Veronica.

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10. Disappointment's a bitch.

I’ve been rushed off my feet all morning preparing for the twin’s birthday party. Without as much as a minute to sit down and finish the coffee I made for myself an hour ago. It sits now on a table a few yards away, cold as ice. With a glance, I look towards it; wishing for nothing more than for someone to notice how busy I am and to offer to make me a new one. The only person here who would is Darcy, but she’s been busy hanging birthday banners for the past half hour. Joel and Chloe are in an in-depth conversation with his parents; neither looking my way. It isn’t until I drop a whole load of birthday hats do I make a sound. A loud whine leaves my painted lips; the red an attempt to look far more in control than I actually am.

After a careful stare, Max’s mother begins to approach me. Her greying hair is tied atop her head in a tight bun, her sharp eyes watching my every move. The wrinkles of her face far more pronounced now than they were the last time we saw each other. Of course, that was four years ago. His parents have seen the twins, but neither has attempted to stay in touch with me. And so, when Milly Locke comes to a halt in front of me, I can’t help the shocked expression on my face.

When we first met, I tried my hardest to make a good impression. I thought that with me being a ballerina, studying full time and being as polite as I could, I would charm her. At least I attempted to. Then, I accidentally smashed one of her mother’s china plates, and it all went south from there. The look in her eye was enough to scare me off her for life. She’s been disappointed in Joel’s choice in me ever since. Not once has she showed me an ounce of affection. I’m certain she threw a celebratory party once Joel and I divorced. No one was good enough for her baby boy. No one except Chloe ‘perfect’ Nightingale, it seems. All I’ve ever wanted to do is ruin the perception she has of her son. He is far from the sweetheart she believes him to be. He’s not even close to being nice...

I wait for Milly to make the first move. Not that I expect anything more than a mouthful of complaints. Maybe the hall where the twins’ birthday is being held is too run-down for her liking? Maybe the dress Rowan is wearing is too pink? Who knows!

“Veronica! David and I will transfer money to the twin’s account for their birthday. £500 should be enough for you to purchase some... suitable clothing for them.” Her eyes hover over the dress I wear. Its v-neck cut and floral pattern is everything she’s against.

I force a smile onto my face. “They’ll appreciate that a whole lot, Milly. If you don’t mind me, I’m just going to clear this mess up.” I crouch down and begin to collect the cardboard hats that I dropped minutes earlier. In the confusion of her approach, I completely forgot about them until I brushed the tip of my sandal against one.

“Rowan told me what she got in her recent math’s test. B is good. James’ D is questionable. Mind you, he hasn’t gotten much help from you, has he?” Her melodic, nauseating voice rings out; the dig at me undeniably and painfully obvious.

Once I’ve gathered the hats, I stand up, my head spinning already. “Milly, James is doing just fine. He has all the help he needs.”

“If he wants to make it into Oxford or Cambridge, he needs to get better marks. You know that, Veronica.”

I hate the way she says my name. I’ve always hated it. She says it as though it brings a disgusting taste to her lips. As though it’s not worthy enough to come out of her mouth. How is that even possible?

I straighten up, becoming completely rigid. “The twins are six, Milly. They are far from worrying about what university they’ll go to.”

“Maybe someone should worry. We don’t want them ending up like-”

“Like who? Me?” A low murmur leaves her parted lips. “Or your son? Is he still a barman?” I sigh and reign in my frustration. “Look, if you’re quite done putting me down, I have things to do. Why don’t you spend some time with your grandchildren before Joel decides he doesn’t want them in his life again?”

With that, I walk past her with my head held high. I keep it that way until I reach the small, communal kitchen that is tucked away at the back of the hall. A groan leaves me instantly. After dropping the hats onto the table, I rest my hands against it.

How is it possible that one woman can change my mood so quickly?

“What’s getting you down?” Darcy’s charming voice reaches my ears.

I turn in time to see her shut the door behind her. “Screw her and her stupid posh accent!”

“Who?” Darcy’s eyes widen.

“Joel’s mother. She’s hated me from the moment she met me, you know? Not once did she give me a chance to bond with her! I’m a nice woman.”

“You are lovely, Veronica. That doesn’t mean she is. You don’t need to worry about her anymore though, do you?” I shrug. “Not the way you used to when you were seeing Joel. She’s nothing to you, treat her that way.”

