to combust and she is afraid of how catastrophic it’ll be when it does.
‘Caroline. Is that you?’ A friendly voice, stops Caroline as she walks out of the store.
Caroline turns to the source of the voice. ‘James McMann.’ She smiles.
‘I cannot believe this. How are you?’
‘I’m well.’ Caroline answers her ex-fiancé’s question.
‘Its so good to see you.’ James envelopes Caroline in his familiar embrace.
‘And you too. Long time.’
‘Says the woman who broke my heart.’ James teases.
‘If you’re still mad at me I’m going to run and hide.’ Caroline says humorously.
‘How can I be mad at you? Its good to see you.’
‘What are you doing back in London? Last I heard you moved to the States.’
‘Still living there, just in town for my mother’s birthday.’
‘That’s on Sunday isn’t it?’
‘You still remember.’ James is surprised.
‘How can I forget? Your mom is such a lovely woman.’ Caroline remembers how kind James’ mother had been to her, even after she broke it off. Mrs McMann and her mother are still friendly with each other.
‘Do you have time to grab lunch? I’d love to catch up.’ James asks flashing a quick grin.
‘Of course.’ Anything that’ll take her mind away from her cold home works for Caroline. ‘But don’t you want to get your mom’s scarf first?’
James stops and laughs heartily ‘You always said it was unimaginative of me to give her a scarf on her birthday or a broach over Christmas’
‘It still is.’
‘Well then, what would you suggest I give her?’
‘Buy her a first class ticket to Vegas or somewhere, throw in a few of her friends so she can really enjoy herself and have the memories. She has enough vintage scarves don’t you think?’
‘Still cheeky Caroline.’ James shakes his head with a laugh. ‘Fine, you win. I’ll get my travel agent on it. Come on.’
They ride up the elevator to the 5th floor restaurant where they are seated almost immediately because it is a quiet afternoon.
‘So how’s life in Chicago?’
‘Beautiful for three seasons and godawful in the winter. The absolute worst but I love it.’ James takes a sip of his glass of white wine. ‘How are your husband and I suppose Children? You are still married to the man who stole the best thing that ever happened to me right?’
‘Yes we are. Happily married with twins. One boy, one girl.’ Maybe not so happy these days but she is not about to spill the details of her married life to her ex-fiancé.
‘Lucky bastard. But good for you Caroline. You deserve the best because you are such a good person.’
‘Thank you James.’
‘That was a long time coming. I know I said some pretty awful things when you broke up with me-‘
‘Water under the bridge.’ Caroline assures James.
‘If I know something about love, its that the heart wants what it wants and you cannot fight it. He better make you happy.’
‘Oh he does.’ Caroline’s words bring a little hurt to her heart because she remembers how much happy Xavier used to make her and now…
‘Caroline. How lovely to see you.’ Bernadette is standing at their table with her faux smile plastered on her face. ‘And with such a handsome date. Not your husband.’
Caroline rolls her eyes and James raises a brow. He gets it.
‘Hello Bernadette.’ Caroline says in a monotonous tone.
‘Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?’
‘I’m Bernadette George, a friend of Caroline’s. Lovely to meet you.’ Bernadette takes matters into her own hand.
‘I’m James, also a friend of Caroline’s-‘
‘James. Her ex-fiancé!’ Bernadette’s eyes widen at her realisation. It could very well be Christmas. ‘I’ve heard so much about you. How lovely to meet you.’
‘I’ll bet it is. Bernadette please leave us alone.’ Caroline says without disguising her irritation.
‘Okay then. Gladly.’ Bernadette sing songs, all but skipping away from their table and Caroline can just see the next series of events unfolding.
‘I take it that’s the “Queen B?.’ James says at Bernadette’s departure, quoting his fingers too.
‘Right on the money. She is also the ex-whatever of my husband who just makes trouble for me.’
‘And who said high school ever ends?’
‘My sentiments exactly.’
‘Caroline we don’t have to do this. I don’t want you to get in trouble with your husband-‘
‘Last I checked I was my own person and we are friends. Friends have lunch and I’m really hungry.’
‘You always were so stubborn.’ James laughs, signalling to the waiter to take their order.
‘Never change Caroline. You are the best thing you have going for you and your husband should be so lucky.’ James says, deadpan.
‘Thank you James that’s such a lovely thing to say.’
‘Its also the truth.’
As Caroline suspected Bernadette already called Xavier to tell him of her lunch with James. She could tell by that look on his face.
