Veronica.

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2. His fiancé, huh?

When I step foot out of The Red Lounge, I’m no longer Roni. I am Veronica Halloway, a twenty-seven-year-old, London native. I’m short, my curves are hidden away and there are multiple holes in my boots. I am Veronica Halloway, a woman with hair the colour of the night and eyes like the ocean. At the club, my job is to get noticed but out in the real world, I try my best to be the woman who wouldn’t get a second glance. Urgency. That’s what it is. The reason I walk through the streets as though the strangers walking with me do not exist. The urgent need to get home.

I cross the street and head towards the underground. The urgency in my step is also the reason I walk straight into a plastic partition set up for the obvious reason of keeping pedestrians like myself at bay. It hits my thighs as I look up from my boots just in time to see it fall forward. Reality hits me as fast as the partition did. I look around to find a huge crowd of people staring in my direction. But they aren’t watching me. No. Their eyes are glued to the building behind me. My eyes follow the direction of their gaze.

“Shit!” I jump backwards.

The building is on fucking fire!

Next thing I know, a firefighter is heading towards me, holding out his gloved hand. His uniform is beige with a few smudged, black marks here and there. Unlike the bodies working around him, his face isn’t hidden. He has sandy coloured hair which sticks out in every direction, obviously after having been in a helmet. There is an ash grey mark on his right cheek. An easy smile appears on his face revealing dimples in both cheeks.

“Sorry, miss but you’re going to have to cross the road.”

I tug at the long sleeves of my jumper; the cold finally affecting the tips of my fingers, “You know you really should have a warning sign. I almost broke your wall thingy.”

“Uh, miss,” he points a gloved finger over my shoulder.

I glance in that direction, “There is a sign. Right, it has been an incredibly long day. I didn’t mean to hit this,” I gesture towards the orange partition that lays on the floor ahead of the both of us.

He shakes his head, “Don’t worry at all about that, miss. I personally blame my colleague. He obviously didn’t place the sign in a clear enough place. I shall have a word.”

“Good... Well, I hope you stop the place from falling down.”

“Are you okay? You hit the wall thingy pretty hard,” he grins as he repeats my previous words back at me.

I blink a few times, “No. I’m okay. Thighs of steel, me. Right, well I better be going, Bye!”

Before the stranger has the opportunity to reply, I rush away as fast as my legs allow. I reach the end of the street before risking a glance over my shoulder. He stands in the same position as he did when we spoke but this time, he’s facing me. The helmet that had previously been tucked under his arm is now on his head, ruining any chance I have of telling if he’s watching me walk away or simply staring at the floor.

I turn away then, careful to watch my step.

✖✖✖

An overpowering smell of garlic fills my nose as I step through the door of my home an hour later. I push the large, wooden door shut and wander towards the kitchen. Toys litter the hallway floor and I bend down instinctively every other second to pick them up. When I reach the origin of the smell, I have a large, pink unicorn teddy, a lorry and an Elsa doll under one arm. Under the other, I hold a fire engine.

At first, the place looks empty but suddenly the top of a head bobs up from the counter followed by the rest of a body. Avaline jumps backwards as she notices me, holding her hand up to her chest. She eyes the toys that I drop into the wicker basket by the door.

“I can explain the mess.”

“Go on,” I call her bluff.

She sighs, “Okay, I can’t. I turned my back for one second and when I looked again it was as though they were marching to war.”

“I take it they in that situation are the toys and not the children?”

I make my way around the counter towards the stove where a large pot sits. I spoon the red sauce and my mouth begins to water, reminding me that it has been five hours since I last ate.

“It’s Bolognese. I know you told me that you enjoy cooking for them but I thought I’d help out.”

I turn to face the youngster, “Thank you, Ava. You can stay and eat with us if you like?” That’s when I spot the mess on the floor, “Did something explode? It wasn’t one of their heads was it?”

“I dropped a tin of tomatoes,” she speaks, all the while nonchalantly wiping a paper towel across the floor with her converse clad foot.

I laugh, “Let me get that. Why don’t you set the table, I am starving!”

A few minutes later, the two most important people in my life skip into the kitchen. The twins, already dressed in their nightwear wrap their arms around me as I crouch down to greet them. James and Rowan are two extremely adorable, excitable five-year-olds. I tug them into my sides, wrapping an arm around each. Rowan giggles, her curly, ebony hair flying across my face as she tucks her own against me. James grips my fingers with his tiny ones, his blue eyes speckled with shades of green and brown. His hair is jet black too and is completely different from how it looked this morning.

“Where has your hair gone?” I ask, my lips curling upwards.

“It was cut off, silly!”

“Did you thank Ava for taking you?”

“I made sure he did,” Rowan pushes her own hair out of her face, “Mine’s shorter too!”

“It is! You both look beautiful.”

