The duel roadway that ringed Colebrook hadn’t existed the last time Maxine was home. The industrial complex that peppered its perimeter spared no consideration for architectural coercion, decimating a once tranquil area of countryside with its intrusive presence. Progress had a lot to answer for.
Maxine eased her foot off the gas as she approached the center of town, conscious of her heart thumping against her ribcage and her stomach performing Olympic-standard somersaults. She took several deep, calming breaths, suppressing the manic urge to make an illegal U-turn and head back to the anonymity of London. A latent masochistic tendency, coupled with the trifling fact that she was currently without gainful employment, had persuaded her to come home. Now that she was here, she was determined to see this thing through, even if the sight of the increasingly familiar streets was already testing that resolve.
She drove around the village green, amazed that everything looked so normal. People went about their daily business, blissfully unaware of Maxine’s turmoil. Only when she noticed one or two of them casting admiring glances at her sports car did she pull herself together and increase her speed. She was anxious that news of her return shouldn’t break prematurely. Not that anyone was likely to recognize her. She had nothing in common with the ungainly creature who’d fled Colebrook in a blaze of agony ten years ago, vowing never to return.
Her mother was abroad on her latest one-woman mission to save the planet, providing Maxine with a legitimate reason to delay telling her that she’d resigned from a lucrative career for reasons her mother would struggle to understand. Instead she steeled herself to face a past that had crippled her emotionally for too long. The mere thought of seeing Noah again brought on a nervous headache but she ignored it, resisting the almost seductive desire to run away, knowing from bitter experience that hiding wasn’t the answer.She pulled into the driveway of her mother’s house and stared blankly at flower borders bursting with color as the memories threatened to overwhelm. Noah had been her close friend, her confidant, the one person who’d truly understood what made her tick and had given her the confidence to believe in herself. He’d seen through her unattractive exterior to the complex person lurking beneath all those layers of extraneous flesh. He’d told her about his ambitious plans for the future, hinting that there would be a place for her in his life after she graduated from university. Seduced by his unshakable faith in her, she’d temporarily forgotten the bitter lesson that life had already taught her.
Fat girls aren’t supposed to have fun.
Maxine got out of her car and let herself into the house, heading straight for her old room where she threw her bags onto the sagging bed. The air was musty and she battled with the warped window until she managed to force it open. Leaning out of it, she breathed in the heady scent of roses running riot round its frame. Just for a moment she felt at peace.
Then the silence in the small house closed in on her, and she was conscious of memories waiting to ambush her everywhere she turned. Scrabbling for a distraction, she reached into the wardrobe, pulled out one of the tent dresses she’d worn as a teenager and shuddered. It would go round her twice now. Feeling more optimistic about her reasons for being here she vowed that somehow she would get through this ordeal with her dignity intact. She unpacked the few clothes she’d brought with her, wondering what to wear.
Was there a dress code for confronting the two people who’d so callously broken her heart?
A heart that proved tenacious in its determination not to repair itself.
Twelve Years Ago
Noah listened with half an ear as Joey prattled on about the evening to come. He wouldn’t normally give up precious time when he could be working just to attend a stupid party, but Joey was his best mate, it was his eighteenth birthday and his girlfriend’s family was pulling out all the stops. Even so, he resented having to attend the bloody event, and knew it would be a massive waste of time.
Joey, busy talking with his hands, took a corner too fast and almost lost control of their dilapidated van. The tires squealed and the engine made an ominous knocking sound, backfiring in protest when Joey crunched through the gears in a clumsy attempt to rectify his mistake.
“Steady, mate,” Noah said, wincing. “We can’t afford new tires for this death trap.”
“Sorry, but I promised Rachel we’d be there before now.”
“Seems to me that she’s got you well and truly where she wants you,” Noah chuckled. “What’s she got you for your birthday anyway?”
Joey shrugged, concentrating on the road as he overtook an ancient Volvo being driven by an old man doggedly hugging the crown of the road. “Dunno do I. It’s supposed to be a surprise.”
They pulled into Rachel’s parents’ driveway, and the two of them sauntered across the front lawn. Noah kicked at a loose stone, trying to appear interested as he listened to Joey enthusing about the trouble Rachel’s folks had gone to on his behalf.
“Probably got you down as son-in-law material,” Noah cautioned.
“But this is great. Just look.” Joey waved an arm to encompass the rear garden. A tent had been erected and fairy lights were strung across trees. Loud music already shook the speakers inside the tent which was rapidly filling with scantily-clad bodies. “We never had anything like this when we were growing up.”
Noah merely grunted, refusing to be impressed.
As soon as they entered the tent they were surrounded by a gaggle of females. Noah gave them an absent once over, not especially impressed by anything he saw. Then Rachel materialized, closely followed by her inner circle, and made a beeline for Joey. She threw herself into his arms and whispered something in his ear. Noah was amused to see Joey’s animated expression give way to a deep blush. They drifted away, hand in hand, oblivious to the people crowding round to wish Joey a happy birthday. Noah suppressed a grin. Unless he was much mistaken, Joey was about to receive a very special birthday present.