“She is their grandmother.”

"Poor children. My mother’s mum was a witch to me. I hated her from whatever age I truly realised what hate was. The last time I saw her she told me that she’d have put me on a diet if I lived with her. I was ten!” Darcy giggles briefly, pulling a wild face.

I smile too. “Well, Milly isn’t that bad.”

“Thank god. You know, I spoke to Lydia the other day and I mentioned the party. She really wanted to be here.” Darcy informs me as she begins filling the squash jugs that sit by the sink. “She told me to wish Rowan and James a happy birthday.”

Chewing on my lower lip, I concentrate on sorting the cardboard hats. Blue for boys, pink for girls. Or whatever damn colour the little ones want!

“V?” Darcy calls out.

“Mhm, she hasn’t seen the twins in years. After what she said to me when I started working at The Red Lounge, I don’t want her anywhere near them.”

I’m being cruel but not unnecessarily so.

Darcy shrugs, “I understand, I do. All I’ll say is, give her a chance to make it up to you. And that’s it, I’ll shut up about her. Hey, when are the firemen showing up? I need me some eye candy.” Her doe eyes glimmer with excitement.

“They’re human beings, Darcy! Don’t treat them like slabs of meat.”

“Oh, says the one who can’t shut up about Max.” She says his name with a pucker of her peach lips.

“That’s different.”

My friend winks. “Is it? Is it really?”

I choose to ignore her blatant attempt at trying to get me to spill the details. Yeah, sure I’ve mentioned how extremely attractive he is numerous times. I mean, how could I not?

“You’re a terrible liar,” Darcy says.

“I didn’t say anything!”

“You didn’t have to. It’s written all over your face.”

The slightest crease above her eyebrows catches my attention. “What’s up?”

“My ex text me last night.” She inhales deeply.

“Vincent? Why didn’t you tell me? That bastard shouldn’t even have your number.”

Unfortunately, the man Darcy thought she’d spend forever with dumped her after two years together, all because he wanted to travel and she didn’t have the money to do so. Before she knew what was happening, he was out of the door with two suitcases and his passport. The fucker. I never did like him.

“He was telling me all about Croatia and how I would love it there.”

I scoff. “That’s called emotional blackmail, babe. And, no you wouldn’t love it there. Do you want to know how I know that? Because that twat is there. You’re better off without him!”

“I know I am, but I have to live through you now. No one bothers looking twice at me. It’s as though he’s left me branded with the word undateable across my forehead.” Darcy argues, gesturing towards her now severely creased brow.

With my strictest voice; one I usually reserve for the twins, I reply. “Darcy, you are by far the most gorgeous woman I have ever met. Look at you! Don’t think twice about Vincent. Promise me?”

“I promise.” She nods her head. “Boy, do I miss sex!”

“Mummy?”

With wide eyes, I turn towards the open door of the kitchen. Rowan stands there, her hands clasped in front of her pink dress. She looks between the two of us; too smart to not realise that something’s going on. Her naturally curly eyelashes flutter a few times before she lets it go. Thankfully!

“Yes, honey?” I shoot Darcy a brief glare before crouching down in front of my daughter.

“James stole my balloon.”

“Oh no! Let’s go and find you another one. An even better one!”

As we’re leaving the kitchen I glance at Darcy who mouths the words I’m sorry with a dramatic shrug of her shoulders and a glint I thought she’d lost in her eyes.

✖✖✖

“Mummy! Mummy, look!”

From my position on the floor, surrounded by the balloons Rowan, I and her friends have collected, I see James pointing at the open door of the hall. I stand up and approach him, setting eyes on the thing that has gotten my son ever so excited. A large, red fire-engine has pulled up in the carpark, and as we watch on, two firefighters jump out of it.

Max only went and pulled it off.

I can’t deny the smile that pulls at the corners of my mouth. With wandering eyes, I wait for the man himself to make an appearance. When only Sebastian and a man I’ve never enter the hall, I realise that Max isn’t here.

“Veronica, hi. Murray, this is the lady Max hasn’t shut up about for the past week. Veronica, this is the new kid. Fortunately for me, he has a day off today so I roped him into coming with me.” Sebastian does the introductions.