“Boys can’t be beautiful,” James quips.

I kiss the top of his head gently, “You’re incredibly handsome, James Kurtis Locke. How about the two of you help Ava with the table. Mommy has to clean up her mess, she had a fight with some tomatoes.”

✖✖✖

Around an hour later, I see Ava to the door. The teenager wraps her denim jacket around her shoulders, before pulling her chestnut hair from underneath the collar. She grins at me as I hand her a few notes from the wad of twenties I received earlier.

Three years ago when I realised that I could no longer work hours to just suit me, I decided to find someone who’d be willing to take care of a pair of loud, two-year-olds. That way I could work without worrying about my children too much. I still worry though it’s a little less these days. Along came Ava, a fifteen-year-old with the mannerisms and punctuation of a fully grown adult. She did something I couldn’t do in my two years of motherhood; she allowed the twins to have fun. And she does that to this day, though I too have begun to breathe easier when they rush around the house not looking where they’re going. I pay Ava for her hours each month and luckily for both of us, she lives just next door.

“Oh, I almost forgot to mention, their dad rang.”

“What did he have to say?”

“He’s coming over tomorrow at nine and he has a surprise for them,” she shrugs her shoulders.

The mention of their father enrages me. To tell the truth, any mention of Joel Locke always leaves me in a foul mood. I run my nails up my arms, the white marks I leave there disappear quickly. Though the feelings that rage inside me grow at just the thought of having to play nice with my ex tomorrow. Whenever he comes over, I force a smile so that James and Rowan enjoy their time with their father.

“Maybe he’s decided to stay in one place for longer than a few months?” I comment, crossing my arms across my chest.

Ava smirks, “If he did so, he’d get hives. The man’s a gipsy.”

“I wonder what it could be... It better not be anything with four legs and fur.”

“I’ll be over at eight tomorrow? You’re working until one, yeah?”

“Yes. Thank you, Ava.”

We say our goodbyes and I see her to the door, watching her as she makes her way down the steps and towards her own house. I only head back inside once I hear her the lock of her door. With a heavy sigh, I take a few seconds to myself. I stare up at the ceiling running my fingers through my hair. Tomorrow should be okay, as long as Joel keeps his damn opinions to himself. I suppose that’s the one negative of being a single parent. People believe they can comment on your style of parenting. Yes, Joel’s their father but he doesn’t see them half as much as he should. He is practically a stranger. Despite that, the twins will throw their arms around him like he’s their idol.

They are waiting for me in their bedroom after I lock up downstairs. I flick the landing light off and enter. James is wiggling his shoulders against his mattress, similar to how a bear would act with an itchy back. He stops when he notices me and begins to smile angelically. I approach him first, glancing over at Rowan as I do so. She has tucked herself in and is playing with her teddy monkey, completely immersed in the fantasy.

“Guess who’s coming over tomorrow?” I ask as I perch at the edge of James’ mattress.

My son grins, “Daddy!”

“Ava told us,” Rowan informs me, her eyes which are of hazel colour not looking in my direction. Although she shares my hair colour, she is definitely her father’s daughter. They share the same features and eye colour. And as a baby, she looked identical to him when he was her age. James though has my button nose, jawline and as I keep hearing from Ava lately, my personality.

“He’s coming early so the two of you better get some sleep,” I catch the tail end of a yawn as I return my gaze to my son, “Look, you can hardly keep your eyes open. Did you have a good day, baby?”

“Ava took us for ice cream,” he sticks his bottom lip out, “I don’t like ice cream.”

“You liked ice cream last week.”

“He got brain freeze after eating too much at once. I told him he was stupid,” Rowan calls out.

“Hey! That’s not nice, is it?”

“Sorry,” she replies, shoving the teddy under her arm as she turns to face us.

“What flavours did you guys get?”

“Peanut butter!”

James wraps his fingers around mine before replying, “Strawbwerry.”

“What did you say?”

“Strawbwerry!”

“You monkey! It is pronounced strawberry!”

He laughs as I press my nose against his. It’s moments like this that really help me cope with bringing them up alone. Moments where the joy they experience occurs purely because of something I do or say. I love nothing more than watching their little faces light up when they’re happy.

“Right, bedtime you two!”

I kiss James on both cheeks followed by his forehead and wait for him to turn to face the wall. Once he does so, I head to Rowan. She wraps her small arms around my neck as I hug her.

“Mummy loves you, baby,” I whisper.

“Love you too,” she offers both cheeks as I kiss them, making me chuckle softly.

After I say my goodbyes, I approach their door, turning the light off as I go. I head to bed early, knowing that I’m going to have to be well rested in order to deal with whatever surprise Joel has in store.