Noah continued to gaze around the tent with ill-disguised boredom. Then his gaze fell upon Maxine, and his mood lightened.
“Hello, Max.” He pushed past his bevy of admirers and kissed her on the cheek. She blushed scarlet, which amused him, but that amusement was replaced by a surge of anger when the people around him didn’t bother to hide their astonishment. Max might be a bit overweight, but she was also clever, easy to talk to, and ten times the person any of this lot would ever be.
“Hello, Noah,” she said, still blushing. “You know Cassie and Sally, don’t you?”
Noah nodded at the two girls hovering around her, totally disinterested in them. Cassie Fenwick wasn’t deterred. She stepped forward, a predatory gleam in her eye.
“Hello, Noah,” she said. “I didn’t think you’d be here so early.”
“Didn’t you?” He didn’t give a toss what she thought, and was tempted to smile when a look of absolute confusion passed across her face.
“I haven’t seen you for a few days, Max,” he said, turning back to her. “Have you been all right?”
“Oh yes, fine thanks. Just busy with work.”
He rolled his eyes. “Tell me about it.”
“I like your jacket, Noah.” Cassie fingered the sleeve of his prized leather jacket. He moved his arm, shaking her hand off.
“Your hair looks nice, Max.”
“Thanks to me, you mean.” There was a note of desperation in Cassie’s voice. “I did Max’s hair for her.”
“Well, whatever you did can’t have made much difference. Max’s hair always looks good.”
Noah winked at her. “It don’t need no messing with.”
The music slowed and Noah asked Maxine to dance. Cassie threw her a look of deep betrayal and stomped off. Half the eyes in the tent were trained upon them with incredulity as Noah took Maxine in his arms, but Noah didn’t give a toss about that and concentrated upon making Max feel better about herself. He gave her a reassuring squeeze as they swayed on the spot, and felt her gradually relax.
“You dance well, Max. You’re really light on your feet.”
“For a fat lump, you mean.”
“You ain’t fat, darling. Don’t put yourself down.”
“Noah, I weigh nearly thirteen stone.”
“You just need to get a bit of exercise and you’ll look great.”
“Please don’t patronize me, Noah.” Tears trickled from behind her glasses and slid down her face.
“Christ, is that what you think I’m doing?” He tugged at her hand. “Come on, let’s get out of here. I feel like a goldfish in a bowl with all these people gawking at us.”
Noah dragged her out of the tent and didn’t let go of her hand until they’d reached the bottom of the garden. He steered her towards a bench and sat down beside her.
“Here.” He delved into his pocket and produced a handkerchief. “I think it’s clean.”
“Thanks.” Sniffing, Maxine dabbed at her eyes.
“What’s wrong, Max? Wanna talk about it?”
“Nothing, other than the fact that I’m fat and ugly.”
“You ain’t ugly.” Before she could stop him Noah reached up and removed her glasses. “You’ve got gorgeous emerald eyes. Do you have to wear glasses? Can’t you get contact lenses?”
“No. I’ve got an astigmatism.”
“Never mind, you’re still gorgeous to me. You place too much stock by appearances.”
“That’s easy for you to say!” Maxine rounded on him. “You’ve got every female under the age of sixty in Colebrook lusting after you. And why do you suppose that is?”
“Yeah, and that’s why I’m qualified to say that you shouldn’t judge by appearances. You’ve got plenty going for you and don’t have to prove yourself.”
“Nobody can see beyond this.” She indicated her body with her hands, looking close to tears again.
“Well, I can. We’ve both had to survive on our wits, you and me. You’ve done it through your intelligence, but I just went to the local state school…well, when there was nothing more profitable to do with my time,” he added with a grin. “So I’ve had to learn to run with what I’ve got.”
“Noah, I don’t think”
“If it weren’t for you I’d never have discovered the joys of reading.”
“Yes you would. You were obviously drawn towards books or you’d never have come into the library that day.”
He recalled the day in question, a little over a year ago, when he’d strolled into the library on a whim, wearing mud-splattered work clothes that elicited disapproving tuts from its staid occupants. Maxine, having just started her holiday job there, sat behind the counter completely engrossed in a book. He’d asked her what she was reading but she was too tongue-tied to answer him straight away. Noah couldn’t understand why. He was the one out of place, and if anyone felt awkward it ought to have been him.
He’d known who Maxine was, but reckoned she was out of his league intellectually and would never want to know him. To his astonishment, she found her voice and recommended books that he might enjoy. Her recommendations were spot on and he went back the following week to thank her, and to talk about what he’d read. It became a habit and he often waited until last thing so they could have coffee together when she got off work.
“Perhaps,” he said. “But I was too busy making money and had no time to waste reading. Until you opened my eyes and I realized what I was missing.”