‘How was your lunch?’ Xavier asks when his wife walks in with her shopping bags.
‘It was lovely thanks for asking.’ She replies breezily.
‘Lunch with your ex-fiancé?’
‘As you have been reliably informed by your ex-fianceé that would be correct.’ Caroline deadpans.
‘What the hell is that supposed to mean?’
‘It means I don’t keep secrets. When were you going to tell me that you and Bernadette were secretly engaged before you left for Oxford?’
‘We were never engaged.’ Xavier refutes, shocked by the accusation.
‘Why would she think that?’
‘I don’t know. We were never engaged secretly or otherwise.’
‘Not according to her.’
‘And you believe her?’
‘You do, so why shouldn’t I?’ That line has the desired effect on Xavier, Caroline is glad to see.
‘So lunch with your ex-fiancé is payback?’
‘No Xavier, it was just lunch. I bumped into him whilst shopping and he suggested we grab a bite to eat. I don’t see any harm in that. What’s the problem now?’ Caroline drops her shopping bags and puts her hands on her hips.
‘What is that supposed to mean?’
‘What do you want to fight about now? I’m a bad step-mother, I drive your daughter to run away, your mother despises me, I work too much…take your pick.’
‘This is bullshit Caroline, I was never engaged to Bernadette-‘
‘She certainly thinks so.’
‘Okay.’ Caroline shrugs her shoulders.
‘Yes Xavier. Okay. I’m not doing this with you. I don’t have the time or the energy for it. You don’t talk to me anymore and now because I have lunch with my ex-fiancé you’re suddenly in a chatty mood? I don’t have anything to say.’
‘First of all you’ve been freezing me out too.’
‘Tit for tat is it?’
‘No its not but we are two culpable adults in whatever is going on in our marriage Caroline-‘
‘Bullshit.’ Caroline snaps. Time for her husband to hear a few home truths. ‘Whatever is going on in our marriage, you are the catalyst. Your mother, your bitch of an ex-girlfriend and your bigger bitch of a baby mother. I’m not saying I’m without blame here but you could’ve done something about it and chose not to. And when I react to them I come off as a bitch on both sides, so don’t tell me this nonsense. You believe I pushed Amelia to run away, your silence on this subject proves that to me and according to Penelope, I’m the wicked step-mother. What’s so hurtful about all this is that I would never, ever put you in this situation. My family would never intrude upon our lives the way you have allowed yours to. But for the love I have for you and our children-‘
‘What?’ Xavier saw the flash in Caroline’s eyes, her anger and hurt.
‘Go figure, but this would be a very different conversation.’
Just then Caroline and Xavier see Amelia standing by the kitchen door to the living room.
‘Oh look, its little Miss Honesty.’ Caroline says before picking up her bags and leaving father and daughter alone.
Amelia walks into the living room.
‘Sorry you had to hear that sweetheart.’ Xavier says to his daughter.
‘Can I talk to you daddy?’
‘Of course honey, what’s bothering you?’
‘Are you and Caroline getting a divorce?’
‘No. We’re going through a difficult time but that’s what marriage is about. We fight and we make up.’ Although Xavier doesn’t know how they will make up this time. If they ever will. ‘Do you want us to get divorced? Is that why you ran away.’
‘No.’ Amelia shakes her head ‘I know she doesn’t think I like her, but I do. It’s just that I’m afraid if I show her that I like her, mommy will be mad at me.’
‘Why would your mom be mad at you for liking Caroline?
‘Because she says Caroline does not want me in your life.’
‘Does Caroline treat you that way?’
‘No. She never has.’ Amelia shakes her head again, looking down at her feet.
‘So why did you run away and blame it on Caroline?’ Xavier asks with a sinking feeling.
‘Amelia you can tell me anything.’
‘Mommy made me.’ Amelia bursts into sobs. ‘She bought train tickets for me and my friends to go to Brighton. She said if I did then Caroline will get in trouble and you’ll file for divorce and that way you and her can be together.’ Amelia cries some more. ‘I’m really sorry daddy.’
‘Oh dear God.’ Xavier puts his head in his hands, the magnitude of his daughter’s confession weighs down on him, heavily. ‘I’m so sorry your mother put you through that sweetheart. Its not your fault.’
When Xavier lifts his head, his eyes meets Caroline’s. She’d been standing by the staircase. She shakes her head and walks back upstairs leaving father and daughter alone.