✖✖✖

I hear the honk of Joel’s car horn at ten past nine. With a roll of my eyes, I prepare myself for the day ahead. Swinging the front door open, I watch as he climbs out of his BMW, thanking the gods when the pitter patter of paws doesn’t follow suit. He stretches his arms above his head in dramatic fashion which results in the hem of his black jumper riding up. Revealing the bottom of his toned stomach as it does so. There was a time many years ago when his physique would make me drool but now I can’t stand the insistent need he has to display his manliness.

“Morning, Roni!”

“Joel. It’s good to see you.”

A little, white lie never hurt a soul, right?

He joins me at the top of the steps, his huge frame dwarfing my tiny one. As cliche as it sounds, Joel and I met at the gym. His flawless complexion, sharp jawline and boyish smirk were a few of the reasons I approached him. Back then, he was funny without trying too hard. He was charming too. He was many things all those years ago which he simply isn’t now.

“The babies asleep?”

“They haven’t been babies in a long while, Joel.”

He waves his hand, “Yeah, yeah. Can I wake them?”

“Good luck with that. James sleeps like the dead,” I warn him as he begins to climb the stairs.

As he disappears around the top stair out of sight, I grimace. I’ve spent less than five minutes with the man and I already want to tug my hair out. It speaks volumes about our non-existent relationship.

“You can do this. If at any point you feel like slapping him just think of the twins,” I mutter under my breath.

A few minutes later, when I’m in the middle of pouring boiling water into two mugs, Joel and the twins appear. He has both of them in his arms, his large biceps popping as he holds them up. Rowan has tucked her head into the crook of his neck. The little traitor looks as happy as can be. And as hard as I try, at this moment, I can’t find it in me to hate their father. He is part of the reason I have the two of them after all.

“Breakfast?” I ask, smiling widely to hide any remnants of pain.

“I’ll make it,” Joel sets them down.

I stand back and watch as he pours coco pops into two bowls. Once he’s finished preparing their breakfast, he hands them over, kissing each child on the forehead as he does so.

“Thanks, daddy!” The two of them say.

The twins have finished eating when the doorbell rings out. Joel stops me in my tracks as I step forward to head to open it. He shakes his head. The grin on his face is terrifyingly confusing. I stay still, allowing him to head to the door. Curiosity gets the better of me seconds later. I dip my head around the doorway to find Joel speaking to a woman at the end of the hall. At first, I believe she has the wrong house but then he invites her in.

She wears a knee length, pencil skirt and a ruffled, white blouse. Her bone straight, blonde hair falls to just above her shoulder. Our eyes meet as she closes the distance between us. I step out from behind the doorway, tugging the hem of my old cardigan around myself. The two of us are on different sides of the scales when it comes to our clothes.

And then she speaks. The posh accent is enough to tell me that we aren’t going to get along. That and the way she wraps her perfectly manicured fingers around Joel’s forearm.

“Hello! You must be Roni. I’m Chloe, his fiancé.”

I accept her outstretched hand though it’s difficult to do so after hearing her introduction, “Hi. His fiancé, huh?”

“About that, -” Joel begins to explain.

“You don’t need to explain yourself, darling,” Chloe smiles, her eyes hovering over the messy bun that sits at the top of my head, “I’m sure Roni here is okay. It has been four years after all.”

“Yes. Four years. It’s fine, Joel. If you don’t mind me, I’m going to change out of my pyjamas. I suddenly feel very underdressed. Why don’t you introduce our children to the new woman in your life?” I narrow my eyes at him before heading towards the stairs.

When I return to the kitchen ten minutes later, Joel has given the second mug of coffee to Chloe, who rests it on her thigh. She sits at the edge of the sofa, the twins sitting on the rug in front of her. I make myself another mug, moving to stand by Joel’s side after doing so. I narrow my eyes as Chloe tucks an arm around Rowan’s waist as the little girl shows her a toy. Joel doesn’t miss the slight change in my expression even though the mug I hold covers half of my face.

He whispers, “Don’t look at her like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like you despise her for just talking to Rowan,” he explains, his hands waving around as they always do when he gets agitated.

I smirk slightly, “Do you think I’m that petty?”

“I’m really not sure.”

“I’m not.”

“Okay, okay!”

“A warning would have been nice, you know?”

“Well, I did call but Ava answered,” he shrugs his broad shoulders.

“You’re getting married to her then?”

“That’s usually what happens after an engagement.”

I roll my eyes, “How long have the two of you been engaged?”

“Six months.”

“You’ve been with her for six months and have only now introduced her to your children?!”

“I’ve shown her photos.”

“Yes, because that’s the same thing,” I pause to sip some coffee, “She’s not afraid of germs is she?” I ask, a small smile growing on my face.

“What? Why are you asking that?”

“James just sneezed on his hand and is now clinging to hers."

Joel grits his teeth, “Grow up, Roni.”

I turn my face away from his and grin.

That's my boy.

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