With a small smile, I shake Murray’s hand. His puppy-dog eyes are a rich brown colour, reminding me of melted chocolate.

“Nice to meet you.”

I’m taken into Sebastian’s arms, much to my surprise, as he greets me properly. “Nice to meet you too. I’m sorry if you had plans for your day off. Truth is I was expecting Max.” I glance at him as he pulls away from me.

“Max rang early this morning to say he couldn’t make it. He wanted me to tell you he’s sorry he couldn’t be here. Oh, and he wishes the twins a very happy birthday.” He explains.

Oh.

Disappointment’s a bitch, isn’t it?

“That’s alright. James, are you excited to see the fire-engine?”

I hide my upset for the sake of the kids making a mental note to give Max a call later. He wouldn’t let me down for any old reason. At least I don’t think he would.

Soon enough James is bounding outside followed by Sebastian, Murray and about a dozen of his friends. I take Rowan into my arms and we follow the rest. James is already touching the fire-engine, running his hand across the bright, red paintwork. He catches my eye and grins wildly.

“Mummy, did they bring something for me?” Rowan whispers into my ear.

I glance at Sebastian who must have caught her words. He grins before retreating to the front of the beast. He swings the door open, returning with a giant, pink bunny rabbit in his arms. He hands it to Rowan and winks at me.

“Whoa, who’s that from?” I ask.

“Guess.”

“Max? This is a very expensive brand! He shouldn’t have.” I say.

Sebastian shrugs. “Try and tell Max that. He wanted your little ones to have a good day and if he could help at all, you should know by now that he would.”

“That’s so kind of him. Rowan, what are you going to name her?”

“It’s a boy!”

I grin. “A boy? What’s his name then, honey?”

“Max.”

That’s my girl.

A laugh leaves my lips. I kiss her forehead gently before letting her down. I’m smiling until Joel appears by my side. He’s grown out his beard since the last time we met. It surrounds the narrow line of his lips as he nudges my arm with his elbow.

“Whose idea was this?” He gestures towards the commotion in front of us. The younger boys are running riot around the fire-engine and James is sat in the driver’s seat having the time of his life. “Roni?”

“What? Oh, this was a friend’s idea. Look, James looks so happy, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah, yeah. What friend? Is he one of those two?” He points to Murray and Sebastian.

I shake my head. “Nope.”

“You’re being very mysterious about this friend.”

“So what?”

“Is he more than a friend? Are you sleeping with him?”

I wish.

My eyes widen. “Joel, we’re way past the point of us caring about what the other is getting up to. If I’m seeing anyone, that’s completely up to me.”

“So he is a firefighter? He sent this but didn’t show up himself, huh?” He smirks. “Maybe he isn’t that interested?”

“Shut up, Joel. You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Chil out, Roni!”

I roll my eyes at his insensitivity. God, what did I ever see in this man?

“Joel, just leave me alone. Don’t ruin my day.”

I give him enough credit if I believe he’s going to walk away without another word. He lets out a low hum.

“Actually, we need to have a chat about the hearing that’s in a few weeks. Don’t you think?”

Fuck.

The other day, my perfectly fine day was ruined when a letter came through the mail. It was an order to appear at a mandatory court appointment to discuss the future of the twins’ living arrangements. Apparently, nothing will be decided on the day, but that doesn’t mean I’m not terrified.

I avoid his eye, facing him with the side of my face. “Joel, are you really going through with it? You know very well that you can see them whenever you please. I have never stopped you from doing that.”

“That’s not what I want anymore. I want to be there when they go to sleep and when they wake up. And I want to spend the holidays with them.”

“If you think you’re having them for Christmas, you’ve got another thing coming. I-”

“Babe, this is where you’ve been hiding.”

Chloe appears to the side of us, snaking her arm around my ex’s waist. She presses her cheek to his shoulder, smiling up at him. The way she’s staring up at him drives me crazy; as though he’s some angel sent from above. As though he’s been the perfect boyfriend and not at all like he walked out on his new-borns. To say I’m bitter is a fucking understatement.

“What’s all this?” She points to the fire-engine.

Joel frowns. “A surprise from a friend apparently.”

I roll my dark eyes. “A really good friend.”

“You’re going to show up, aren’t you, Roni?” He asks.

I seethe my next words through gritted teeth,

“There’s no way I’m missing it.”

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