Maxine, who he knew always found it difficult to deal with compliments, changed the subject. “How’s your father?” she asked.
“Same as ever.” He drifted into a moody silence.
“Sorry if I’ve said something I shouldn’t have.”
“You haven’t, but as usual you’ve turned the subject away from yourself.”
“No one’s interested in me.”
Noah cupped her face in his hand and his thumb gently traced the outline of her plump jaw. He dropped his head and brushed his lips against hers, parodying the seductive dance they’d just shared in the tent. Maxine gasped, but when her arms slid round his neck and her eyes fluttered closed, it became clear that she wasn’t objecting. That impression was confirmed when, with a deep sigh, she buried her fingers in his hair. Noah’s lips instinctively hardened against hers, forcing them apart as his tongue slid into her mouth.
“Why did you do that?” she asked breathlessly when he broke the kiss.
“You looked like you needed reassurance.”
“Don’t!” She jerked away from him and groped for her glasses. “Just don’t! You don’t need to stoke your already over-inflated ego by playing games with me.” She glared at him. “Just leave me alone.” She folded her arms beneath her ample breasts and stared off into the distance.
“I’m not playing with you. I’d never do that.” He ran his hand through his dishevelled hair and sighed. “Oh sure, the women come on to me, and I have them.” He shrugged. “I’m only human. But it’s just fucking; it don’t mean nothing. You’re different, though. I respect your ambition. I can really talk to you about anything, and I don’t want to lose you when you go on to greater things.” He fixed her with an intense gaze. “Can we still be friends, no matter what?”
“All right,” Maxine said slowly. “If that’s what you’d like.”
When she glanced dubiously at her body he knew precisely what she was thinking.
“Your size don’t matter to me, and if other people can’t see beyond it, then it’s their loss.” He smiled at her. “But you need to sort your life, and could start by losing that kid in the hall.”
Maxine blinked at him. “Cassie, you mean?”
“Yeah, her. She takes advantage of you.”
“I know that, but it’s a two-way street and I needed her in my corner if I was to survive at school. If she hadn’t taken me under her wing, God alone knows how I’d have coped.”
“Max, you got into that posh school on a scholarship, which means you belonged there. She only got in because her old man paid the fees. And, I’m guessing here, but I reckon Cassie befriended you because she needed your help with her homework.”
Maxine nodded. “I know that too.” She shrugged. “But it was a situation that suited us both.”
“So, what does she want from you now? Why is she still hanging out with you?”
Maxine placed her hands on her hips and glared at him. “Has it occurred to you that Cassie, and Rachel for that matter, might actually enjoy my company?”
“Hey, don’t get mad at me.” He was amused by her fit of pique. “I’m sure Joey’s Rachel likes you for yourself, but Cassie Fenwick only ever thinks of number one.”
“Possibly, but I don’t mind. Anyway, what makes you say that?”
“I notice things. Besides, Rachel talks to Joey.”
“I like Rachel a lot.”
Noah grinned. “So does Joey.”
“Cassie wants to get to know you.” Maxine’s words came out in a jumbled rush.
“Ah.” Noah scowled. “That would explain it.”
“What, you think that she still hangs out with me because I’m your friend?”
“I don’t mean to sound vain here, but she’s tried just about everything else.”
“Modesty doesn’t suit you, Noah,” Maxine said, smiling. “So stop playing coy and tell me why you don’t like Cassie.”
“I don’t like her type. She’s spoiled, manipulative and stuck up.”
“Well, her parents are quite well to-do, so I suppose that’s not so surprising.”
“Her mother’s a bitch.” Noah thumped his clenched fist against his thigh. “She tried real hard to get me taken into foster care when I was little. Pretended she knew what was best for me, and made my life a misery with her interfering ways.”
“Why did she think she could do that?”
“Well, you know Dad. His crazy schemes are always on the dodgy side of legal.” He scowled. “He’s the only parent I had, though—the only security I’d ever known— and she wanted to take me away from him.” His scowl intensified. “If I ever have kids, I’ll never put them through anything like that.”
“She can be a little forceful, I suppose,” Maxine conceded.
“I heard snatches of her conversations with Social Services, and I used to lie awake at night afterwards, confused. I wondered what I’d done wrong, and was petrified she’d get me taken away from Dad. I’ll never forgive her for sticking her nose in.”
“Yes well, that’s the way she is, but Mr Fenwick’s nice.”
“The Harley Street Cardiologist,” Noah said sarcastically. “I’ve never had the pleasure.”
“Well then, reserve judgement until you meet him.”
“I don’t suppose our paths will ever cross.” He stood up and offered her his hand, pulling her easily to her feet. “Are you up to going back in?”
“I’ll be making a move in a minute. I have to see a man about a dog. But I’ll give you a ring later in the week and we’ll do something, if you like.”
Maxine grinned and told him that she would very much like.